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Breaking the Cycle of Violence Against Women and Children: The Domestic Violence Judicial Support Act

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By Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.) and Honorable Patricia Martin

Dr. Amy Castillo's three children could and should be alive today.

Dr. Castillo, a pediatrician, spent the first days of 2008 in Maryland District Court trying to get a protective order against her abusive husband Mark Castillo. Amy testified that her husband had been involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a suicide attempt and manic-like destructive behavior. On January 10, 2008, the court, despite hearing further testimony about Mark Castillo's threats to kill his children, refused to grant a permanent protective order on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

On March 29, 2008, Mark Castillo drowned Anthony, 6, Austin, 4, and Athena, 2, in a hotel bathtub in Baltimore. The justice system tragically failed to protect Amy and her children.

Amy Castillo's tragedy -- and countless more just like it -- are an urgent call to action. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), signed into law by President Clinton in 1994 as a national response to domestic violence, and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 under President Bush, is now again before Congress for reauthorization. Amy Castillo's case highlights the pressing need for the 2012 iteration of VAWA to focus on essential judicial court-related services that train prosecutors and judges how to handle sensitive domestic violence cases; provide advocates for children trapped in the cycle of violence; and forge efficiencies in the system that allow for timely, consistent rulings.

This is why Congressman Honda is introducing a bill, the Domestic Violence Judicial Support Act of 2012, to highlight and build support for these indispensable programs, ensuring that they are funded in the final VAWA authorization.

The specialized training and resources provided under this bill helps train judges, like the one in Dr. Castillo's case, to understand the dynamics of domestic violence in child custody cases through the Violence Against Women Act Court Training and Improvement Program. Judges trained in these programs would have known that a restraining order against Mr. Castillo, along with strong, court-ordered safety protections like supervised visitation and regular compliance reviews that spot risk and instability, would protect children like Anthony, Austin and Athena. A well-trained judge in a specialized domestic violence court would also have known how to connect Amy Castillo with the multitude of community resources available to her.

None of this happened; instead the court system failed Amy and her children.

One-third of violent felons in state criminal courts are charged with domestic violence; 50 percent of these offenders have killed their victims. Many of these murders occur during the time when couples are waiting to go to trial, highlighting the critical need for efficiency in court proceedings. Similarly, providing special domestic violence courts and court-appointed advocates can save foster children nearly 7 and a half months in the court system; that means they will experience fewer out of home placements and have significantly improved educational performance.

The programs reauthorized in the Domestic Violence Judicial Support Act do just this, allowing courts to specialize, thereby making them more efficient, consistent and able to incorporate a stronger focus on rehabilitation of offenders and deterrence of repeat offenses. These programs are not only the right thing to do, they also save states money. For example, training judges in effective case oversight resulted in significant foster care savings for several states. A 2009 Department of Justice Study found that Kentucky saved $85 million in one year alone through the issuance of protection orders and the reduction in violence resulting from the issuance of such orders.

With the reauthorization of the VAWA before us, Congress must act to ensure that local justice systems are fully equipped to respond to family, domestic, and youth violence cases. Congress can start this crucial work by supporting the programs found within the Domestic Violence Judicial Support Act.

Now is the time to ensure that all families have the resources available that we know saves lives. By ensuring that our nation's courts are well-trained to handle domestic violence cases, we can honor Amy and her three small children. We can ensure that such tragedies are never repeated.

This piece was first published in THE HILL on 2/9/12.

Rep. Honda (D-Calif.) is Silicon Valley's representative in Congress. He is Budget Task Force Chairman for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the author of The People's Budget, and a member of the House Appropriations and Budget committees.

Judge Martin is Presiding Judge of the Child Protection Division, Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, has served on the bench since 1996 and serves as President of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ).

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