Domestic violence survivors urge more judicial training

  • The NH Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Sept. 28, 2021 in the transparency case Spencer vs. Sununu. Cassidy Jensen

Associated Press
Published: 1/22/2022 6:04:41 PM
Modified: 1/22/2022 6:03:26 PM

Advocates for domestic violence victims and people who feel they were not treated fairly by family court judges in New Hampshire called Friday on a newly created task force to provide more training for the judiciary.

The Task Force on Domestic Violence Cases in the New Hampshire Judicial System heard stories about people in family court cases who felt victimized through rulings, rather than helped, or had trouble navigating the judicial system because of obstacles such as not being able to speak English.

“My ask today is that you recommend ways to provide real oversight and measure of accountability for judges who make decisions that impact the safety of our most vulnerable citizens and their children,” testified Erica Austin, who said she was a domestic violence survivor and a mother of a child survivor of violence who felt unprotected by a judge’s decisions in her case.

“That is the most important thing you can do,” she said. “Recommend a transparent process for accountability, evaluation, training and oversight by a group of experts in the field of domestic violence.”

The task force was formed last year as the judicial branch reviewed the case of a woman who was shot, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend, a month after a judge denied her request for a permanent protective order.

While concluding that the judge reasonably applied the law to the facts of the case, the review made recommendations, such as reviewing and updating protection order-related forms and providing access to legal assistance to domestic violence survivors.

Rhonda Hodge, a psychiatrist in Salem, testified that she no longer feels comfortable seeing patients who are in domestic violence situations.

“There’s no way that I expect the judges in New Hampshire or the judges nationally to know what complex PTSD is like; to know what it feels like to be a victim; to know what narcissistic personality disorder looks like. You have these facts come before you that are not in your wheelhouse. There’s no way — you’re not trained in developmental psychology or elemental medicine or pediatric medicine,” she said.

Alan Cronheim, representing the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, testified that while the task force’s work is important, “it is my view that it is best approached with real data and not anecdotes from either plaintiffs or defendants.”

He and Hodge also testified that it is difficult to protect children and focus on their needs in domestic violence cases.

The task force, which is chaired by Supreme Court Associate Justice Anna Barbara Hantz, is looking at existing court “practice and procedure” in cases involving domestic violence allegations; analyzing the status of state law regarding domestic violence, including the legal definition of “abuse” and its relationship to intimate partner violence; and exploring opportunities to give victims more access to lawyers and victim advocates, among other subjects.

The group is scheduled to release its report by March 1. It includes representatives from the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, law enforcement, prosecutors, defense counsel and others.

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