At its Dec. 7 breakfast meeting, the Family Law Section had the pleasure of hearing a panel of four leaders who help ensure that victims of domestic violence get the legal help that they need to stay safe and break the cycle of violence. Honorable Judge Berryl A. Anderson, chief judge of the DeKalb County Magistrate Court, was the principal speaker. She was joined by Ayonna Johnson, director of legal services of the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence, Toni Roberts, executive director of the DeKalb Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (DVLF), and Limia Obadi, domestic violence program manager of Tapestri. The panel discussed the TPO process in DeKalb County and what we all can and should be doing to end domestic violence.
Judge Anderson shared her experience of “walking in another person’s shoes” when she chose to walk through the TPO process as a common citizen. Like an actor who portrays a domestic violence victim, Judge Anderson developed a backstory that she had suffered abuse and stayed up all night before coming to the courthouse first thing in the morning to file for a TPO. She wore street clothes instead of her work attire and entered through the front door to start her experience navigating the unfamiliar and bewildering TPO process.
That experience made her realize that the process needed major improvement. She obtained a grant from Department of Justice to create a better process. Each judge now receives specialized training on domestic violence, which is crucial considering that the ten DeKalb magistrate judges hear about 2,400 protective order and stalking cases per year. Judge Anderson obtained additional funding to partner with organizations that assist victims, including the Women’s Resource Center which is now in the courthouse as an immediate resource to TPO applicants. Cheri Malcolm is the domestic violence coordinator, and she tries to ensure that there are no conflicts between TPO hearings and criminal cases. Since 2014, the DeKalb Magistrate Court has been one of ten courts nationally recognized as a mentor court – a immensely impressive achievement. As a mentor court, and hundreds of judges nationwide have come to DeKalb Magistrate Court to observe and learn. Judge Anderson’s initiative to improve the TPO process has helped hundreds of victims, but she says the TPO process still needs improvement, noting that a county the size of DeKalb should offer protective orders 24/7. She would also like to move toward a “one family, one case, one judge” model, as practiced in New York, so that domestic relations cases – name change, divorce, TPO, etc. – are bundled together.
Ayanna Johnson of the Women’s Resource Center explained that she worked with Judge Bethel and others to help ensure the efficacy of the TPO process. The magistrate court now has dedicated days for domestic violence calendars, and the solicitor’s office calls TPO applicants to make sure they have not been prevented from coming to court. Ms. Johnson helped develop a safety plan within the courthouse because the most dangerous time is when victim leaves the abuser. The Women’s Resource Center has grown from a 12-bed shelter to a 32-bed safe house. Nia’s Place grew out of the Women’s Resource Center due to the need for a place to safely exchange and visit with children. Camp Peace, an eight-week summer camp that helps kids learn to silence the noise and chaos inside from being exposed to abuse, was also created as part of this initiative.
Toni Roberts talked about how DVLF helps level the playing field by providing an attorney for a victim when the abuser has attorney. A victim may not meet Atlanta Legal Aid’s income qualification because the family may have money, but the victim may not have access to it. DVLF provides an attorney for the magistrate court domestic violence calendars held every Tuesday and Wednesday. The TPO process is just the start of the legal services needed. A victim may need a divorce and there may be a pending criminal action. An attorney can help the victim secure child support and financial independence from the abuser to help break the cycle of violence. Ms. Roberts ended with a plea for volunteers. DVLF always need more volunteers!
Limia Obadi of Tapestri explained that her organization specializes in working with immigrants and refugees who are victims of domestic violence and trafficking. She recounted stories of abusers lying and telling victims that if they file for a TPO, they will get deported and have their children taken away. Abusers often exercise leverage over their victims by refusing to apply for green card for victims. Tapestri helps victims file I-360 petitions under the Violence Against Women Act so that they can obtain a green card directly, without relying on the abuser. Tapestri also helps in other areas – seemingly simple things like obtaining a drivers license can help victims attain independence from their abusers. Notably, Tapestri provides interpreters for the TPO process, especially for ex parte hearings. Language and cultural differences can make it especially difficult for victims to explain their stories to judges.
Judge Christopher McFadden of the Georgia Court of Appeals and Judge JP Boulee of DeKalb Superior Court attended.
The Family Law Section invites you to our next breakfast on Thursday, Feb. 1 at 7:30 am in the Historic DeKalb Courthouse. Register on the DeKalb Bar Association website here.