Advocating on behalf of victims: A student’s lessons from inside the courtroom
ASSOCIATE NEWS EDITOR
Inside the New Castle County courthouse, located in downtown Wilmington, you will find the Family Court division of the Delaware courts system. There, domestic disputes cases are heard, covering a wide range of family-related events. Within the courthouses jurisdiction are matters pertaining to divorce, child support and custody, to name a few. The courthouse also sees cases of domestic abuse.
Toward the back of the courtroom, taking notes at a feverish pace, senior Olivia Blythe can be found, closely observing the legal process that someone undertakes to obtain an Order of Protection From Abuse (PFA). This document provides a victim of domestic disputes or violence protection from their abuser.
A research assistant to Associate Professor Ruth Fleury-Steiner in the Women and Gender Studies Department, Blythe has spent the past year analyzing the PFA hearings in the New Castle County courthouse, documenting a list of observations from the court cases. Every Friday, when Blythe is docked to observe cases, she takes a trip to Wilmington and witnesses the nuances attached to domestic cases.
“We would take notes on if the person filing for the PFA knew what was going on,” Blythe said, among the other details she and the other research assistants jot down. “A lot of the time, they wouldn’t have representation and end up speaking for themselves.”
According to Blythe, a PFA can only be obtained by someone who is partnered in an intimate relationship. The Delaware Courts extrapolates on this statute with a little more detail. In order for someone to file for a PFA, the law says they must have had a previous relationship, cohabiting with someone they hold themselves as a couple with, have a child in common or were in a “substantive dating relationship”
To further qualify a PFA case, a person must prove they have been abused by their partner. The same regulations that explain who can file for a PFA also gives the criteria for defining abuse. A relationship that constitutes abuse is categorized in eight different ways, which Blythe said adds to the countless times a person claiming abuse might not receive their PFA.
Overseeing these PFA hearings are the 10 Family Court commissioners, who represent the final line between the victim and their PFA. Blythe noted that in her experience, she has predominantly seen women stand before the commissioners. Many times, she has seen women victims unable to defeat the convolutedness of this system.
“It’s all about the woman making a case for herself, and sometimes it can be really victimizing for the woman to stand up before the judge,” Blythe said. “The judge will ask if the victim can explain their abuse, which can be really hard for them.”
Alongside the traumatic recounting of their abuse, these cases frequently have the perpetrator standing in the back of the room as the victim explains their case. They present a menacing force — a force that can emotionally rattle the victim.
A victim’s shame is further perpetuated when the representation meant to defend their case flips the script on their client.
“They’ll say ‘Well, the abuse doesn’t seem that bad, like it’s just bruises,’ she said. “‘Your collarbone isn’t even broken.’”
Through her experiences, Blythe has taken away that everyone knows someone who has been a victim in a PFA case, whether or not they are privy to this information. She said that commissioners will frequently make arrangements for victims, offering a myriad of social services they may need. The victims, commissioners, representation and those offering domestic abuse support become familiar with each other.
Throughout the duration of this long line of interactions, Blythe said that many people become aware of who is undergoing the PFA process.
Blythe emphasized that the forces affecting a person’s case are dependent on several underlying factors, including their socioeconomic status, their educational level and the ability to find competent lawyer. She said that people who have money to afford an expensive lawyer will win their cases more frequently, while those who rely on the over-worked public defender might not fare as well.
Many of those who are unsuccessful in getting a PFA will end up going through the system more than once. Blythe has seen one particular woman go through it four times, filing against four different men. The services extended to the victims of domestic abuse are scant in Delaware, which contributed to her recurring presence.
“There are resources, but they are just so overworked,” she said. “Yes, there are resources for the victims, but we need more money and more people.”
Blythe will continue her work in this field next spring, interning as a court advocate in the same Wilmington courthouse she has been frequenting as a part of her research. She has become aware of the “weird” language determining these critical cases, and she said she wants to continue to fight for those who have been victimized not only by their abuser, but by the system as well.
“If you do it all right, your case still might be thrown out,” she said.
It is Blythe’s hope that what she has learned can translate to the general public. In her words, compassion can lead to a more thorough understanding of domestic violence.
“It’s definitely taught me to be more empathic with people, because sexual violence is so traumatizing, and I don’t think people understand that,” she said.