Kansas City Domestic Violence Court: Assessing Risk, Addressing Needs

March 1, 2018

Center for Court Innovation

Designated a mentor court by the Office on Violence Against Women, the Kansas City Municipal Domestic Violence Court serves as a model for other jurisdictions interested in improving responses to intimate partner violence. In this podcast, Judge Courtney Wachal and Megan Sartin, the offender accountability coordinator, explain how the court works, including how they assess offender risk and needs, choose mandates from a variety of programming options, monitor offender compliance, and use sanctions to respond to non-compliance.

The following is a transcript of the podcast:

ROB WOLF: Hi, I’m Rob Wolf, and this is New Thinking, the podcast of the Center for Court Innovation, where we talk to people who are experimenting with new approaches, testing new ideas and leading the way to a better, smarter, more fair justice system. Sometimes we talk to authors or researchers and sometimes we talk to people who are on the ground, making a difference in the day to day delivery of justice. Today we’re talking to two people in the latter category. They’re trying to improve the way the Municipal Court in Kansas City, Missouri addresses the challenge of domestic violence.

The Municipal Court created a specialized Domestic Violence Court, which has the distinction of being one of 14 selected as a Mentor Court by the Office on Violence Against Women. Being a Mentor Court means that the Kansas City Domestic Violence Court is a leader in efforts to address domestic violence. The Mentor Court designation is kind of like a badge of approval that lets other jurisdictions know that if they want to reduce violence in their own communities and deal more effectively with domestic violence they should give the folks in Kansas City a call.

Today, with me are two folks from Kansas City. They are Courtney Wachal, who is the judge who presides over the Domestic Violence Court. She was appointed to the bench by the mayor and city council in 2015 and she’s worked both as a public defender and a prosecutor and she received her law degree from the University of Kansas.

Also with me is Megan Sartin, who is the Offender Accountability Coordinator for the court. In that role she is responsible for supervising domestic violence offenders to ensure they comply with all the conditions set by the probation department.

Courtney and Megan, thanks so much for coming on the podcast.

COURTNEY WACHAL: Thank you for having us.

MEGAN SARTIN: Thank you for having us.

WOLF: Well let me just jump right in. I know domestic violence cases can be some of the hardest cases for justice systems to handle. Could you explain why they are so hard to handle? What are the biggest challenges of working with domestic violence cases?

WACHAL: I will answer that first. This is Courtney and I’m the judge. From my perspective it is striking the balance between making sure that the victim is safe but always trying to respect their wishes as well. Obviously we are trained in high risk offenders and so we can see from statistics that maybe an individual is very dangerous, but the victim is in court wanting to have contact with him. I would say that is one of my biggest challenges as a judge.

WOLF: Megan, do you want to add something?

SARTIN: Yes, I believe by the time they get to me in probation, I think one of the biggest challenges working with them is that there’s a lot of substance abuse and mental health issues that we have to address before we can even get them ready to really to start doing their other programs, like Batters Intervention and stuff like that.

WOLF: Can you guys share with me a little bit about how the Domestic Violence Court came about or came to be in the form that it is today? I’d like to hear a little bit about how and why you pulled this project together.

SARTIN: Well, the Kansas City Domestic Violence Court, we’ve always had a Domestic Violence Court, where there was just that courtroom focused just on domestic violence cases. However, they were always court supervised, so they didn’t have a probation officer. They just had to stay out of trouble and go do their classes. There was nobody paying attention, especially to these high risk offenders that were getting multiple cases, that were strangulation cases, there were weapons used. Nobody was paying attention to these offenders. We used to have a deputy court administrator here that actually wrote a grant and brought the Center for Court Innovation in. It was the grant that hired me to be the Offender Accountability Coordinator. We brought the Center for Court Innovation in. They looked at our domestic violence docket and what we were doing and what we wanted to do and they gave us recommendations on how we could make things better.

Then the judge too the bench and we kind of just got the ball rolling and we have just gone nonstop ever since then.

WOLF: So the fact that you have been selected as a Mentor Court by the Office on Violence Against Women means that they think you’re doing an exemplary job. So, how do you do it? How does your court work?

