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Following the lead set by Kings County and the Bronx, Suffolk County, New York has opened its own Domestic Violence Court to increase accountability and to address underlying emotional problems of offenders in such volatile cases. The goal of the new DV court, which opened Sept. 11, is to deal with the violent act itself and to uncover its roots, explained Suffolk District Court Judge Madeleine A. Fitzgibbon, appointed by Suffolk Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti to head the court. “We are not viewing the defenders as monsters acting in isolation,” Judge Fitzgibbon said. “We recognize that the ways they deal with anger and other attitudes were formed very early on.” The court hears cases that involve misdemeanor violent acts between people related by blood, marriage and those who have children in common. Violence between intimate partners also falls under the court’s jurisdiction. In addition, the DV Court presides over felony-level charges of criminal contempt arising from a violation of an order of protection. Located in the district court wing of the Cohalan Court Complex in Central Islip, which is a different building from Family Court, the court in four weeks of operation has heard about 400 cases, with the heaviest tally at 44 in one day. CONSISTENT JUSTICE An advantage touted by proponents of the DV court is the ability to maintain consistency. Having only one judge presiding over all cases helps to eliminate disparate rulings that often occur when defendants come before different judges in the same court or different courts such as Family, County or Supreme Court. The theory is that defendants who have already been sentenced on domestic violence charges with their current mate or previous partner will be subjected to a greater degree of accountability if they reappear. But attorney Peggy Foy, who has worked for Legal Aid for five years, said the court is not a “prosecutor’s venue.” Dealing with the same legal players every day also helps in advising her clients, Foy said. She said the new arrangement provides more give-and-take in allowing time for either side to interview possible witnesses or the complainant. “These cases are not black and white,” Foy explained. “They’re three-dimensional. There’s usually some button-pushing going on, and there are a lot of dynamics involved.” Suffolk County DV court also includes a resource coordinator, Victoria T. Croce, who reviews each case and assists Judge Fitzgibbon in keeping current. Foy is the only Legal Aid attorney working the court. Four assistant district attorneys from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s domestic violence unit prosecute there. LAWYERS PLUS But making a DV court successful requires more than attorneys. Two victims’ advocates from area service agencies are always on hand, in addition to a probation officer in the courtroom to act as defendant monitors and to assess compliance with court orders. Also unique is the court’s use of a judicial hearing officer to monitor compliance with the terms of a defendant’s sentencing. Convicted defendants on probation will meet with Judge Alfred Lama, a former Suffolk Supreme Court justice, to ensure that conditions of sentencing are met. An integral part of the court’s objective is directing both defendants and complaints to appropriate social service agencies. A typical sentence may include incarceration and enrollment in batterers’ program and substance abuse treatment as part of parole. Services are available through the Suffolk County probation department and area nonprofit organizations. Availability of social services goes to the heart of the DV’s purpose: to dispense justice like any criminal court but to supply resources and treatment in an attempt to stem the tide of domestic violence. DOMESTIC UNREST In 1999, a total of 32,034 domestic incidents were reported in Suffolk County, according to the Suffolk County Police Department. Of those reported, domestic violence occurred in 60 percent, or 19,017, of those cases, the police department’s figures show. Sixty-eight percent of the complainants were females. Statistics in 1998 were similar, with a total of 32,281 domestic violence incidents. Gender composition and occurrence ratios were nearly identical to 1999. While this year’s figures are not available, Sergeant Linda Cicalese, commanding officer of Suffolk County’s domestic violence and elder abuse section, said that arrests have risen dramatically since March, when a mandatory arrest policy for misdemeanors was instituted in the county. The bulk of the cases handled by the Suffolk County DV court have been siphoned from the Family Court calendar. Officials said it is too early to tell if the new court will help lighten the load significantly and help speed cases through Family Court. Elder abuse cases and child abuse cases are not within the court’s jurisdiction. KINGS COUNTY MODEL The Suffolk DV court was modeled after the Brooklyn DV Court, which, when established in 1996, was the first in New York and the first felony DV Court in the country. Justice John M. Leventhal, who was the first judge to preside over the Kings County DV court, was the keynote speaker at the Suffolk court’s dedication at a ceremony on Oct. 6. Leventhal noted that the Kings County DV court had cut the rate for violation of probation to half of the rate for the general felony probation population by requiring probationers to return every two months. He said that the dismissal rate is less than 5 percent, although the overall domestic violence dismissal rate is notoriously high due to reluctance of the witnesses to testify. Leventhal also pointed out that Kings County had suffered no fatalities on any pending case in the part. “I am ever mindful that we are always a heartbeat away from a tragedy,” he said. “That is why I use many tools to let defendants know that I am watching them.” Suffolk County has suffered six fatalities in domestic violence cases in the past five years, reported Keri Herzog, chief attorney for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s domestic violence unit. Before their deaths, no charges more severe than a misdemeanor had been lodged against their partners, Herzog added.

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