The young man and woman sat at opposite tables in the courtroom and provided a glimpse into what can happen in the aftermath of a once-intimate relationship that turns violent.
She had gotten a protective order against her former boyfriend but he wanted to see his children, so the pair was present waiting to tell their sides of the story to the judge. Like many who appear in the St. Joseph County Protective Order Court, these two represented themselves and traded accusations.
Presiding over this special court is Magistrate Judge Andre Gammage. Every Monday and Thursday afternoon, he listens to stories of broken relationships, some that have evolved into persistent petty arguing and others that have descended into threats, fear and harm.
“The protective order court is a different animal from the standpoint this is a civil case but it’s not about money,” Gammage said. “It’s about the things that affect, in many instances, either an opportunity for a father to see his kids, a mother to be able to make herself safe or see her kids.”
Launched in November 2014, the court handles only civil protection orders. Initially the docket was placed in the St. Joseph Small Claims Court where the staff had experience walking pro se parties through the legal process. However, the judges who handle roughly 14,000 cases annually got swamped by the protective order docket.
So a separate protective order court was established and former St. Joseph Circuit Judge Michael Gotsch became the presiding judge. After he was appointed as a magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana earlier this year, he turned his gavel over to Gammage.
Patience is a daily requirement.
With the young man trying to see his offspring, the courtroom got tense when Gammage explained paternity had not been established. The man stiffened and cocked his head, the sheriff deputy walked over to the man, but Gammage calmly went over the law. Later, he reiterated the man could not talk to the woman.
“You have to be able to look at the situation,” Gammage said. “While having compassion for what it is, you also have to balance that against the right of due process that the respondent has … and make certain both sides are being treated fairly.”
‘Really effective tool’
Erika Walz Joo, protection order attorney for the Family Justice Center of St. Joseph County in South Bend, works with victims of intimate partner abuse and sexual assault and represents them in the protective order court. She applauded the creation of a separate court.
In particular, she noted that Gotsch and Gammage understand the complications that protective orders can bring.
For the victims who do not have lawyers, they now have a private and safe place in the courthouse to file their petitions. Previously, they had to fill out the multiple-page form at a public counter.
“I always tell my clients, a protective order is ultimately a piece of paper,” Walz Joo said. “But while it may not be a shield, it is a really effective tool in telling the abuser, ‘I am not going to stand for this anymore.’”
Most significantly, the special court enabled the protective order petitions to be screened within a matter of hours rather than days. Gammage credited his administrative assistants, Erica Burns and Emilie Thompson, with having the skills to not only process the petitions but also flesh out the details from the individual who may have just been beaten or just learned her child has been molested.
They listen to the stories of the people who come and make the petitioners feel like they have been heard. Occasionally, they will advise Gammage that he might want to take another look at the petition he denied.
Gammage emphasized he has to not engage in a knee-jerk reaction and grant everything. As a former criminal defense attorney, he knows the respondent has rights. But the consequences of denying a protective order could be bad, and the judge has to consider the law and the evidence rather than what might happen.
“… We take an oath to uphold the law and that’s what we’ve got to do,” he said, “and if you’re not willing to deal with some of the consequences that may come with that, then you probably shouldn’t be on the job.”
The court makes petitioners aware of local social service agencies, such as the Family Justice Center and the YWCA North Central Indiana, which can help with filing an order as well as providing shelter and counseling. By law, the court must grant a petitioner’s motion to dismiss a protective order, but usually Gammage will hold a hearing, review the original petition with the victim, and let the individual know of the places he or she can turn to in the community.
Gammage also lets victims know they can always refile for a protective order.
In working with her clients, Walz Joo has learned no matter how bad the abuse, she will likely be refiling for protection several more times before the victim ends the relationship.
“It’s inevitable,” Walz Joo said of victims who file for a dismissal and go back with their abuser.
One case filed in early December gave an example of this cycle. A woman had initially filed a petition after her boyfriend punched her multiple times, choked her then stomped on her chest causing her to urinate on herself and cough up blood.
She was in court less than two months later asking the protective order be dismissed. She told the court she wanted to give her boyfriend another chance and allow him to see his children.
Gotsch referred to such situations as the “St. Francis Syndrome.” Like the statute of the patron saint that stands in his backyard patiently waiting for the birds to come, the court must be gentle and tolerant with every petitioner, knowing at some point, those individuals will quit filing to dismiss and let the order stand.
“It’s not easy work, but I think it’s God’s work in some ways,” Gotsch said. “I felt like every day we were making somebody’s life better.”
Stopping the cycle
Gammage said over the past 20 years, he has seen agencies become better at responding to domestic violence and the courts take the incidents more seriously. However, he noted, “the most efficient way to deal with domestic violence is for it not to happen.”
One way to stop the cause is to create a better home environment for children. Gammage learned how important the home is as a young college graduate mentoring boys. One evening, as he walked into a boy’s home in a desolate neighborhood, he smelled marijuana.
“I kind of realized that if I’m taking this kid back home to this environment, I’m just spitting in the wind,” Gammage said. “I’m not against mentoring at all, I’m just saying that the parents are the best mentors.”
Recently, he has started a program making presentations to redirect troubled parents to focus on their children. This is his way of trying to stop the cycle of children witnessing violence in the home and then growing up to be abusers themselves.
“The next generation of victims and perpetrators is already in the pipeline,” Gammage said, noting children will imitate what they see adults do. “We’re just waiting for them to get here.”•