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Domestic Violence Court coming to Kent County

October was domestic violence awareness month. We had an opportunity to talk with Judge Amanda Sterkenberg about an upcoming “Domestic Violence Court” in Kent County.

Jennifer Moss: We're so happy to welcome Judge Amanda Sterkenburg, city of Kentwood 62 B District Court as we continue to talk about domestic violence. We welcome you, Judge.

Amanda Sterkenburg: Thank you. It is my pleasure to be here.

JM: Judge Sterkenburg you are part of DVAN, which is that Domestic Violence Action Network. And you've received American Rescue Plan Act dollars for that court about 4 million dollars or so that is still in those active stages of planning. I know you would like to to have started yesterday, but where are you at with the court and it actually becoming a tool in the process to fight domestic violence.

AS: Well, I think active planning stage is probably the right phrase to describe where we are right now. What we have done is identified stakeholders and really the different voices that need to be heard in this project. And we've created a way to bring them together. So we can plan the specifics of operation for the court that are going to be most effective to both restore and rehabilitate the offender, as well as give support to the voices of the victims in those cases. We are meeting here in the very near future to talk about entry criteria and exactly what might prohibit a particular offender from being accepted into the program. And then what the timeline looks like for their duration in the court and whether it will be a phased approach with certain goals or it will be a longer more streamlined process. Those are the types of conversations that we're having right now.

JM: Absolutely. And and we'll talk about in a moment who will be eligible for the court at what stage. But what is it that prompted the need for the court? Like a specific case? We know there's domestic violence on the rise, but was there something that occurred where you said, okay, we really need to take this outside of the general court system and create a specific court for domestic violence. Is there specific case in point that you use to kind of develop a process and a plan?

AS: What I'll say is we've been watching this very disturbing trend, an increase in domestic violence cases and an increase specifically in intimate partner, homicides. And so several years ago, the DVAN was, uh, called something different. It was called the Domestic Violence Community Coordinated Response Team, it’s a little bit longer name, but they saw this need and trend and were prompted to do a study. So they actually did a study. It was a homicide review on a case that occurred in Kent County where they identified lethality factors and some breakdowns in the system. And then they were able to use that to give some different points of focus for the actors within the system to try to make sure those breakdowns and gaps in communication weren't happening. So having that review, which isn’t necessary or required by statute. But what was very helpful for the actors who are involved in processing domestic violence cases. And that spans everything really. I mean, we're talking about not just the criminal justice system, but we're talking about the family court and civil systems as well. So it was very helpful in taking those pieces, putting them together and saying, hey, here are the places where we can have an impact. And by bringing a domestic violence court, we really turn the focus onto, hey, how do we stop this cycle?

JM: And as you look at the cycle, it's not going to necessarily be first-time offenders that you're looking at it’s going to be those, as you mentioned, with more of a process of a more serious or heinous crime.

AS: I will say that often we see domestic violence being generational and also cyclical. And then you have children being brought up in household situations where they see this type of conduct and it is repeated. So that is a little bit different than what I'm talking about in terms of the criteria for somebody to be admitted into the court because those are places where we have seen an individual and they may or may not have had that historical upbringing in a setting where they may or may not have certain factors that led them to be more inclined towards conduct that is described as domestic violence. But we've seen them before in the criminal justice system. It's those people that we see coming in that we are able to identify as already having had a brush, maybe one maybe more times with the criminal justice system with some type of assaultive behavior that was displayed. So then we can say, OK, this person is showing what appears to be a pattern of conduct. So this court is not necessarily going to be for a first time domestic violence offender. It's going to be for somebody that we have identified and said, hey, okay, you've been here before this is happening more than once in your life and maybe you didn't get what you needed the first go-round in terms of coping mechanisms or rehabilitation or even education, you didn't get that. And so it's occurring again. So now we need to do something that's a little bit more intensive. We need to put you into a program where you can be connected to treatment. You can be connected to services and you have more oversight and accountability in this court format. We call that a problem solving court where we can stave off the rest of that conduct and hopefully shutdown that pattern of behavior, which might lead to a 3rd offense or a more egregious offense where we're looking at lethality potentially.

