A View of Domestic Violence from the Judge’s Bench

Chief Magistrate Judge Berryl Anderson of DeKalb County, Georgia discusses the lessons she
has learned over the course of 21 years as an attorney and 13 years as a judge about working with victims of domestic violence and improving
the justice system’s response to intimate partner violence. July 2013


SARAH SCHWEIG: Hi, I’m Sarah Schweig, and today I’m speaking with Chief Magistrate Judge Berryl Anderson,
who has been leading a domestic violence court project in DeKalb County, Georgia. She’s here in New York to participate
in the domestic violence open house here at the Center for Court Innovation, which is the office on Violence Against
Women’s comprehensive technical assistance provider for its courts program. Thanks for speaking with me today.

JUDGE ANDERSON: Well, I am honored and delighted to be here.

going to ask you a bit about your background. Your extensive experience in the courts includes representing victims
of domestic violence with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, and I was curious how did this inform your understanding
of how courts grapple with the complexities of these cases?

JUDGE ANDERSON: Well there are a lot
of complexities, as you know, in cases dealing with domestic violence, and last year I celebrated 21 years as an
attorney, and this year I’m celebrating 13 years on the bench. As a legal aid attorney, working with the Atlanta
Legal Aid Society, I got to work very closely victims of domestic violence and what I suddenly realized is the victims
present with multiple issues. So they’re not just dealing with domestic violence. They have housing issues, consumer
issues, perhaps access to credit issues. And so they present with multiple issues that inform their decisions and
their ability to be autonomous in the decisions that they make. And often times they just want the violence to stop.
They don’t necessarily want a divorce or to split up their family, or to move their children out of their local community
into another community. And the particular office that I worked in, which was the DeKalb County office, we also represented
clients in a neighboring jurisdiction, Wynette County. I got an opportunity to see that there was a little bit of
lack of uniformity from one courtroom and from one jurisdiction to the next. Now all the judges were applying the
law, but it just seemed like the process could be streamlined a little bit better in domestic violence cases, particularly
in those cases where victims were trying to get protective orders.

SARAH SCHWEIG: So as a judge,
how do you kind of come to see that you had a role in responding to domestic violence cases beyond that kind of business
as usual approach?

JUDGE ANDERSON: Well there are a couple of things that really—I think Oprah
calls them “a-ha moments”—so there were a couple of a-ha moments that I had as a judge and one of them was early
on, I took a course with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court judges called Enhancing Judicial Skills
in domestic violence Cases. It’s a three day workshop where judges get together, and it’s okay to be vulnerable and
talk about what you don’t know. And it’s an opportunity to hear what some of the best practices are around the country,
and it really inspired me to be creative and innovative, and to draw on the strengths in our community, and in our
judicial system, and in our courthouse. And every courthouse has a culture. So I realized that we had a lot of great
systems in place and a lot of great relationships, and it encouraged me and inspired me to build on those relationships
with community partners. And another thing that sort of merged with this is my participating in fatality reviews.
It is something that we usually conduct on an annual basis. It is just a very sad, very sobering reality of how terribly
things can go wrong when victims of domestic violence don’t get what they need on the front end. It’s taking a look
at every level of system contact that that particular victim had and each contact with the system is an opportunity
to better serve that victim. And so we look at it from a lens of how we can better serve victims. And what went wrong?
And not in a finger-pointing way, but where are the gaps in my system? And if you recognize gaps in your system,
and you can’t be thin-skinned about this process but it really is about saving lives.

You’re a recipient of an Office of Violence Against Women grant to develop your domestic violence court project.
Can you give me a picture of how that project developed and how it operates now?

