Courtwatch Action Project
At our Women's Policy Action Summit in April 2004, we initiated within our Health Action Area a focus on domestic violence, with a panel that included a survivor and information about the status of investigation and prosecution. At that summit, we invited people to sign up to be part of a court observing project.
MAWC's Health Task Force leaders, Dr. Nancy Hardt and Dr. Phyllis Betts, then met with Ricci Hellman, Sonja White and Connie Ross and with input from Bill Powell we developed the project with a start in the Orders of Protection hearing room.
The team developed a survey tool and presented a two-part training for volunteer observers. We had excellent cooperation and information from our partners, most of whom are here today. We had more than 20 at each of the sessions.
At the second session, during discussion of the survey tool, volunteers made clear that they needed better understanding of the Criminal Justice Center facilities and the scene in the courts, so our team partners generously scheduled on-site orientation tours.
Observers actually began sitting in the hearing room, with the surveys, on July 19, 2004. They continued Monday thru Thursday, in the morning, thru the early fall. We hosted a review session with our observers in mid-September and heard back from them about needs ranging from better signage in the CJC to ideas on how to revise the survey.
Our Court Watch lapsed while we addressed some of those things, particularly a redesign of the survey. And in April 2005 volunteers returned to the Hearing Room, armed with our red clipboards and survey forms. MAWC volunteers listen, watch and take notes about the overall conditions in the courtroom and then to fill in specific items for each case, such as whether the victim and offender both showed up.
Dr. Betts has undertaken analysis of the surveys which are intended to underpin future requests for resources and policy changes to improve investigation and increase prosecution of Domestic Violence cases.
Deborah Clubb attempts to manage the flow of volunteers via email updates of the sign up schedule. Response has been very enthusiastic and we continue to get new volunteers.
We were told by some of our planning partners when we started this that the experience over the years with Court Watch is that Court Watchers change and improve a courtroom just by being there. Even if they don't take notes on an official survey form. The presence of concerned and alert citizens seems to improve the demeanor and conduct or the ambience of a courtroom.
The Memphis Area Women's Council and our partners are watching closely as the actual Domestic Violence cases are now divided among several General Sessions judges instead of going to a self-designated, dedicated court. We are discussing ways to organize a watch in those courtrooms sometime in the future.
We are very concerned about the shortage of victim advocates and the lack of dedicated space where victims and advocates can meet and work together. MAWC intends to do something about that.