JM: And so the goal, again, is to perhaps rehabilitate and with that, then be too possibly hold families too together would that be, the idea would be to rehabilitate so that person can stay within whomever they are with or are we just rehabilitating them to be in society?

AS: Ultimately, I think it is for them to be functional in society. Because, again, we're talking about a court that will operate within the criminal justice system. And there are separate courts for families. And people who are involved in custody disputes or divorces, they may have a different goal than this court. Unification of the family will not necessarily be the end goal of this court. What will be the end goal is seeing a whole and productive member of society restored to a place where they can operate within societal norms because they have gotten the education and the access to opportunities to grow, learn and develop coping skills so that they do not resort to violence as a first response.

JM: And it is the goal also to have them, perhaps with one judge, throughout the process of this rehabilitative system or whatever it is a program that they must go through so that maybe they're held more accountable or feel themselves that they need to be more accountable versus like, you know, a parole officer, something that they know they have to come see a judge each time. It's time for them to report or however the program works. They might be held a little bit to a higher accountability.

AS: You know, it's a really great question. And I'm not going to say for each individual offender, they may only have contact with one judge because a lot of times we do see individuals who are in the criminal justice system who have different experiences with different jurisdictions. But it into we envision if you are brought into this problem solving court, the domestic violence court, you will be with one judge for that duration and it could be a 14 months, an 18 months and 24 months, period of time where you are having regular meetings with the judge. I've been involved with sobriety court, which is also a problem solving court for several years now and going through the training and education I have for that statistics show that face-to-face interaction with the judge is one of the single biggest indicators of success for participants in these problem solving courts. And that is because they feel seen and they feel as though their participation matters and that they are held accountable at, I think you're right, maybe a different level. They know they're going to have to report regularly to the judge who is wearing a robe, who has the authority to say in that moment without having being taken down the hall and going through paperwork, whatever. But in that moment, this is good or no, you need to correct this behavior.

JM: Absolutely. What role are the survivors playing in this as you develop court and its process?

AS: Well, the voices of survivors is so important. And we do have several who are part of the DVAN and who are part of the work group for developing the domestic violence court. So we are listening to those voices that was part of our early planning. We're actually using a model called the collective impact where we have identified stakeholders across the community and brought them together in a very clearly defined way so that each of their roles are defined and their voices are heard. And the survivors are part of that. They're a piece that come in and will be actively listening to their lived experience so that we can utilize what we learn from them in understanding behavior is that we are seeing and really if they choose in a particular case, a survivor chooses to be involved. I've ever reason to believe that will allow them throughout the court process to be safely integrated into decision-making and give the court insight about those particular instances.

JM: I imagine that will be very impactful. And finally, what is your ultimate hope for the Domestic Violence Court? I know the ARPA fund when was was pretty big. 4 million dollars.

AS: It was.

JM: What’s your ultimate hope there.

AS: The ARPA fund win was huge and getting that 4 million dollars will put us in a place where we can operate this court for a couple of years. Ultimately, our goal is to see a reduction in repeat domestic violence offenders. We want to reduce recidivism. And the way we do that is by getting this court up and running, seeing success stories, and then being able to share that so that we're able to secure additional funding as we go down the road and keep this momentum for a long-term piece of rehabilitative processing for offenders who are in the criminal justice system with domestic violence convictions.

JM: Judge Sterkenburg, we wish you the best with all of that. Thank you so much for joining us today.

AS: Alright, it was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Jennifer is an award winning broadcast news journalist with more than two decades of professional television news experience including the nation's fifth largest news market. She's worked as both news reporter and news anchor for television and radio in markets from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo all the way to San Francisco, California.
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