WACHAL: This is Courtney again. We were selected by the Department of Justice to receive the Mentor Grant, I believe primarily because of our work on our compliance docket, which is where we supervise our highest risk offenders, watching to make sure that they are not only abiding by the conditions of their probation but also so that we can immediately act if they aren’t, and that’s the victim safety piece. They’re reporting to me, they’re reporting to Ms. Sartin for probation, they’re going to classes. If they stop, and we’re also in contact with the victims, we can act. We can do something right away. It doesn’t take a long time. We can issue the warrants right away, so that we can try to do what we can to keep the victim safe. That is the best practices. That’s what we learned at training and we work very hard here in Kansas City here to implement that.

I think the other reason is because we’re trying to go beyond the standard batterer curriculum. We just switched service providers and our new service provider kind of is trying to really target this high risk population and meet their needs. We also do a lot beyond batterer curriculum. We’re doing things with substance abuse. We’re doing things with mental health, we’re doing things with emotional fitness. We’re doing things with getting GEDs and jobs and trying to modify child support so that when the offender, if they successfully complete our docket and re-enter the community without supervision, we are hoping that they have more tools to be successful in the community and to keep these victims safe.

WOLF: Your offenders are high risk. I wonder exactly what that means. How do you define high risk?

SARTIN: A majority of the individuals on the compliance docket, they have multiple domestic violence charges. Either within the city or state charges. They have been on possibly felony probation before. They have been on probation here. We have some individuals that were being supervised by me, not on the compliance docket, on just supervised probation for domestic violence, and have picked up new charges, so then they end up coming to the compliance docket. The severity of the charge also, strangulation, weapons used, bones broken, those kind of things. Those are the kind of things we look at. And I believe we also kind of look at their, not just domestic violence history but also any kind of violent history, prior violent history, charges like aggravated assault and those kind of things.

We not only look at their criminal history, but we also look at them, we use the ODARA to go through and look at their potential for violence.

WOLF: So the ODARA is a risk assessment tool, a screening tool, that you use?

SARTIN: It is.

WACHAL: That’s correct. And it’s statistically based. We can look at their history but also try to use scientifically proven tools that will determine whether or not the offender is high risk.

WOLF: Just circling back to my first question about the challenges of domestic violence cases, some of the things that you described, that these guys can be charged with such serious crimes, that involve broken bones or have a long history of committing domestic violence offenses, that does sound like a huge challenge. Just to play devil’s advocate, I wonder if you have people in the community who question why you’re putting them in treatment and not just behind bars. What do you say to someone who asks that question?

WACHAL: This is Courtney again. And that is a very common opinion that we hear. Number one, my court is municipal court, so the worst case scenario, if I revoke their probation, is maximum sentence of six months. Some of them have multiple charges, so I can stack those sentences, but that’s something that I need to keep in mind. I can have them on probation for two years. To me, if I can use that period of probation and make some progress with the offender that’s a much better use of my time and I have more time to do it than just having them go to jail. That being said, if they do not abide by our orders, if they do not successfully complete probation, especially if they receive new charges, they will go to jail.

WOLF: You did speak already a little bit about your compliance monitoring. Can you go into that a little more detail? It sounds like there’s a lot going on in the offender’s lives and must have a busy courtroom. How do you keep track of all the moving pieces? How do you ensure that your response is in fact swift? So that the offenders know there will be certain consequences to any violation of the court or the probation department’s orders?

SARTIN: Not only are they reporting to the judge at a minimum of three times a month sometimes. They’re also reporting to me and they’re also reporting to their batters intervention class once a week. In the beginning I usually see them at least every other week. And depending on if they’re going to classes or not. Sometimes I even make them come in here weekly. We also, the judge and the prosecutor and myself came up with the sanctioning grid. The offenders know exactly what’s going to happen.

If he failed to report to batters intervention classes, this is what’s going to happen the first time. This is what’s going to happen the second time. If you test positive, this is what we’re going to do.

WACHAL: I would just add to that that you’re right, that there are a lot of moving pieces. And these, I think primarily men on the compliance docket, these men have very complicated lives. They live in poverty and sometimes violence. A lot of them aren’t employed. We also do things to try to make it so that they cannot use that as an excuse. We provide them bus passes if they don’t have transportation. We have a grant to reduce the cost of their batters intervention classes to $5 per class, which usually they’re $30 per class. We work with them if they get a job or they get an interview. As long as they can tell us and prove it we try to make it so that they can still be successful in their lives but also they have to complete the conditions of the docket.

