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Published: Saturday, 4/19/2003

Group on lookout for sake of victims

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Mary Beth Bajorek sat quietly on a bench in Court Room 4 in Toledo Municipal Court and waited to hear the name of a suspect whose case she was interested in.

She had no involvement in the matter, but she was ready to take copious notes of his arraignment.

She quickly grabbed her pen and filled in the suspect's name on the preprinted form on her brown clipboard. She scribbled the date, the judge, the time the case was called, whether the victim showed up, the suspect's charges, the bond the judge set, and any comments the judge made.

The 21-year-old junior majoring in criminal justice at the University of Toledo wasn't interested in every case - just those involving domestic violence and related offenses, such as violations of temporary protection orders, assaults, and aggravated menacing.

Ms. Bajorek is one of 15 local college students and senior citizens who've volunteered since November to observe more than 150 cases under Court Watch, a new monitoring program started by Toledo police's domestic violence unit.

“This program isn't designed to point fingers and make accusations,” personal assault Sgt. George Kral said. “It's to make the system more efficient and effective for the victims.”

The aim is to monitor cases of violence against women and children and report information that can be used to track individual cases and trends.

Volunteers also observe the court system, including judges, attorneys, bailiffs, and other court personnel, on its treatment of crime victims.

The trained volunteers monitor cases in which women were the victims and men were arrested. Only cases in which women are victims are monitored because the department's domestic violence unit deals with crimes against women, Officer Sonya Newton-Butler, the department's domestic violence specialist, said.

She learned about a similar program begun 10 years ago in Minneapolis. WATCH, initially called Women at the Courthouse, began as a community response to newspaper reports of a lax, revolving-door justice system that failed to take crimes of assault and domestic violence seriously.

“People in the criminal justice system don't want to say we've made an impact, but we hear we have made a difference,” said Suzanne Elwell, WATCH's executive director. “Does everybody love us? No. But we have credibility in how we respond to what we see.”

She said when the nonprofit group started 10 years ago, it was met with some suspicion. Now, it has about 75 active volunteers and 150 to 200 volunteers a year who attend about 5,000 court appearances.

Ms. Elwell said she is aware of about 35 independent court-watch programs in the country. She said Toledo's program is the first she's heard of started by a police department. Similar programs exist in Ohio's Allen County and Dayton.

Officer Newton-Butler got the idea for such a program after seeing how hectic court can be, especially on Mondays, and how long victims often wait for their cases to be called.

“I thought there was a better way to go about this,” she said.

Renee Palacios, a domestic violence victim advocate, said she hopes the program raises awareness of what is going on in the system and provides it with checks and balances.

“A lot of times, [the victims] don't go through because of problems with the system,” she said. “I don't think the system is victim-friendly yet.”

The program was instituted under a $48,857 federal grant. Another grant of $34,700 also was devoted to the program.

Though information collected by the volunteers is still being evaluated, Officer Newton-Butler said she's looking for new volunteers. Training starts April 28, and the volunteers are expected to be in the courtrooms by early May.

Officer Newton-Butler said she hopes the program raises public awareness of how the court system works and judges' awareness of the victims.

Judges “may forget the victims are fearful in the courtroom. Sometimes, it's a big step for them to come to court,” she said. “I don't want court to be a good experience, but I want court to be an experience [the victims] don't fear.”

Ms. Bajorek agreed.

In the last few months, she's seen a lot in court: women with black eyes, and victims who said the suspects didn't beat them; women who didn't show up for court; repeat offenders; men who gave the victims nasty looks and mouthed words to them in court.

“I think it'll bring changes,” Ms. Bajorek said.



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