Domestic Violence A Haunting Concern For Local Judge

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Domestic Violence A Haunting Concern For Local Judge

Nicole “Nico” Cisneros

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Judge Michael Gallagher is not an easily shaken man. With 25 years of law enforcement experience, he was fully prepared to take on his role a district court judge in 2015 for District Court 07-1-01 in Bensalem.

And while Judge Gallagher has seen his fair share of first-class misdemeanors and felonies — “a lot of drug charges and DUIs”– he admitted that the cases that most affect him are those of domestic violence: “For example, you live in your house, you’re married with your husband or boyfriend, and you get in a fight. Your boyfriend does bodily damage to you. Then it comes time for court, and you are back together, [so] you don’t come to court. No victim, no crime.”

It’s a situation victims find themselves in all too often. The public education nonprofit Domestic Violence Roundtable notes that victims stay with or return to abusers for many different reasons, ranging from the emotional to the situational. Some believe their partner may change their ways, or feel guilty about their perceived failure. Others might have to stay because they rely on the abuser economically; they have been isolated socially from support systems; or they may be bound by cultural or religious traditions.

The Roundtable noted that victims in suburbs like Bucks have a unique set of difficulties, since these are typically “communities of affluence and privilege.” Suburban victims may feel embarrassed to seek help because of their education level, social status, or income bracket denotes their success in life. They may also have “system-phobia”, a resistance to ask for help from police and social service agencies.

No matter where a victim is from, going to court, or even expressing the desire to leave, can cause victims to lose their lives. Bucks County domestic violence shelter A Woman’s Place reported that 75 percent of serious assaults and homicides occur after a victim has left the abuser or made their intentions to leave known. In fact, 102 people were killed in domestic-violence incidents in the state during 2016, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV). Four of those victims were from Bucks County.

One such tragedy has enabled the courts to help more victims escape that tragic fate. In 2012, an Illinois judge ruled that testimony of witnesses could be used in a domestic violence murder trial. This decision, known as the Richter Ruling, is about the validity of hearsay in domestic violence cases. Judge Gallagher explained: “If you don’t show up, the officer [who responded] can actually come in and testify” about the incident and the extent of the victim’s injuries, he stated.

Another way the courts try to help survivors is by establishing a “no contact clause” for couples involved in domestic incidents: this means the abuser is not allowed to contact, visit, or live with the victim. The judge admitted that “sometimes it creates a hardship if there’s kids,” but in proceedings he’ll order a safe alternative, such as couples meeting and exchange custody at the local police station.

Even with these tools, how can survivors get help from the courts if they don’t know what might happen there? Judge Gallagher broke down the two most frequent outcomes:
●Within the Courts
Couples entering the case start at the district court. “At our level here in district court, we just see if there’s enough evidence to go to trial,” he noted. “We listen to facts and if we think a crime is committed and a person was involved it moves forward to the common pleas court.” He can also make recommendations for the common pleas court to consider, such as if there should be distance between the individuals involved. At common pleas court, an alleged abuser can be entered into the criminal court, where they can be sentenced to jail.
●Counseling Options
If the incident was less severe, such as a push or a shove that did not result in injury, the judge can recommend counseling. In these instances, the judge typically recommends anger management for the perpetrator. After the mandated 60 days, the victims can come to court and confirm if things have or haven’t improved. No matter the couple’s feelings after this period, they will have to come back to see the judge. “If you and your husband were in a fight and I were to arraign you, the law says you have to see a judge if it’s domestic violence so we can determine if it’s safe to release you,” Judge Gallagher stated.

There are organizations that can help victims navigate the legal and other aspects of escaping abuse. In Bucks County, the Judge noted, two organizations for such resources are A Woman’s Place (800-220-8116, 24-hour hotline) and the Network of Victim Assistance, or NOVA (1-800-675-6900, 24-hour hotline). Here at Bucks CCC, you can also reach out to counseling services at 215-968-8189 or [email protected]

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