you know they say that people practice medicine or they practice law, and I feel like I’m practicing this domestic
violence thing, and you know, you never get to the point where it’s perfect. And so I like to take a critical look
at my court on a regular basis. And this process actually evolved out of taking a look at what we already have in
place. Fortunately, my court is a recipient of a two-year grant to establish a compliance project. DeKalb County
Magistrate court handles temporary protective orders for our cases and there is a portion of Georgia law that says
if you’re a respondent and you have a 12-month family violence order entered against you, then you have to take a
family violence intervention program, a 24-week class. Well judges were issuing orders and the respondents were walking
out of the courtroom, and we had no way of knowing whether or not they were surrendering their weapons, whether or
not they were taking the family violence intervention classes. And so, fortunately, as a recipient of an OVW grant,
we’re allowed to set up that compliance project where I was able to hire two compliance officers. And immediately,
upon a judge issuing a 12-month protective order, the respondent leaves the courtroom and goes into an adjacent room
to meet with a compliance officer who will have the respondent—first of all, talk to them about weapons and we work
with our sheriff’s department to have those weapons seized and have them hold onto those weapons during the time
that the protective order is in place. We’ve also worked collaboratively with our probate court to make sure that
a respondent under a 12-month order doesn’t go to probate court to apply for a weapons permit. So we’ve got the compliance
officer who’s able to monitor this behavior, and the compliance officer makes unannounced visits to make sure that
the respondent’s actually not just showing up for class, but also participating in class. You know, if you’re victim
of domestic violence and you go to the criminal courthouse, and you may have to take a bus and a train to get there,
and then you’ve got this application to fill out, and you’re also upset because when the officer came to the scene,
perhaps he didn’t believe you or for whatever reason he didn’t arrest the batterer, so now you have to try to maneuver
the system on your own. So fortunately in many cases we’ll have an advocate from the Women’s Resource Center there
to assist the victim with the application process and to kind of sit with her when she talks with a judge. Now if
a judge believes that there is probable cause for a warrant to issue, then a warrant can issue at that time. But
if the judge believes there’s not quite probable cause, I need to, you know, I need more evidence, then it will be
set up for a warrant application hearing, which may happen 10 days to two weeks later. We have two courtrooms where
we conduct the warrant application hearings simultaneously, and in each courtroom you may have as many as 60 or 70
people. So it’s a little chaotic and the domestic violence cases are not separated from a neighbor dispute. They’re
not separated out from those other warrant application hearings. And so I realized that that was a service gap that
we have. And it’s great to have an advocate from the Women’s Resource Center there, but that advocate is going back
and forth from one courtroom to the other and trying to identify who’s there for a domestic violence case. So I realized
that there was a system gap and where with this courts training and improvements grant, that we’re able to improve
on the process that we have in place now. And what we will do is have a standalone warrant application hearing process
for victims of domestic violence. We’ll have judges who have the specialized training from the National Council of
Family and Juvenile Court Judges hear these cases. We will have an advocate in the courtroom with them, and the advocate
is no longer running back and forth. We will have sheriff’s department there to monitor courtroom security and will
make sure that the victims are on one side of the courtroom and the perpetrators are on the other side of the courtroom.
And then if a warrant actually issues as a result of that hearing, then the judge has an opportunity to impose special
conditions. And if there are violations then we can deal with that and perhaps revoke the bond and have the defendant
sit in jail until the case goes to trial.

SARAH SCHWEIG: So they know that there’s a real consequence—

JUDGE ANDERSON: There are teeth and there are absolute consequences. And this way we’ll be able to give
a lot of special attention to victims of domestic violence.

SARAH SCHWEIG: So what lessons would
you share with other judges who may be struggling with similar issues, or who might be interested in starting a support

JUDGE ANDERSON: Well if I had to pick one word, it’s about relationships. It’s about
relationships with other judges and other trial levels of court. It is important to develop and nurture relationships
with community stakeholders. Coordinated community response—it’s not just something that sounds good. You need to
actually put it in action, and as judges I think that we are, we have the inherent ability to call a meeting and
people will come. I meet quarterly with the advocates, with the sheriff’s department, with the prosecutors, the public
defenders. You need to do a little bit of research to find out what’s available in your community. And you have to
want to do this work. It is incredibly stressful. The proceedings can be very long. They can be very emotional. There’s
something called vicarious trauma, and judges suffer from it, as well as advocates and other people who deal with
domestic violence cases. You’ve got to learn a little bit about self-care. You’ve got to take care of yourself, whether
it’s walking, or running, or cycling, or swimming. Find something that you love to do that has absolutely nothing
to do with court, and nothing to do with domestic violence, because this work can absolutely consume you.

SARAH SCHWEIG: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I’m Sarah Schweig and I’ve
been speaking with Chief Magistrate Judge Berryl Anderson of DeKalb County Georgia, about building relationships
to fight domestic violence in the community. To find out more about the Center for Court Innovation, please visit
www.courtinnovation.org. Thanks for listening.