Chief Justice Speech - September 10, 2004


On behalf of the Judicial Council, I want to welcome you to this 10th anniversary conference on family violence. As the constitutionally established policymaking body of the California courts, the Judicial Council is responsible for setting statewide policy aimed at ensuring the consistent, independent, impartial, and accessible administration of justice.

The Administrative Office of the Courts, headed by its very capable director, Bill Vickrey, is the council's staff arm. And the AOC's Center for Families, Children & the Courts, or CFCC, led by Diane Nunn, has played a crucial leadership role in our efforts to improve the ability of courts to deal effectively with family violence. The CFCC and the AOC's Education Division/Center for Judicial Education and Research are the sponsors of this conference.

This event provides an opportunity to highlight accomplishments since the first Family Violence and the Courts conference was held in Los Angeles in 1994. In attendance today are presiding judges, court executive officers, judges presiding over domestic violence matters, family court services directors, court staff, and state and national experts. The breadth of experience of those in attendance reflects the importance and complexity of the issues this conference has been convened to consider. This meeting offers a time and a forum in which to discuss and identify creative and effective ways to further improve how courts adjudicate family violence cases. These sessions offer much from which we can learn and can educate others.

The need for careful attention in this area is clear. National statistics demonstrate that domestic violence is a critical problem for courts and for families: According to the United States Department of Justice, one-third of all female murder victims nationwide are killed by intimate partners. A study by the American Psychological Association projects that, each year, an estimated 3.3 million children are exposed to violence perpetrated by family members against the mothers or female caregivers of these children.

Preliminary results of this year's CFCC snapshot study included a survey conducted of every parent and mediator who participated in a court-based custody mediation conducted during a sample period in 2003. It revealed that 53 percent of families had experienced physical violence, and 35 percent reported that a child had witnessed physical violence between his or her parents.

These facts only serve to make us work harder and more effectively—particularly the statistics concerning children. The American Psychological Association has concluded that a child's exposure to domestic violence is the strongest risk factor in transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next. The seeds of tomorrow's violence are sown today. If the safety of today's children is not ensured, they will not have the tools they need to make the world safer for their own children in the future.

Courts alone cannot solve the problem of family violence—but they truly can make a difference. A recent study found that women who had obtained a permanent protection order experienced an 80 percent reduction in police-reported physical violence in the year following their being attacked, as compared to women without protection orders.

Yesterday, Senator Sheila Kuehl, a groundbreaking leader in the field of dealing with family violence, offered her observations about the advances that have been made in this area and some thoughts on the future. The ongoing commitment and guidance she has provided in the Legislature has greatly enhanced the ability of the courts to make enormous progress, and I am very grateful for her active involvement.

I thought that today I would speak about some of the many local and statewide initiatives launched since the 1994 conference that have improved the courts' responses in domestic violence cases and about some of our plans for the future. The purpose of the 1994 conference was to create a court and community collaborative process for examining domestic violence issues, and it led to the creation of numerous local domestic violence councils. These councils have provided a forum for courts and community partners to discuss common issues and to review the treatment of domestic violence cases in the community at every level. Every aspect of and actor in the justice system's response to family violence has undergone scrutiny. You have been asked to bring to this conference reports from community groups that will help us shape future strategies. Listening to the communities we serve has provided—and continues to promise—invaluable guidance.

We are using our increasing base of knowledge in a number of ways. Since 1994, educational programs on domestic violence have expanded significantly. Domestic violence awareness courses are now required at the B. E. Witkin Judicial College, which trains new judges. Such programs also are part of the curriculum for the annual court clerks' training institute. Related courses are required for family court services professionals and court-appointed custody evaluators. And domestic violence issues are integrated into general programs on family law and criminal law for judicial officers as well as special programs designed for assigned judges and rural court judges. Fortunately, the AOC has received federal funds earmarked for enhancing and expanding education and training in this field.

We have used what we have learned from our experience in this field to increase services to meet concrete needs. An allegation of domestic violence made in a petition seeking a restraining order or in a family law proceeding may give rise to competing concerns. On the one hand, there is the potential that a child will be exposed to violence, either directly or through observation. On the other we want, if possible, to encourage the child to spend time with both parents.

Courts have been challenged to expand locations at which supervised visits may take place or at which safe exchanges may be arranged for parents in families in which domestic violence has occurred. Courts have gone far to meet that challenge, assisted by federal funding. Supervised visitation and exchange services, education, and group counseling services now are available in 30 of the California counties in which limited or no services previously existed.

Another form of guidance can be found in the council's response to contested child custody and visitation matters that are referred to family court services. Because domestic violence often is alleged or is present in many of these matters, the Judicial Council has adopted a statewide rule of court establishing a domestic violence protocol for family court services.

Domestic violence crosses racial, ethnic, language, cultural, and economic boundaries. To reach a greater audience, the AOC, working with the California Department of Health Services and in conformance with legislative directives, has translated all domestic violence forms into a variety of languages. Related educational materials also are now available in a variety of languages.

Additionally, the AOC has developed video and written informational materials in English, Spanish, Korean, and Vietnamese to assist self-represented litigants in applying for or responding to a domestic violence restraining order. Those materials are available through family court services programs, domestic violence shelters, and family law facilitators and in main county public libraries throughout the state. The California Courts Web site,, provides background information, directions, and court forms as well as links to legal aid and other services that can provide assistance. The entire website is available in Spanish as well as English, and selected portions have been translated into other languages as well.