WOLF: We’ve talked a lot about your work with the offender. Maybe we can switch and talk a little bit about the victim and how your work, holding the offender accountable, enhances victim safety, and any other things you do to enhance the safety of the victim.

WACHAL: In the municipal court, this is Courtney, we have victims advocates present at all times. We have a victim advocate from the prosecutor’s office that’s in the courtroom dealing with witnesses prior to the prosecution. And then we have two victims advocates that can talk to the victims after the prosecution. Also the victim advocate for the prosecutor’s office is able to relay to me, through the proper channels, if the victim is wanting contact, no contact, with regards to bond and also to the prosecutor’s office with regards to probation.

The batters intervention provider is required to reach out to the victim initially to get that side. Obviously the victim has the best picture of what is going on with that offender and that is a crucial piece of information that we need if we’re going to be successful working with the offender. The batters intervention provider does reach out to them and also provides them information with services.

WOLF: How do you take into consideration their wishes if they come to you and plead leniency or say they want an order of protection dropped, or something. Because I’m sure that there is a desire on your part to respect their independence and agency and on another level you’re charged with enforcing the law and enforcing the orders that are in place.

WACHAL: Generally when I speak with a victim with regards to her desire to have contact with the offender it is either as a condition of bond or as a condition of probation what was no contact but then they have reconciled and they want the condition modified to have contact. On bond, I try to follow very straightforward rules. So, no matter, if a victim comes in and is like, “Please let him out,” if he was already on probation or if he has more than one charge with the same, more than one DV charge from different days, I’m not going to let them out, but I communicate with the victim. I try to let her know, this is not because of her, this is what I do in all of the cases and I understand her wishes but part of bond is public safety and right now I think this offender is a public safety risk.

With regards to the probations, I will generally modify it at her request, or his, if that is the case. But I will say, “Do you know who you should contact if you want this changed back” because at any time I can revert it back to no contact, and there’s a prosecutor here you can speak with, there’s a victim advocate down the hall, to try to empower them with resources so that if things get to a place where they don’t want contact anymore they know that they have the power to change that.

WOLF: Well it sounds like you guys are doing some great things in Kansas City. What are your plans with the Mentor Court grant? What is your vision for how you’re going to help other jurisdictions learn from your experience?

SARTIN: When the judge and I first got here, there was not a compliance docket. There was a domestic violence court, but none of the offenders were supervised. They were on court supervised probation. The court realize that there was a need to supervise some of these offenders because they were so high risk. I think that the judge and I, we’ve worked really hard to get this compliance docket where we want it, where we can bring other people onto our courtroom and show them how bringing these offenders in regularly for court interaction, having them see the probation officer, and working with the batters intervention and all the other service providers that we’ve brought in that not only can we keep track of them but we can also help them better their lives so that they can be better, more productive members of society.

I think by showing other courts how we can work as a team, with all the providers that are involved, that we can help them set up the same kind of domestic violence compliance docket like we have.

WACHAL: I think one of the greatest things that both Megan and I have experienced from running the compliance docket, is that some of the men who successfully complete it leave the compliance docket with a completely different picture of what the justice system does. That they might come in expecting to be, I guess stereotyped, to not be treated like a person, to be told what to do but not listened to, and by the end, it really, some of them really feel empowered, and not in a negative way, like in a personal pride way that they have done this work and that they have made it this far. We work really hard to treat them like humans and not just a batterer. I hope that … I feel like in a field of domestic violence that maybe hasn’t always happened and obviously we don’t want to be manipulated by them, we know they’re manipulators, but I would like other courts to see that you don’t have to be mean to get good results.

WOLF: Wow, it sounds like there are a lot of lessons in there. So good luck with the Mentor Court designation and the amazing work you’re doing.

WACHAL: Thank you for having us. It’s been nice talking with you.

SARTIN: Yes, thank you for having us.

WOLF: I’ve been speaking with Courtney Wachal, the judge in Kansas City Missouri’s domestic violence court, and Megan Sartin, the court’s Offender Accountability Coordinator. You can learn about domestic violence courts and the Mentor Court program on our website here at the Center for Court Innovation, www.courtinnovation.org. We also recently made some videos about two other Mentor Courts, the Ada County domestic violence court in Boise, Idaho and the domestic violence court in Dallas, Texas. You can hear interviews with more justice practitioners and reformers by subscribing to our podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Our theme music is by Michael Aaron at quivernyc.com. Thank you so much for listening.


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