The past few decades have seen dramatic changes in the response to domestic violence in states and communities throughout the United States. Some of the earliest efforts to improve Kansas City’s response came out of Legal Aid of Western Missouri in the mid-1980s.
Legal Aid staff was concerned about the way domestic violence cases were handled by the police and courts. In 1985, they established Project Assist to do broad-based systems advocacy and to work with law enforcement agencies on domestic violence issues.
As part of this effort, Legal Aid recruited a number of community organizations and formed a Court Watch in the Municipal Court to demonstrate the need for a consolidated domestic violence docket.
Because domestic violence cases were heard in all eight of the Municipal Court courtrooms, they were often handled inconsistently by different judges. In addition, it was difficult for advocates to assist victims with cases pending in multiple courtrooms. The Court Watch Coalition included domestic violence shelters, as well as influential and highly-credible community groups such as the Junior League and the National Council of Jewish Women. Legal Aid provided oversight and training for the Court Watch.
For several weeks, the “court watchers” monitored the courtrooms and found that, in general, domestic violence victims had very bad experiences in the court system. The project documented judges making inappropriate comments and treating the victims poorly.
The Court Watch also analyzed data on the disposition of domestic violence cases and found that the outcomes were unpredictable, both within and across courtrooms, as compared to other types of cases which had more predictable outcomes. For example, 60 percent of shoplifters were convicted of an offense and that percent did not vary significantly across courtrooms. In domestic violence cases, however, less than 30 percent of offenders were found guilty, and the outcomes varied widely.
The Court Watch prepared a report and recommended changes. This report provided the support needed for the Circuit Court’s presiding judge to order the Municipal Court to dedicate an entire docket to domestic violence cases.
The Municipal Court’s dedicated domestic violence docket continues today. And, Legal Aid’s Domestic/Family Law unit continues to make great strides in securing rights, protections and services for victims of domestic violence.