CHARLES TOWN — Aiming to close the gap on victims of domestic violence or sexual assault not filing a protective order against their assailant, Jefferson County magistrate and family courts will test a pilot remote technology project to promote access and safety.
Members of the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center, West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Jefferson County court system and community gathered Tuesday morning in Jefferson County Magistrate Court for a mock final protective order hearing — a firsthand view of this new program.
The program allows victims of domestic violence and sexual assault to seek domestic violence protective orders or personal safety orders and attend follow-up hearings without having to visit a courthouse.
“This is about safety, it’s about security, it’s about lessening intimidation when coming to court,” Lisa Tackett, director of court services at the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and brainchild behind the program, said.
Tackett continued by pointing to the layout of the magistrate courtroom, stating that during a hearing, the victim sits only 4-5 feet from the person he or she is asking for protection from.
Although the filing in person is still available, under the pilot project, victims now have the option of going to the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center to file petitions and virtually attend hearings.
The center’s confidential location is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Victims should call ahead at 304-725-7080 to schedule an appointment.
Petitions can still be filed through Jefferson County Magistrate Court by calling 911. Magistrates are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Officials said although there is security at the courthouse, there is still the fear of the intimidation by the victim’s assailant on the way into court, during the time at the courthouse or when leaving to go home.
“The courts play an important role in public safety. Sometimes those seeking justice are afraid their assailant will follow them to or from the courthouse, so they just don’t go,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Evan Jenkins said in a press release. “This program will allow victims to access the court system without so much fear.”
According to Magistrate Vicki D’Angelo, a lot of times, the accused waits until someone looks away and makes a gesture or points at the victim. However, this program will also allow everyone to see how they are reacting to each other, and they will be called out on trying to intimidate the victim.
D’Angelo said on average, a victim files an order at least five times before going through with it because going to court is a deterrent.
Despite hesitation from victims, from April 1 to Oct. 31, EPEC has provided court advocacy (emergency orders, final protection orders, personal safety orders) to 251 clients in 455 separate incidents for a total of 334.75 hours spent in court, EPEC Executive Director Katie Spriggs said.
The program allows the victim to appear via video conference with a victim advocate, while the magistrate and accused appear in person at the courthouse. This allows no obstruction of the judicial process by still allowing testimony from both parties and the presentation of any evidence.
“This is giving the driver seat back to the survivor,” Spriggs said of the program.
According to Spriggs, in her experience, intimidation can look different but exists in some level in every case.
Common roadblocks to seeking a petition include not only intimidation from the accused but also intimidation of the paperwork itself and the idea of being in the court setting, she continued. Currently, Spriggs said at least 15 times a day, her staff assists a victim in filling out this paperwork.
Melaine Kozak, a victim advocate with EPEC, said this program will be very beneficial to the individuals she serves on a daily basis. She remembered back to a client who was at the EPEC office for nearly four hours before mustering up the courage to go to court, highlighting the need for a program such as this.
“It is already intimidating to ask for help,” she added, hoping this program will lead to more people seeking the safety they really need.
By working with a victim advocate, one will not only receive their assistance through the court process but can also be connected with resources for their future.
Jenkins said the program also lets the accused face their accuser, a necessary part of the judicial process.
“The accused has legal rights, too, and this program allows them to face their accusers, just not in person,” Jenkins said. “Both the accuser and the accused can enter exhibits virtually, ensuring both sides in these cases can present their full arguments.”
While D’Angelo reached out about piloting the program, Tackett said, all three magistrates — including Athena Roper and Carmela Cesare, who also attended Tuesday — are on board and excited for the program. Representatives from family court also attended the mock hearing on Tuesday.
Jefferson County is the fourth county to pilot the program. Other pilots so far are Cabell, Ohio and Kanawha counties. Tackett said they want to make the program accessible to the entire state after working through the details of the program.
The system will be operational in Jefferson County on Nov. 15.
According to the official press release, the Remote Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Outreach Pilot Project is made possible by funding through the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security’s Division of Justice and Community Services, the state administering agency for the STOP Violence Against Women grant program.