Strengthen domestic violence training for Connecticut’s judges

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Recently, Connecticut Judge Charles D. Gill wrote an op-ed in the Hartford Courant in which he attempted to outline the strengths of Connecticut’s Judicial Branch in presiding over domestic violence cases. However, Judge Gill’s essay actually provides a compelling snapshot of limitations that serve to constrict policy and practice related to helping victims of domestic violence stay safe. Judge Gill offers clear evidence as to how and why our judicial system must do better.

There is no question that domestic violence is a very complex issue and that judges face difficult decisions in cases involving physical, emotional and verbal abuse between intimate partners. Unfortunately, Judge Gill’s assertion that “we judges acknowledge the battered woman syndrome,” is concerning. As national experts have noted for over 15 years, there are serious limitations in using this framework. The most fundamental of these concerns is the lack of relevance of battered woman syndrome to the issues before the court, the lack of a standard and validated definition of battered woman syndrome and the fact that the syndrome does not adequately incorporate the vast scientific literature on victims’ response to battering. If our state’s judicial branch is using battered woman syndrome to guide its decision-making around this issue, then it is fully recognizing its use of a flawed model that does not describe the range of experiences or behaviors of victims exposed to domestic violence for the court.

Judge Gill’s description of The Judge’s Institute as “a three-day event, that annually covers all matters of domestic violence, presented by capable and learned experts,” is not entirely accurate. While it is our understanding that Connecticut judges do attend this three-day training, family violence is just one of many topics presented. The curriculum is not fully known, but what we do know is that the training is developed by Connecticut judges themselves and is, therefore, of limited scope.

We also know that the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has operated the National Judicial Institute on Domestic Violence in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women since 1998. Only five of Connecticut’s 288 judges have participated in this free training since 2007. This training provides advanced education on domestic violence to specifically help judges better identify relevant facts and make decisions that help keep domestic violence victims and their children safe, while holding violent persons accountable. The national judicial institute has reached over 40 percent of judges and judicial officers nationwide and many states have made a commitment to send all judges to the foundational, four-day “Enhancing Judicial Skills in Domestic Violence Cases” workshops. Unfortunately, our state has not made this commitment.

The national council will be presenting to the legislature’s Task Force to Study the State’s Response to Minors Exposed to Family Violence at our meeting on Oct. 27. We are eager to learn more about the evidence-based curricula, designed by judges and domestic violence experts collaboratively, to provide all judges, regardless of experience level, with a foundational framework for dealing with the complex dynamics associated with domestic violence. Our task force is charged with providing the General Assembly a report outlining opportunities to improve policy and practice amongst a number of systems such as healthcare, judicial, law enforcement and the Department of Children and Families by mid-January 2016.

We fully appreciate Judge Gill’s perspective on this important issue and the desire to demonstrate the Connecticut judiciary’s ability to deal with domestic violence. Yet, what is highlighted by the article is that the judicial system would benefit from updated, evidence-based training and policy. The Connecticut Judicial Branch is not alone in grappling with limited resources. It is incumbent upon all of us to offer all people our strongest effort and to work collaboratively for better outcomes across systems.

Karen Jarmoc is the CEO of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Garry Lapidus is the director of the Injury Prevention Center at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and Hartford Hospital. They are the co-chairs of the General Assembly’s Task Force to Study the State’s Response to Minors Exposed to Family Violence.

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