To enhance the effectiveness of our efforts, the Domestic Violence Court Interpreter Program provides funding for interpreter services in family law cases where domestic violence protective orders have been sought. For fiscal year 2004-2005, program funding totals $1.45 million. Participating courts may use these funds to cover the cost of providing certified or registered interpreters and to pay for interpreter coordinator services related to this specific type of case.

The development of court proceedings that focus directly on domestic violence is perhaps the most significant indication of the importance our courts place on such issues. We have identified more than 39 locations in 31 of California's 58 counties that utilize some form of specialized procedure or calendar to handle family violence cases. These range from specialized criminal domestic violence calendars in Orange County and Long Beach to teen-dating violence courts, begun in Santa Clara, and unified family, juvenile, and guardianship proceedings in Yolo County. No one model fits all courts, but the experimentation under way in different locations has helped us develop promising practices that can be implemented to effectively meet local court and community needs.

These are impressive accomplishments. Statewide and local efforts have transformed much of the practice in this area. But much still remains to be done. Domestic violence remains a blight on families and a challenge for our courts and for our entire society.

There are some specific steps that can assist in confronting this challenge. For example, although numerous court-community councils were developed after the initial conference in 1994, many of these groups have disbanded or seen the court's involvement diminish. In some instances, the enthusiastic and able judicial and community leaders who sparked the creation of these creative bodies moved on to other pursuits before institutionalization of these councils had taken place. In some locations, the councils have focused upon efforts in which judges may not participate because of ethical constraints that govern their conduct.

The need nonetheless remains for joint councils that can effectively share information, work together on problems, and provide critical community feedback to the courts.

In the courtroom itself, troubling impediments to the administration of justice still remain. Too often judicial officers hearing domestic violence cases report that they lack critical information about the matter before them: Has a restraining order previously issued? Do any of the parties have a criminal conviction for a family violence offense? Are any of the parties on probation? This kind of background information can greatly assist a judge in making an informed decision that will best serve the needs of the individual litigants and the family as a whole.

This is, as is true in many areas, a question of allocation of resources in a time of funding cutbacks. In criminal cases, courts complain that the status of warrants and of prior convictions often is stale, leaving judges at a disadvantage in making bail and sentencing determinations. We are working across the board to develop information systems that will provide judges with appropriate and timely information.

One major area that cries out for further improvement is providing legal assistance for parties in domestic violence matters. All too frequently the litigants cannot afford legal representation. Courts, with the cooperation of local bar associations, have done a tremendous job in expanding available legal services. As mentioned, individuals now can find assistance online and at public locations. The award-winning California Courts Online Self-Help Center and other local efforts to provide assistance have been very successful in meeting the needs of many individuals. But it cannot be questioned that more legal assistance is needed. The Judicial Council task force studying self-represented litigants and ways to ensure meaningful access to the courts will provide additional recommendations. The bottom line is that court services designed to alleviate domestic violence are meaningful only if the litigants who need those services are able to understand how to use them.

Another promising development is the growth of the Unified Courts for Families Program, which will create and support unified court systems intended to coordinate family, juvenile, and other related case matters. The goal is to make the system easier for families and children to navigate while at the same time improving court procedures and outcomes by coordinating cases and ensuring consistent, nonduplicative results.

Each year, approximately $3 million will be distributed among select courts that will use grants to pilot various strategies for coordinating or unifying multiple proceedings involving related individuals.

Critical to all our efforts is increased public education and awareness. Court leaders have designed public education programs focused on domestic violence training for teachers, the religious community, and military personnel. These programs focus on prevention and on enlisting the attention of other service groups in our communities toward that end. As I mentioned earlier, courts alone cannot solve this problem. Courts in cooperation with the public, their communities, and other organizations involved in these issues—all working together—can make a powerful difference.

For more than a decade, the Judicial Council and the AOC have given the highest priority to improving our service to families and children. Improving our response in domestic violence cases is an integral part of advancing this goal.

Our court system is very fortunate in having the extraordinary wealth of talent, experience, and expertise available in California. In addition to our outstanding Center for Families, Children & the Courts, the council has the ongoing assistance of a standing Family and Juvenile Law Advisory Committee, at present ably chaired by Judges Susan Huguenor from San Diego County and Mary Ann Grilli from Santa Clara County. The efforts of judges, court staff, lawyers, service providers, and concerned members of communities across the state have richly informed and enhanced the ability of both local courts and the Judicial Council to create and expand services that respond to the needs of the public.

More than 50 counties are represented at this conference, with a presiding or assistant presiding judge or the court executive officer among those present. The conference agenda has been varied, and it demonstrates the many factors that bear on effectively addressing domestic violence issues in the courts. You have shared feedback, met in teams to consider your goals, and worked together to establish specific objectives. The presence of each of you here today reflects a personal commitment—and the overall commitment of our court system—to working together to eradicate family violence.

Once the conference is over, the Judicial Council will review with interest your local plans and goals for the future. I hope you will close the loop, upon returning to your communities, by reporting to your local partners, sharing your plans, and inviting local participation as you move ahead. On a statewide level, your contributions will be essential to the development of a better range of tools designed to grapple with this complex problem.

Once again, thank you for attending. I know all of us hope that, by the time of the 20th anniversary conference, we will be eagerly discussing the success of our campaign against domestic violence.

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