Temporary Protective Orders Heard by Video Link in Montgomery County

People looking at video linkVictims of domestic violence who come to the Montgomery County Family Justice Center now have safer and easier access to justice. Last fall, the Maryland Judiciary launched a pilot program to hear requests for temporary protective orders by way of a live video link. Through this technology, victims of domestic violence who come to the Family Justice Center in Rockville can ask for a temporary protective order without leaving the security of the center.

Video conferencing is done for temporary protective orders in Montgomery County courts that are ex parte— without notice to or the presence of the other party.

“The Judiciary is offering video conferencing as a way to help protect victims of domestic violence and improve access to and safety in our courthouses for all Marylanders,” said Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn of the District Court of Maryland. “Victims no longer will have to leave the safety and security of the Family Justice Center to file petitions for protection. This will benefit victims, families and the general public we serve.”

The Montgomery County Family Justice Center opened this past spring in Rockville. Staff from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, Office of State’s Attorney, Department of Health and Human Services, Montgomery County Police, House of Ruth and other private non-profit organizations work together to provide services for domestic violence victims at the center, including help filing temporary protective orders. Protective orders generally apply to people in domestic relationships, and are issued by judges when petitioners have proved one of the following has occurred: an act that caused serious bodily harm or has placed the petitioner in fear of imminent bodily harm; an assault; rape or sexual offense; false imprisonment; or criminal stalking.

Last year, Montgomery County courts granted more than 1,850 temporary protective orders. Statewide, more than 18,400 temporary protective orders were granted in Maryland’s courts.

“In addition to easier access to our courts, video conferencing reduces the danger to the victim of encountering the offender at or near the courthouse,” Judge Clyburn said. “This plan also provides more flexibility in scheduling temporary protective order cases, which is a more effective use of court time.” While they are waiting for their video hearing, victims can also receive other critical services at the Family Justice Center, Judge Clyburn noted.

Girl looking sadVideo conferencing, which is operating as a pilot program at the Montgomery County courts, was developed in consultation with court officials, District and Circuit Court judges, the Clerk of the Circuit Court, court staff, Montgomery County government, members of the Maryland Bar Association, vendors, and providers of video conferencing systems. Private funding for the equipment for this program was provided through a grant from the Verizon Wireless Hopeline Foundation.

The Montgomery County Family Justice Center has a special room where children can play under the care of trained volunteers. “Court buildings are not an ideal place for children, and video conferencing has an added benefit of helping to ease the stress on children, as well as reducing the disruption that is often caused by children in the courthouse or courtroom,” said Pam Harris, court administrator for the Montgomery County Circuit Court.

Family Justice Centers are fast becoming an accepted trend as they provide services for domestic violence victims at one location, enhancing their personal safety by reducing the number of places a victim has to go to receive services and minimizing barriers to services victims may face. These barriers include lack of transportation, child care, cultural issues, and language.

“Statistics have shown that the most vulnerable time for domestic violence victims is immediately following the issuance of a temporary protective order,” said Chief Deputy Darren Popkin of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.

“Nationwide, jurisdictions that have opened Family Justice Centers have shown a dramatic reduction in domestic related homicides among the victims that have sought services at the centers. By co-locating services, critical safety services can be coordinated by partners at the center.”

About three-quarters of the citizens who visit the Family Justice Centers throughout the United States ask for help with filing for a temporary protective order. The Judiciary has acted to improve access to services by including attorneys and advocates for domestic violence victims in courthouses across
the state.