Changes are underway at Cook County’s domestic violence court, following an outcry from advocates about the treatment of survivors and barriers to court access throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Monday, Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans announced efforts to enable 24-hour court access for emergency petitions in domestic violence cases. And on Tuesday, Evans said he would consider reassigning the division’s presiding judge, Judge Raul Vega, in response to complaints from advocates about Vega’s alleged handling of cases.
Domestic violence linked to the stress and isolation of lockdowns has been on the rise during the pandemic. In Illinois, calls to a statewide hotline increased 16% in 2020, with more than 30,000 people seeking help, according to The Network, an advocacy organization. Lockdowns have also often made it more difficult to prosecute abusers, but advocates say problems predate the pandemic.
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During a live talk show Tuesday hosted by Injustice Watch senior reporter Maya Dukmasova and the Chicago Reader’s Ben Joravsky, an attorney in the audience who represents survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault asked Evans if he would consider removing Vega as head of the division.
“I hate to think about removing a judge, but yes, ma’am,” Evans said in response. “I think he’s a decent guy, but somebody said to me there may be some misogynism going on, and we can’t tolerate that in the court.”
The attorney who asked about Vega described the presiding judge as “a consistent obstacle to survivors of gender-based violence.” She also raised concerns about the lack of accessibility and transparency in the court’s domestic violence division and the need for increased staffing. As chief judge, Evans has the power to appoint or reassign judges who preside over the county’s various court divisions. But he did not elaborate on the allegations against Vega, and neither Evans nor Vega responded to Injustice Watch’s request for comment by publication time.
Vega was elected to the circuit court in 2002 and spent 16 years hearing divorce and child custody cases before Evans appointed him presiding judge of the domestic violence division in 2018. Before his career on the bench, Vega spent nearly 20 years in private practice and was a staff attorney for former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez.
In 2014, the Chicago Council of Lawyers rated Vega as qualified for retention but noted that some lawyers reported that he was “short-tempered on the bench.” Cook County residents voted to retain Vega in last November’s election, when the council and other bar associations also found him qualified.
‘Meeting survivors where they’re at’
Problems in the domestic violence division are not limited to just one judge, said Mallory Littlejohn, legal director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. The larger problem is a legal system that is extremely difficult for survivors to navigate and little opportunity for advocates to offer input on making it easier. “When you’re not taking into account trauma and the day-to-day situations that individuals are facing, you end up creating rules that excommunicate already disenfranchised individuals,” Littlejohn said.
During the pandemic, domestic violence courts remained open under rules intended to preserve access for survivors. Courts allowed people to file emergency petitions virtually. Many hearings also went virtual, with “Zoom Rooms” added on-site for participants without access to a computer or telephone for virtual hearings.
But according to advocates such as Littlejohn, these new rules still fell short. To receive a same-day hearing on petitions before the courts close at 5 p.m., survivors must still file remotely by noon on weekdays or in person by 3 p.m.
The ability to seek protective orders at any time would be “extremely beneficial and in some cases lifesaving,” said Danielle Parisi Ruffatto, managing director of the legal advocacy organization Ascend Justice’s family law and protective orders division. “It’s meeting survivors where they’re at when they decide it’s time.”
Last Thursday, advocates pressed for this change during a Cook County Board of Commissioners meeting. During the public comment period of the meeting, Amanda Pyron, executive director of The Network, said the deadlines and limited court access could endanger survivors without another means of seeking safety.
“Yesterday, we had a young mother with her children at 90-degree heat being turned away from the court at 3 p.m.,” Pyron said. “I just don’t understand how 3 o’clock in the afternoon is too late for a survivor of domestic violence to get justice.”
Following Pyron’s testimony, several county board commissioners expressed concerns about the allegations and asked follow-up questions of the representatives from Evans’ office who were present at the meeting.
Commissioner Alma E. Anaya emphasized that she helped push for more resources in the domestic violence division during the last budget cycle to help ensure that scenarios such as the one that Pyron described wouldn’t happen.
“But if we are seeing that there’s issues with the chief judge or with the courthouse in which people are not able to receive emergency orders of protection that puts people’s lives in jeopardy, then this is extremely concerning to me,” Anaya said.
On Monday, Evans announced plans to establish 24/7 access to the courts for people facing domestic violence emergencies, enabling survivors filing for civil orders of protection, no-contact orders, or no-stalking orders to seek the court’s decision immediately. Such protection orders would allow survivors to be escorted to their homes by law enforcement, who would also forcibly remove the alleged perpetrator.
“Based on conversations with domestic violence advocates, we know that some victims arriving after hours have encountered difficulty filing an emergency petition, thus depriving them of an opportunity to have their cases heard and potentially putting themselves and their families at risk,” Evans said in a statement.
Evans touted the new court access plan in a letter to Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, sent the same day as his announcement. In the letter, which Injustice Watch obtained, Evans also contested Pyron’s testimony that a survivor was turned away from the court while seeking to file a petition for an order of protection. But he called on the county to help expand remote access to court proceedings by allocating additional federal Covid-19 relief funds for videoconferencing technology.
Evans’ office will work with representatives from the county court clerk, sheriff, state’s attorney, public defender, victims advocates, and private lawyers to “quickly and carefully develop best practices” for expanding domestic violence court hours, according to his announcement. The chief judge has not yet said when the 24/7 court access plan would be implemented, only promising to update the public in the coming months.