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Published November 24 2011

Clay domestic violence court now in session

MOORHEAD – A special court designed for domestic violence cases between intimate partners is now in session in Clay County.

Judges began hearing cases in the domestic violence court on Oct. 31, and kinks are being worked out prior to a grand opening on Jan. 1, officials said.

“We’re striving to ensure victim safety and offender accountability,” said Vikki Lorenz, coordinator of the domestic violence court.

Assistant County Attorney Pamela Harris said the purpose of the court is to increase supervision in domestic violence cases between intimate partners – those who are married, dating or have a child in common.

Prosecutors are screening felony, gross misdemeanor and misdemeanor cases for domestic violence between intimate partners. How often review hearings are held is determined on a case-by-case basis, Harris said.

“If we find out they’re having contact with the victim or violating some other condition of release, their supervision is going to increase and hopefully (they will) be held more accountable for it,” she said.

The court also aims to ensure that offenders follow through with treatment, Lorenz said.

As of Wednesday, the court had handled about a dozen cases. Two Clay County District Court judges, Lisa Borgen and Michael Kirk, are assigned to the court, hearing cases on Wednesdays.

The roughly 30 people on the court’s planning committee included prosecutors and representatives from the Clay County Public Defender Office, Victim Services, Social Services and Sheriff’s Office, the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center and Solutions Inc., which has a treatment program for batterers.

Joe Parise, managing attorney in the public defender office, said he believes the reason for including felony, gross misdemeanor and misdemeanor cases in the court was sound.

“These cases that carry great risk aren’t easily identifiable, and certainly not from the severity of the charge,” he said.

A similar domestic violence court in Stearns County handles only felony domestic cases in which the person charged has a prior felony record, which has limited its caseload to 30 to 35 cases a year, Parise said. Clay County’s domestic violence court is expected to handle 200 to 250 cases per year, “and that’s going to require a lot of attention, I think,” he said.

Parise said there are still some unresolved issues, in­cluding staffing levels. While the court wants to review domestic violence cases with more regularity and frequency, “we’re not getting any extra staff to do this,” he said.

And while the goal of enhancing victims’ safety is noble, he said, “we’re also concerned that it’s done in a way that doesn’t put our clients at a disadvantage.”

The county received a $263,000 grant last year from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women to pay for planning of the court and two years of operation.

Before the three-year grant expires, the county will likely apply for another grant to sustain the court, Lorenz said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528