SAFE calls for expansion of Family Violence Court

Written by Julia Spann

As is often the case with domestic violence, the abuse Lindsay was experiencing gradually escalated to physical violence. After she called the police, her abusive partner was taken in on a misdemeanor assault charge.

Criminal cases often move slowly, however, by going through multiple attorneys and refusing to accept any plea offers, Lindsay’s abuser managed to draw the process out for over three years. She obtained a protective order against the defendant, but he violated the order multiple times and Lindsay ultimately had to flee the state for her safety.

The case was finally set for trial, and the Travis County Attorney’s Office prosecutors hoped to have Lindsay return to the state to testify. Lindsay shared with the prosecutors how unsafe she felt returning to the state and seeing the person who abused her. The Travis County Family Violence Court considered all of this when determining how to proceed.

The prosecutors conveyed Lindsay’s significant safety concerns to the Family Violence Court (Court 4), which allowed a preferential setting to ensure her case would be heard. The court took extra precautions to ensure her safety, including being escorted in a police officer’s car to and from court, utilizing a safe room during the proceedings, and setting up the court room so her abusive ex was blocked from her sight when she took the stand.

The jury ultimately found the defendant guilty, and Lindsay was allowed to give input as to the punishment she felt would keep her most safe.

Family violence remains prevalent in our city, state, and nation. In 2018, there were 9,448 cases of family violence in Austin/Travis County. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as these crimes are known to be dramatically under reported. And yet, in the face of this enormous problem, the legal resources to address it have not changed in 20 years – Travis County has one domestic violence court created two decades ago. As the county’s population increases, so does the ever-growing case load in the Family Violence Court.

While overwhelmed with cases, Travis County has managed to maintain some of the best prosecutors and courts in the state, as well as a dedicated, experienced Family Violence Court judge with topical expertise. Not only does Travis County excel in managing the protective order system, they have also created some important innovations, including:

  • Impressive levels of training for Travis County prosecutors on the issues surrounding family violence
  • Prioritizing a coordinated community response to family violence, including the creation of a high risk/lethality team, housing a SAFE advocate within the County Attorney’s Office Protective Order Unit, and daily ongoing coordination on cases with community partners
  • The addition of advocates and volunteers to accompany victims to court for emotional support and to provide on-the-spot safety planning and direct them to community resources
  • The creation of a safe room for the victims in the Family Violence Court

The goal of the family violence unit at the County Attorney’s Office is to promote safety and justice, so they take a hard stand against violence and abuse. When the evidence supports prosecution, Travis County aggressively prosecutes domestic violence cases in order to increase victim safety, improve offender accountability, and enhance community engagement. Prosecutors in Travis County know some acts that may seem minor on the surface are actually dangerous threats or secret acts that manipulate, control, and cause significant harm to the victim.

We still have more work to do on family violence in Travis County. Simultaneously, we are getting it right on many fronts, including having a dedicated prosecutors unit and a dedicated court.

As Lindsay experienced, the Family Violence Court in Travis County is imperative. Not only would it be a mistake to get rid of the court, but we would argue that what we need is a second court to assist with the current backlog and ensure that every family violence case can be heard by these experts in a timely way.