Coordinated Community Responses to Domestic Violence in Six Communities: Beyond the Justice System. History and Development


One of the earliest efforts to improve the community's response to domestic violence came out of Legal Aid of Western Missouri in the mid-1980s. Legal Aid's Domestic Unit provided legal services for women obtaining protection orders and for divorce cases in which domestic violence or child abuse was involved. Legal Aid staff were concerned about the way domestic violence cases were handled by the police and courts, and in 1985, they established Project Assist to do broad-based systems advocacy and to work with law enforcement agencies on domestic violence issues. Initially, Project Assist monitored and documented the way domestic violence cases were handled in the Kansas City Municipal and Civil Circuit Courts. In addition, Project Assist obtained funding to train police in Kansas City and throughout Missouri.

In the mid 1980's, a statewide committee helped draw attention to domestic violence, particularly within the Kansas City Police Department. In 1984, the Governor of Missouri served on the U.S. Attorney General's Task Force on Domestic Violence, and the following year he initiated a Domestic Violence Task Force for the State of Missouri. The Kansas City Police Chief chaired the state task force and became very interested in domestic violence through his involvement with this group. One outcome was that the Chief changed his position to support mandatory arrest for domestic violence, which he had previously opposed. As a result, Kansas City adopted a mandatory arrest policy before this change was made statewide in 1989.

Community support for a better response to domestic violence grew in 1986 when a woman, Sherrie Stewart, was murdered by her husband on Christmas eve in front of their children. This case highlighted several weaknesses in the judicial response. The perpetrator had multiple convictions for domestic violence at the Municipal Court. In addition, the victim's request for a protection order was denied because she could not afford the $66 filing fee. Although the court did not require the fee from applicants meeting certain income guidelines, the judge did not waive the fee in this case because the victim made an error in filling out her application. The judge had not met with Ms. Stewart, so he was not aware that she had misunderstood the application.

The attention to the incident resulted in several changes in the Circuit Court's protection order process, and a task force was subsequently formed to integrate those changes into the system and to identify additional changes to be made. The Order of Protection Task Force was Kansas City's first coordinating committee and included representatives from Project Assist, the court clerks, shelters, and a Circuit Court judge. The fee to file a protection order was eliminated within days of Sherrie Stewart's death, and a new policy was adopted that required the judge to meet with the victim before issuing a judgement. A six-month consolidated protection order docket was also established within the Circuit Court, whereby a single judge would hear all petitions for protection orders for a six-month period. Although not a direct outcome of the task force, a judge who was very sensitive to domestic violence issues became the presiding judge for the Circuit Court during this time.

In 1988, a new domestic violence task force was formed largely due to the leadership of the police chief. The new task force expanded its scope beyond the earlier committee and included judges from the Municipal and Circuit Courts, representatives from the police department, the Jackson County Prosecutor, the City Attorney for Kansas City, Project Assist, and the shelters. One key feature of this committee was that the members had the authority to make decisions for their agency. The task force began looking for examples of criminal justice responses that might serve as models for Kansas City. Several people from the police department and Project Assist attended a national conference on police training in Washington, D.C. The task force members also studied the criminal justice response in other jurisdictions, particularly Denver whose system was comparable to Kansas City, and visited Denver to learn more about their response. This interaction with other jurisdictions was credited with bringing focus to the task force.

Around this same time, a number of community organizations 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 formed for this effort included the domestic violence shelters in addition to influential and highly-credible community groups such as the Junior League and the National Council of Jewish Women. Project Assist provided oversight and training for the Court Watch. For a 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 quite poorly. The Court Watch also analyzed data on the disposition of domestic violence cases and found that the outcomes were very 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 for the domestic violence task force and recommended changes in the community's response. In late 1988, the Court Watch held a press conference and released their findings to the media. 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. Since the Municipal Court falls under the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court, it had the authority to make this change. Initially, the Municipal Court was not receptive to the idea, and threatened to take the issue to the State Supreme Court. The Municipal Court eventually complied with the order and a judge agreed to take the docket. However, one person noted that even today many judges remain opposed to the consolidated docket.

After the consolidated Municipal Court docket was created, the task force continued to meet for a while. It did not, however, undertake any major new initiatives and eventually it "lost momentum" and stopped meeting. One person noted that there was never again the same strong task force that had existed in the beginning. Currently, the city has an Adult Abuse Committee with members from the courts, the City and County Prosecutor's Offices, the police, in addition to advocates, clerks and the public defender's office. However, this group does not meet regularly or have a well-defined agenda.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Project Assist had initiated and been actively involved in many of the community's efforts. Following this period, it undertook a major effort to train law enforcement agencies and received federal funding for regional trainings throughout the state. Recently, Project Assist has further scaled back its advocacy role to refocus its efforts on providing legal assistance to domestic violence victims. This shift was attributed to turnover of key staff members. In addition, several people felt that many reforms had been institutionalized, and a strong independent advocate was no longer critical to the community's efforts.

