Out of the Darkness: Navigating the courts as a survivor of domestic violence

ROCKFORD (WREX) – Thousands of domestic violence cases make their way into the Winnebago County courts every year.  It’s a place survivors of domestic violence can find justice, but getting that justic can take months, even years.

“I want him to suffer his consequences for what he’s done,” survivor Jane Smith said. “Why are they drawing this out? I just don’t get it.”

We’ve changed Jane’s name to protect her identity. She’s waiting for her day in court to confront her abuse more than a year after filing her suit. As of today, she’s still waiting.

“I just want a solid date for trial set, and no more continuances, and I’d like to be able to say what all he did,” Smith said. “I think the victim needs to have the right to a speedy trial.”

Jane’s case has been continued 13 times, since it was filed back in May of 2017.

“His attorney will say, ‘Judge, we would like a continuance on this,’ and the state just says ‘okay’ and the judge then says ‘okay’,” Smith said.

And then this week, it went from bad to worse. No more continuances, no more delays, because the case was over. The judge approved a motion from the state’s attorney’s office to dismiss.

“We try as hard as we can to push these cases to trial, and that’s all we can do,” Judge Rosemary Collins said.

Judge Collins is not the judge on Smith’s case. She oversees the 17th Judicial Circuit’s Domestic Violence Court, one of the busiest in the county.

“It can be frustrating from the outside when you don’t know what’s going on and why this is taking a long time,” Collins said. “And for them, it’s very important. For us, it’s very important, but they may not realize that they have one case, and we have thousands.”

In 2017, the 17th Judicial Circuit had more than 3,100 felony domestic violence cases and another 3,300 misdemeanors

“The volume is what’s driving a lot of the continuances and a lot of the time,” Collins said.

And in the end, the people it effects most are survivors… like Jane.

“I know I’m not the only case the state has, but could you treat me like I’m the only case you have, because it would mean a lot,” Smith said.

An overwhelming number of cases isn’t the only issue, so is staff turnover.

“We’ve had turnover in personnel in both our public defender’s office and our state’s attorney’s office and anytime you have turnover in personnel it just slows the whole system down,” Collins said.

Pushing back court dates months and often creating more confusion for victims as they navigate the system.

“Victims of crimes in general often feel that they are not empowered to control what happens in the case,” Chief of the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Criminal Bureau Marilyn Hite Ross said. “The premise of that and how we explain it to victims is that the system is designed to protect the rights of the accused.”

That’s because in some cases the accused is the victim.

Meet Heather, a mom and a survivor of domestic violence, who found herself on the other side of the court process.

“Fighting the charges against me, fighting the custody battle, paying the attorneys, then fighting the order of protections,” Heather said.

It’s what’s attorneys call ‘beating the victim to the court’ and just like the abuse Judge Collins says it’s a manipulation tactic used by abusers to get the upper hand.

“It’s is difficult and that’s why we’ve spent some significant time with our front line people to identify who is the primary aggressor,” Collins said.

“Often the abuser will try to file charges against a victim, so what we do is we look at the record, if an abuser filed a police report, it comes to our office to screen,” Ross added.

However, for Heather, it wasn’t until a trained counselor wrote a letter on her behalf that she got those charges dropped.

“I had to really push it,” Heather said. “It went on for months and months.”

That’s why Heather and Jane are both coming out of the darkness and sharing their stories to show that the system can fail.

“At this point we’re just barely understanding it now, and there needs to be so much more education about it,” Heather said.

“There’s a lot of difficulties that victims face, and that’s really why we’re looking at a family justice center to reduce those obstacles for survivors in our community,” Collins said.

Attempting to find the balance of justice in courtrooms and the community.

“I want this, our court systems, to value the victim and not just who did it,” Smith said.

Since speaking to Jane, 13 News has learned that the state’s attorney’s office is looking to reinstate the domestic battery charges against her abuser. However, that hasn’t happened at this time.

If you are having trouble navigating the system and need legal advice, please explore the free resources listed below…

Taylor Utzig

Taylor Utzig


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