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(Editor's Note: The US Department of Justice recently announced plans to expand these types of courts to several venues around the country.  Here is guest writer Jonathan Bornstein's experience.) 

New York IDV Court Reform is Overdue

By Jonathan Bornstein

In 2010, my marriage ended when I discovered my wife’s infidelity. We argued. My wife accused me of domestic violence, a charge she later withdrew. There was none. But the damage was done; I was arrested and spent a night in jail.

My wife and I separated, and the story would’ve ended there, except for one crucial detail: our two children, then 6 and 8 years old, whose fate depends largely on the outcome of our dispute. So our case was assigned to the Integrated Domestic Violence (IDV) Court of Bronx County.

New York State’s IDV Court, introduced in 2001 as a “problem-solving court,” aims to expedite the judicial process for couples and families whose situations straddle the jurisdictions of the civil, family, and criminal courts. Over 40 branches presently exist.

IDV Court addresses systemic domestic problems by funneling to one judge all family actions: marital discord, divorce, custody, visitation, protection orders, and real violence. Integrating the criminal and civil systems, it is presumed, will improve victim safety and offender accountability.

But in my experience, the exact opposite has happened. Under the control of one judge, without a jury, the court is a self-perpetuating, understaffed bureaucracy of summary justice bent on destroying normal relations between myself and my children.

I have appeared before the court 36 times and am routinely treated as a criminal. My case isn’t unique; without safeguards, IDV Court can easily be used as a tool of alleged “victims,” usually mothers—but fathers too—who exploit the system to get their way.

I have no criminal history, and my case was ultimately reduced to a plea of disorderly conduct—a violation, not a crime. Nevertheless, I am now essentially a criminal, for arguing with my spouse over her infidelity. And my wife continues to use the court, as one might a private investigator, to supervise my time with my children and to bring me before the IDV judge at her whim.

IDV Court’s focus is on protecting complainants. If no crime against a complainant seems to exist, IDV will find one. No allegation has proved too outlandish for the court.

A chance encounter with my daughter and a delay in meeting my son because of traffic have resulted in unnecessary, costly hearings and criminal allegations. The same judge has observed me in all these actions and continues to see me as a criminal defendant. She can hardly do otherwise.

The more I fight, the longer my case is drawn out, and I am perceived as “combative.” The matter drags on, giving my wife opportunity to control and alienate our children from me, with only baseless allegations as evidence. For three years, this has been my life.

If families and children are to regain value in our court system, and if equitability is to be maintained, IDV Court must be drastically reformed, perhaps abolished, to prevent this abuse.

A major problem is an overburden of actions, resulting in infrequent court dates and months-long postponements. Our judge also routinely tries spousal homicide cases, further slowing the pace.

The nature of this system—one judge, specializing in domestic violence and hearing multiple actions in the same case for three years, plus scores of similar cases—results in a denial of defendants’ legal protections. Objectivity and judicial efficacy are sacrificed to the need to hear emotionally charged cases demanding instant decisions, with families’ and children’s lives in the balance.

The result is that IDV Court is an activist judiciary that rules by fiat, violating my liberty, over-reaching into—and ruining—the relationship my children and I have always enjoyed. And is it curious IDV operates behind closed doors?

One remedy is the use of juries, to enhance impartiality, bring a new perspective to each action, introduce protection, and eliminate politics. Perhaps a special grand jury could determine if domestic violence charges are warranted. Presently, the district attorney plays the part of grand jury; DA funding depends on numbers, eliminating any chance of impartiality.

Prosecutors must be better trained and made aware of the needs of families, as opposed to zealously seeking to criminalize when no crime exists. A system that wants to create criminals will focus on streamlining its management to achieve that end, rather than upholding the rights of the accused. “Efficiency” in prosecution leads to assembly-line justice.

IDV Court has admirable goals and attempts to organize a complicated court system, but in the process, it must also guarantee due process under the law. Reform is urgently needed, before one more broken family is forced along the assembly line in this factory of inequity, with one or the other parent detached and discarded like a malfunctioning part.

Bornstein is a resident of Riverdale, Bronx County, New York - his email is jabornstein@gmail.com