published Monday, September 30th, 2013

Hamilton County considers grant for courts to address domestic violence cases

There is a hole in Hamilton County Sessions Court when it comes to domestic violence cases, and it costs about $130,000 a year to patch.

Because of the county’s population size, Sessions court is split into criminal court and a civil division overseen by Circuit Court, according to Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell.

Smaller Tennessee counties keep Sessions intact, while larger ones share the load with circuit court, Tidwell said. Overall, the split keeps caseloads reasonable in each court, making courts a bit more efficient. But Tidwell says for domestic cases, having two courts can cause confusion.

That’s why county commissioners will consider accepting a $258,000 grant next week from the U.S. Office of Violence against women. The money would pay two domestic violence case docket managers for two years — one in criminal court and one in civil, Tidwell said.

It would be a continuation of something that’s been working well, she said.

“This is actually our second grant. We are just finishing a first three-year grant for basically the same purpose, which is to identify, educate and come up with solutions for the separation of criminal court and civil court,” Tidwell said.

Having two courts handling domestic cases is confusing for residents involved in the cases and for the courts themselves, she said.

For example, Sessions criminal court hears violations of protective orders, but sessions civil in circuit court issues said orders.

The coordinators cross reference cases in both courts and apprise each court of their findings.

“The violation of the order of protection can be a criminal offense, but it’s definitely important that all the judges involved know about it,” Tidwell said. “[Before the case managers] the circuit courts didn’t know what was going on in the criminal courts and the criminal court judges didn’t know what was going on in the civil courts.”

Sessions criminal court has disposed 950 domestic assault cases since January. There are many more which aren’t yet completed, Tidwell said.

On the civil side, sessions civil division has filed 496 orders of protection in that time, according Deputy Clerk Susan Sissom.

Cathy Allshouse, an attorney with Southeast Tennessee Legal Services, said having coordinators who point residents in the right direction is incredibly helpful.

“It’s not so much for our benefit as the clients’ benefit. For a domestic violence victim, it’s very difficult to know which court to go to when,” Allshouse said.

With the coordinators, those involved in domestic violence, plaintiff and defendant alike, cases need not wonder.

Informed courts can also help keep victims safe, Allshouse said.

It is important for a sessions court judge who is considering dismissing a protective order for a victim to know if the accused attacker has criminal abuse charges pending, she said.

“In other places, because its the same court, the judge will know. It’s more about the way the law is that we are fractured,” she said. “Statistics have shown that family violence cases are the highest safety risk, because those are the ones with the highest emotions.”

Commissioners will vote Wednesday to accept or decline the grant. In agenda session last week, commissioners indicated the measure would pass.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at 423-757-6481 or at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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