The criminal justice system has continued to make a number of important changes over the past several years, with the impetus coming largely from top officials within the criminal justice agencies. In 1993 Jackson County elected a County Prosecutor with a strong commitment to domestic violence. The new County Prosecutor was concerned about the small number of state charges filed in domestic violence cases. Since the police determine what the charge is in criminal cases, the County Prosecutor met with the chief of police to draw up a plan to increase the number of state charges filed. The County Prosecutor established a policy to review all domestic violence cases for state charges, which required the police to hold perpetrators for up to 20 hours while the case was being reviewed. A prosecutor was assigned to go to the police station at 3 a.m. every day to review all domestic violence reports for state charges. Shortly thereafter, the County and City Prosecutor's Offices met with the police and these agencies jointly developed guidelines for charging domestic violence cases. The County Prosecutor's Office stopped reviewing all police reports, and focused on those cases that the police charged as state offenses.

The County Prosecutor's Office has a domestic violence unit which is currently staffed by three attorneys and an advocate. The unit vertically prosecutes all misdemeanor and felony domestic violence cases, which means that the same prosecuting attorney handles the case throughout the process. In some cases, the unit will prosecute a domestic violence case even if the victim is reluctant or uncooperative. Most domestic violence cases are arraigned on the consolidated docket for Criminal Circuit Court, although the trials are allocated to different judges. Over the past few years, the number of cases prosecuted by the county has risen substantially from only a handful in 1993 to several hundred by 1995.

In 1994, the police department created a specialized domestic violence unit to respond to the increased work involved in state cases. Unlike municipal cases, state cases require a more extensive police investigation. The responding officer in a domestic violence case contacts the domestic violence unit who then decides whether to investigate the case further. Since it was created, the unit has doubled in size to include two sergeants and ten officers who staff the unit 24-hours a day.

Within the past few years, the Municipal Court has made further changes in its procedures for handling domestic violence cases. In 1994, the city hired a full-time prosecutor to handle all domestic violence cases. Prior to this, domestic violence cases were assigned across all of the city prosecutors, some of whom only worked part-time. The full-time domestic violence prosecutor provided more continuity for domestic violence prosecutions and more consistency in how the cases were handled. The prosecutor has a "no-drop" prosecution policy and will make every effort to prosecute the case including issuing warrants to arrest victims who do not appear for court hearings. The prosecutor handles a high volume of cases; last year, more than 10,000 cases were docketed in the Municipal Court Domestic Division. The City Prosecutor's Office also employs several court advocates to assist the prosecutor and victims in domestic violence cases.

When the Municipal Court's domestic violence docket was first created, it rotated every six months. As a result, the handling of domestic violence cases varied depending on the judge, and one person noted that certain judges set back progress made by the courts. In response to this problem, a full-time judge was assigned to the docket to improve the consistency in handling domestic violence cases. The current judge has a reputation for treating domestic violence cases seriously, and often sentences defendants to jail.

In 1993, the Civil Circuit Court also assigned a full-time judge to handle the consolidated docket for protection orders. The statute for protection orders is fairly generous in Missouri and allows the Court to address a number of issues including custody, child support, substance abuse counseling and domestic violence counseling. One person felt that having a knowledgeable full- time Judge was especially important since many petitioners are not represented by attorneys at protection order hearings, and because the orders cover such a wide range of issues. The court's response has also improved through training such as a conference held for judges by the Missouri Judiciary last spring on "How to Craft an Appropriate Order of Protection."

Shelters in Kansas City have worked through a coordinating body since the late 1980s. In 1989, the Domestic Violence Network (DVN) was incorporated as a nonprofit agency, with a board of directors that includes the executive director from each shelter in addition to other community representatives. The DVN meets monthly to work on joint initiatives and to discuss service issues. The Court Advocacy Program was one of the DVN's first collaborative projects. This program, which is currently entering its seventh year, began when one shelter took the lead and wrote a proposal for advocates at the Kansas City Municipal Court. The four Missouri-based shelters take turns staffing the program with each shelter providing advocates on certain days.

Since the early 1990s, the main focus of the DVN has been on creating a shared hotline, consolidated intake procedures, and an integrated computer system called Open Hands. All three changes were implemented within the past few years, and the DVN is currently refining the systems based on the early experience. Eventually, the DVN hopes to have the computer system on-line so that the shelters have up-to-date information about available beds. Through these coordination efforts, the DVN also hopes to improve the quality of data available on the use of shelter services.

Within the past year, two hospitals in Kansas City have collaborated with other service providers to establish hospital-based programs for domestic violence victims. The Phoenix Project was established at Children's Mercy Hospital as a joint project between the hospital, Legal Aid of Western Missouri and a shelter. This program serves battered women who bring their children in for medical services at Children's Mercy Hospital. Project Bridge began at Truman Medical Center in 1995 as a collaboration between the Medical Center, the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Medicine, and one of the area's shelters. The program provides advocates to battered women in the hospital emergency room.