by Judge Sarah Hennesy
Domestic violence affects everyone in our communities. According to one study, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Another study indicated one in 14 men has been physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, partner, boyfriend/girlfriend or date at some point in his life as well. If you are Native American or African-American, the numbers are even higher. More than 3.3 million children witness domestic violence each year. Research shows witnessing family violence can have serious negative effects on a child’s development. Children exposed to violence often suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and they are at greater risk of having allergies, asthma, gastrointestinal problems, headaches and flu. In addition to the physical and psychological toll this violence takes, there is a financial toll as well. Intimate-partner violence costs society more than $5.8 billion each year – $4.1 billion for direct medical and mental-health services alone.
In my former jobs, I saw domestic violence from many angles. As a lawyer with legal services, I represented victims of domestic abuse. I learned how the court system can be used to help victims of domestic violence get away from their abusers by pursuing criminal charges, obtaining orders for protection, fighting for custody of children, even changing victims’ names to stay safe from their abusers. As a public defender, I worked with those charged with having committed domestic-abuse crimes. I saw how domestic violence is often a multi-generational problem, seeing first-hand child victims of abuse grow into perpetrators of violence themselves. Most importantly, however, I learned the critical need for judges who hold first and foremost their duty to apply the law impartially and to uphold the Constitution, understanding there is no exception to due process of law simply because the accused is charged with domestic violence.
As a judge, I see people in my courtroom every day whose lives and families are being torn apart by domestic violence. Many come to court expecting judges to solve the problem. Judges make decisions on cases that involve domestic violence, such as orders for protection, child-protective services, criminal domestic-abuse cases, and divorce and custody matters, but it is not the role of the court in these cases to solve the larger social issue of domestic violence; we are bound to apply the laws the legislature has passed to the facts before us.
The solution to the domestic-violence problem cannot be found in the courtroom alone; domestic violence is a community problem and it calls for a communitywide solution. Community leaders can help address domestic violence by coordinating communication and cooperation among the various agencies and community-based organizations – including prosecutors, law enforcement, criminal-defense attorneys, probation, family services, advocacy programs, public-benefits programs, schools and public-health clinics– in an effort to meet the public safety needs of our communities. Courts can and should be a part of these conversations. Members of the community at large can help by talking about the problem, publicly and privately; by bringing in experts to talk to businesses and community groups; and by reaching out to those who are most directly affected. Strong community partnerships can and should be the cornerstone of our efforts to end domestic violence.
Sarah Hennesy, based in St. Cloud, is a district-court judge for the Seventh Judicial District.