I enter the new county court house, a shiny downtown number that has been open for less than a year; floor-to-ceiling glass windows line the hallways, and the floor gleams like it’s just been waxed. A motley assortment of stoic and grinning police officers greet me as I shuffle through the metal detectors and make my way to the second floor where I will be observing domestic violence court proceedings for the day.
At the top of the stairs there is a waiting room set aside for those who have been victims of domestic violence. Here they can request emergency restraining orders and wait with their families before their cases are heard in court. I tap on the waiting room’s thick glass windowpane, and my host Susan buzzes me in. Susan is a Presbyterian minister and courtroom advocate for Helpmate, Asheville’s domestic violence agency, and today she is my host. Susan ushers me into the office with a welcome and a reminder that I should not open the door for anyone.
The room is filled with women, mostly, though a few men dot the walls, too. Some are alone, others with a mother, father, or friend close by. A few start conversations with me, asking me to look up an address on my phone or comparing jobs (one is a nursing tech. at the hospital just a few blocks from my office). Some wear graphic tees and sweatpants; others expensive slacks and freshly pressed blouses. One speaks Spanish, another Thai, many more with the sweet twang that marks them as long-time residents of Western North Carolina. They have names that rhyme. Marla. Carla. And names that don’t. Tanya. Janet. Maria.
I am awkward, wanting to help but unsure what my role here is supposed to be. Do people want someone to talk with, or do they want privacy? Am I intruding in what is already for many victims a harrowing experience? My face feels rubbery, my arms artificially stiff as I grasp my responsible-young-professional notebook and pen.
Domestic Violence Court cases are heard en masse every Thursday with forty to sixty cases on the docket. Today, however, there are seventy-one. Increasing national awareness and a new comprehensive plan developed by Buncombe County to address domestic violence has increased the number of people seeking services and judicial recourse. The paradox of this situation is obvious but true: It’s a good thing that so many people are here; it’s a horrific thing that so many people are here.
The actual courtroom experience is a bizarre combination of wrenching and utterly boring. One woman shakes visibly as Susan rubs her back. Several men file in handcuffed, brought directly from their jail cells to face charges. One plaintiff yells an impassioned speech that no one understands, and the judge orders a psych evaluation. Still, it’s hard to hear: judges and lawyers rarely raise their voices, and people are constantly shuffling in and out of the courtroom slamming a heavy latched door as they do. Most of the conversation is about procedure, not Atticus Finch-esque orations on the nature of justice.
Two things stand out:
1) The courtroom is confusing, and
2) Most of us need legal representation to navigate it.
People can be appointed free lawyers in criminal cases, but not in civil cases, which all these cases were. Multiples times, the judge had to re-explain the process to the plaintiff or defendant. For example, the judge would tell the plaintiff, “You can request a stay if you are not ready to proceed at this time,” and the plaintiff would respond, “Yes your honor, I would like to stay and resolve the case now,” not realizing that requesting a stay would mean the opposite of resolving now. Both said stay, but they were not speaking the same language.
It’s confusing for anybody, but this system is particularly trying for those who are experiencing abuse. A victim often experiences symptoms of trauma such as difficulty concentrating and memory loss that make accessing any services difficult in addition to any coercion leveraged by their perpetrator (threats if the victim presses charges etc.). Add to this a system as complex and intimidating as the one I saw, and the need for legal aid becomes obvious.
Here in Western North Carolina, an organization called Pisgah Legal Services provides free legal help to low-income people on issues of housing, immigration, and domestic violence among others. Those who have their help look noticeably relieved. In 2013, Pisgah closed 1,305 domestic violence cases.
I know six hours in a courthouse paint an incomplete picture, but they do paint a powerful one. That Thursday I felt the fear victims knew in facing their abusers; I saw their resolution and reliance in the same moments. I sensed the comfort given by court advocates’ presence and the importance of legal representation for people when they are most vulnerable.
Again, all I can think of is obvious and contradictory. It’s a good thing that so many people are here; it’s a horrific thing that so many people are here.
If you think you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, help is available. Please call the national domestic violence at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Get tips on how to help a friend or family member here.