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New Court Combats Domestic Violence

By Eleanor Boudreau


Memphis, TN – When Carmen Patterson's verbally abusive husband lost his job, he became physically abusive, and she put up with it. "You know, he wouldn't just sit there and hit me he would mainly push me around," she said.

She considered some more, "He would choke me, put his hands around my neck and choke me. You know he never did just punch me in the face. He slapped me a couple of times I'm not making excuses for him," she adds, "Cause all of it's bad. But it could have got worse."

Indeed it did.

Patterson's husband moved from her to their children. He tried to pick their seven-year-old son up by his throat. That Patterson couldn't put up with. She took her two kids, and she fled.

It is this pattern of escalating abuse that a new Shelby County Domestic Violence Court is trying to combat. But the court has the added challenge of not being able to assume a batterer will re-offend. The judge, Lee Wilson, says his courtroom is, "not a situation where someone shows up and I automatically think they are guilty of the offense. They are presumed innocent under the law and I have to treat them like that."

The court opened September 1st and now hears all of the county's domestic violence cases from misdemeanors all the way up through felony murder. It's an enormous and serious task. Domestic violence is more common in Shelby County than it is nationally. In Memphis alone, where billboards tell citizens to, "Chill. Don't Kill," there were more Domestic Violence homicides last year than there were in Brooklyn, New York despite the fact that Brooklyn has more than three times Memphis' population.

Yet there are early signs that the court could make a difference. There was a Domestic Violence Court previously in Shelby County. It closed in 2005. Since then the number of domestic violence aggravated assaults in the county has gone up by 30 percent, even though the number of regular aggravated assaults has gone down.

Liberty Aldrich explains why: "The fact is that traditionally domestic violence was accepted as essentially normal behavior and in many ways it is still normative. So that effort to say domestic violence is illegal is a direct confrontation to that belief."

Aldrich oversees the Center for Court Innovation's domestic violence initiatives, she helped create one of the first specialized domestic violence courts in Brooklyn, New York, and is one of the experts the creators of the Shelby County court consulted before opening up. Aldrich spoke to me from a studio in New York City. As if to illustrate her point and her work on her way into that studio her taxi driver was prevented from making a particular left-hand turn because it was illegal. "And then he turned to me," Aldrich laughed nervously, "and said I'd kill my wife if it was legal, but it's not legal. Lucky her.'"

Specialized domestic violence courts have been shown to have an impact far beyond the anecdotal. The Brooklyn court that Aldrich helped create went years without having a victim associated with an open case killed, and for that reason has become a national model.

Yet judicial intervention alone is not enough to deal with a crime that while illegal is also intensely personal. Not all victims of domestic violence are ever going to avail themselves of the court. Some victim services workers say most don't.

Thus any comprehensive effort to combat domestic violence must be two-pronged, and extend well beyond even the best-run courtroom. Architects of the new court recognized this, and they recognize the importance of involving out-of-court groups a victims' services representative sits in on all of the court's proceedings and works to link victims with the help they need, especially housing. Judge Lee Wilson said he wants everyone to know, "You can always come to the court. You do not have to have a case in my court. If you just need information, or if you need help, we have somebody there that can talk to you."

Still those out-of-court services are extremely taxed because of slim funds and the immensity of the problem. When Patterson left her husband she didn't involve any courts. She took her two kids, and her van, and she fled her home in Olive Branch, Mississippi to come to Cordova, Tennessee.

It is not at all unheard of for victims of domestic violence to cross jurisdictional borders, especially since many are on the run. Patterson was born and raised in Memphis that's why she chose here but both her parents are now dead. Patterson's husband was the sole bread-winner for the family and Patterson had very little money of her own, then shortly after she arrived, her van was impounded.

Initially, Patterson had trouble finding a shelter with space for her and her two kids. I met her because she was asking for money at the Walgreens around the corner from WKNO. Neither of her children were wearing shoes.

As the new court matures Judge Lee Wilson promises it will work to build its partnerships with victim's services and community groups, and to help build up those groups. That's because, ultimately, Shelby County's success or failure in curtailing domestic violence will be determined as much by what happens outside the new court as what happens inside it.