Courtroom volunteers keep eye on victims' interests
There are about 3,000 domestic violence cases ongoing in Kane County. Three thousand potential local victims of domestic abuses. Three thousand people who likely depend on the help of the court system to keep them safe.
But they need not depend solely on the system. A group of local volunteers has made its mission to keep an eye the court process itself, as a "watch dog," making sure legal proceedings are handled in the best interest those injured by the acts of domestic abuse.
Fox Valley Court Watch, established in 2010, works to provide an impartial assessment of the effectiveness with which domestic violence cases are handled in court, thereby promoting victim safety and abuser accountability.
“Historically, there's been a lot of mystique and mystery and misinformation,” said Jim Kintz of St. Charles, president of the Fox Valley Court Watch board of directors. “This [domestic abuse] is a crime and it should be prosecuted and judged that way.”
Fox Valley Court Watch was formed as an independent, not-for-profit organization, after several people approached Kintz, then a St. Charles police officer, about domestic violence cases and how they were handled. Kintz contacted some friends and they got the group started.
"Even before the group was started, people would come to him for help, to ask for advice," said fellow Court Watch volunteer and board member Roger Palmer of Batavia, who got involved in the effort through his friendship with Kintz.
Now retired from the force, Kintz has made Court Watch his full-time passion. He is joined by about 20 volunteers, who go to court and observe the process of both proceedings and everyone's behavior in the courtroom. But Kintz needs more help to cover the large number of cases in both Kane and Kendall counties.
“[We're looking for] people who are interested in seeing the criminal justice system treat victims fairly,” he said.
Board Member Norm Turner attends court sessions three or four times each month, depending on the trial. He originally was asked to volunteer because he also is a volunteer at the Community Crisis Center in Elgin, one of the oldest domestic violence shelters in the state.
“What I observe is the process,” Turner said. “I'm a huge person on time management. If time isn't managed well, it takes a trial longer and that costs taxpayers money.”
Turner said he also observes how knowledgeable all parties are about the case.
“I think that a volunteer needs good, strong listening skills," he said. "Listen to what is said and know the process."
To help prepare new volunteers for their service, periodic training sessions are offered, which include an introduction and overview of the program, descriptions and dynamics of domestic abuse and laws in Illinois, a lesson on court procedures, a presentation on the role of prosecutors and procedures of being a court watcher.
Volunteers must be at least 18 years old and have an email address with daily email access. Volunteers set their own schedules, but each must commit to a minimum of one half-day session, on a weekday, per month, for at least six months.
To further the mentoring relationship between new and experienced volunteers, Fox Valley Court Watch hosts monthly meetings at 9:30 a.m. the fourth Wednesday of every month at the Batavia Public Library, 10 S. Batavia Ave., Batavia. New volunteers are given an opportunity to ask questions at these meetings, address concerns, and work through challenges.
Volunteers say that while the work of a domestic court "watch dog" is not typically pleasant, its tremendously satisfying, because its both important and effective.
“We have received information that when there are court watchers in the courtrooms, there seems to be a change in the courtrooms,” Kintz said. “It does make a difference to have a court watch in there.”
A training session for new Fox Valley Court Watch volunteers will be offered from 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. Wednesday, May 1 at the St. Charles Police Building training room, 211 N. Riverside St. To register visit www.foxvalleycourtwatch.org.