The Chicago Reader and Injustice Watch hosted a panel discussion Tuesday about the challenges that survivors of domestic violence face navigating the Cook County court system. 

The event came on the heels of an investigation that the two journalism organizations published in January that highlighted allegations of misogyny against the former presiding judge of the court’s domestic violence division, Judge Raúl Vega, who retired in January.

The panel was moderated by the Reader’s Kelly Garcia, who wrote the story, and featured three women with intimate knowledge of what survivors face at the domestic violence courthouse: Amanda Pyron, executive director of The Network, a nonprofit that works with survivors of domestic violence; Mallory Littlejohn, legal director of Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation; and Alisa Holman, a survivor who has faced Vega in court.

The panelists discussed an array of important topics, including what litigants should expect in the courtroom, how the pandemic affected the courts, and what changes court officials should make to improve access and fairness for survivors.

Here are some of the major takeaways from the event.

Representation matters

Navigating the court system can be difficult, but people entering domestic violence court face a unique set of challenges. For example, as Garcia highlighted in her investigation, about 90% of people who appear in the court do not have an attorney and are known as “pro se” litigants. Unlike in criminal cases, litigants in domestic violence, divorce, and child custody cases do not have a right to a public attorney. During the panel, Littlejohn emphasized that gathering evidence and arguing a case can be difficult for survivors without a legal background.

Holman, a Chicago Public Schools teacher, has firsthand experience navigating the court without an attorney. She represented herself in a custody hearing in Vega’s domestic relations courtroom in 2013. At the Tuesday event, she described her experience as “terrifying,” saying she struggled to make sense of what was happening and find the information that she needed about her case.

Holman said Vega encouraged her to find an attorney if she wanted to win the case. But the cost of an attorney was initially a barrier for Holman, and pro bono legal resources were hard to find. When she reached out to legal aid organizations for help, she said the attorneys she sought out often lacked the bandwidth to take on her case.

Last year, there were more than 4,200 calls to the Illinois Domestic Violence hotline for attorneys to help file orders of protection, Pyron said.

“There’s an enormous demand for legal aid and for support in filing an order of protection. And we just don’t have enough public interest attorneys to meet that need,” she said.

Holman eventually obtained an attorney and won her custody battle, even after Vega granted her ex-husband temporary custody of their daughter.

Know your protective orders

Littlejohn explained that domestic violence survivors can seek multiple types of protective orders against their abusers, and that each order works differently. She said the most common order that domestic violence survivors usually qualify for is an emergency order of protection. A civil no-contact order is primarily used in situations in which a sexual assault has happened, and a stalking no-contact order is used in stalking situations with strangers, she said. But in each case, the initial protective order is temporary.

“It’s very important to know that all you get is an emergency [order] when you go to court, and that is only if the judge says yes,” she said. “In the event that the judge says yes for any of those three, you have to come back to court in 21 days. If you don’t come back on that 21st day, the court is going to dismiss it.”

To receive a plenary order of protection, a longer-term order of protection lasting two years, survivors must prevail in an evidentiary hearing against their alleged abuser, during which a judge will examine evidence and listen to testimony from witnesses and both parties.

Covid-19 worsened problems in the domestic division

Panelists said the pandemic exacerbated the challenges survivors faced navigating the domestic violence court and highlighted shortcomings in leadership during the crisis.

Pyron described the situation as “chaos.”

During the pandemic, many survivors lost their usual outlets for escaping abuse, such as visiting grandparents or leaving the house for work, she said.

“So they came to the court in higher numbers, they called the hotline in much higher numbers looking for that safety planning and support, and the resources weren’t there,” Pyron said.

Earlier in the pandemic, advocates complained that remote hearings weren’t always available when people needed them after the courts halted or scaled back most in-person proceedings, and that there was a lack of communication from officials about policy changes and courthouse access.

“There was no leadership in the domestic violence division to navigate the court through this crisis, and it had a very negative impact on survivors,” Pyron said.

Survivor resources exist outside the legal system

The panelists emphasized resources for survivors also exist outside the courts. In July, Illinois passed a bill that keeps statements made in restorative justice circles confidential, making mediation through services such as the Center for Conflict Resolution more attractive to some survivors, Littlejohn said.

Littlejohn listed several nonlegal resources for survivors, including:

  • Rape crisis centers in the Chicagoland area at YWCA, Mujeres Latinas En Accion, Resilience, and Northwest CASA, which offer counseling services and different kinds of therapy.
  • Surviving the Mic, which helps survivors express themselves in different mediums such as spoken word.
  • The Center for Conflict Resolution, which offers healing circles and other methods of restorative justice.

“Not everybody wants to go to therapy. Not everybody wants to go to restorative justice. Not everybody wants to do poetry, but having access to all of those things means you get to take back some of your control back. You get to make the choice about what you want to do,” she said.

Recommendations for improvement

The panelists called for Cook County to show more commitment to improving the domestic violence court to ensure that survivors are treated with respect, that the law is being followed, and that problematic judges are held accountable. The three women suggested an array of measures that they think would help, including:

  • Creating a comment box in which people can submit remarks about their experiences with domestic violence court judges.
  • Reducing caseloads and hiring more judges, so litigants have more face time with the person overseeing their case.
  • Increasing privacy in courtrooms, so survivors feel more comfortable speaking about the abuse that they’ve suffered.
  • Providing more training to judges on domestic violence and sexual assault issues.

#CheckYourJudges

The panelists also stressed the importance of researching the backgrounds of the judges who handle their cases in court — and of participating in judicial elections.

“As the lawyer, I’m going to say, ‘Vote for judges,’” Littlejohn said. “Most people think, ‘Oh, I’m never going to come in front of a judge,’ but that is the case until it is not. You want to make sure that the people that are on the bench have truly been vetted by the electorate.”

Injustice Watch senior reporter Maya Dukmasova, who hosted the event, noted at the end that Injustice Watch’s judicial election guide includes detailed information about candidates for judge. 

Find more information about Injustice Watch’s guide for the upcoming June 2022 primaries here.