Cook County Judge Judith Rice has been tapped to improve the domestic violence court where survivors are seeking help but often find crowded courtrooms, long delays and insensitive judges. (Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)

After her upstairs neighbor blocked her from pulling into her driveway and threatened to kill her, Apriel walked into the Cook County domestic violence courthouse earlier this year, desperate for help.

Apriel, who asked that her last name not be used, wound up experiencing on that January day an often unclear, frustrating and lengthy process to try to get legal protection — a journey that continues to this day and one familiar to many women seeking the system’s help.

Apriel, who is in her mid-30s, came to the courthouse about 10 a.m. on Jan. 27, looking for protection from the neighbor who had harassed her repeatedly, culminating in a death threat.

As she walked through the double doors at 555 W. Harrison, a Cook County Sheriff’s deputy demanded to know why she was there.

After Apriel passed through security, she came upon an empty desk. No one told her where to go, and there weren’t any signs. But she found her way to a sign-in sheet and waited for a court clerk to hand her an application for an order of protection.

She got no instructions on how to fill it out but she did the best she could, handed it in and took a seat next to dozens of other people, mostly Black women like her, many with children in tow,  and waited two hours before a clerk took her upstairs. She waited outside a courtroom for 45 minutes, then inside for another two hours while the judge heard case after case before finally, her name was called.

By mid-afternoon, she got her order.

“It was worse than the DMV,” she said. “Nobody helps you. They treat you like you’re in jail.”

Nearly a dozen court appearances and nine months later, Apriel is still trying to get a judge to make her temporary order permanent.

“It’s just all bureaucracy and paperwork,” Apriel said. 

Experiences like Apriel’s are the kind of ordeal that Cook County leaders are trying to smooth out through a new but slow-going effort to improve Cook County’s domestic violence court and expand its reach.

More than a year after whistleblowers exposed gaping holes in the system designed to give survivors legal protection from  their abusers, the reform effort remains a work in progress.

Officials say the recommendations of a new standing advisory committee are starting to bear fruit, but attorneys, advocates, researchers and survivors like Apriel say the system has a long way to go before it can meet a growing need.

Often overshadowed by shootings and other headline-grabbing crimes, reports of domestic violence skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic as thousands of vulnerable people — the vast majority of them women — were stuck at home with abusive partners. Chicago-based calls to the Illinois Domestic Violence hotline jumped by about 12% between 2019 and 2021, according to a July report from the Network Advocating Against Domestic Violence.

Illinois law offers several possible remedies. People who are abused can ask a Cook County judge for a domestic violence order of protection or a civil “no contact” order that puts the force of law behind a restriction on the abuser’s movement.

But the division of the court system responsible for processing those claims came under a withering spotlight in July 2021 when Cook County commissioners learned at a public meeting about a woman who was turned away from the courthouse at 3 p.m. while seeking out a legal order of protection. 

In the face of the public outcry, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans convened a committee to create strategies to reform and expand the domestic violence court. Judge Raul Vega, the presiding judge of the division who advocates widely blamed for its dysfunction, quietly retired under a cloud of controversy. And in September, the court division launched a pilot program allowing victims of abuse to remotely apply for orders of protection as late as 3 a.m.

“By and large, things are much better” in the court as the change in leadership has improved its culture and put the institution on a path to better results, Amanda Pyron, executive director of the Network Advocating Against Domestic Violence said in a recent interview. But even county officials acknowledge plenty of obstacles stand in the way of the court’s goal of creating a system that empowers any domestic violence survivor to get legal protection as soon as they need it. The most serious problems include a severe shortage of judges and other staff, occasionally poor communication between offices, spotty data collection and, at times, insensitivity by judges.

After-hours court access

Vega, who had clashed with advocates since he took over as presiding judge of the Domestic Violence Division in 2018, opened the door for a change when he retired from the bench at the end of 2021. He left a legacy of dismissive rulings and misogynistic behavior that alienated many of the women who sought orders of protection, Injustice Watch reported. Vega could not be reached for comment.

It fell upon Cook County Circuit Judge Judith Rice to turn the division around when Evans named her the new presiding judge. She faced a mandate from elected county officials to expand the court’s hours amid a countywide staffing crisis and a steadily growing volume of abuse victims turning to the court for safety.

Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans (Court website)

The Domestic Violence Division saw more than 11,000 civil cases in 2021, up from fewer than 8,000 in 2014, Rice said. Criminal domestic violence cases have followed a similar trend, filling the courthouse at 555 W. Harrison St. with a steady stream of prosecutors, public defenders and jail detainees facing judges by turns in person and over Zoom.

A county-assembled committee determined in 2010, when the standalone Domestic Violence Division was launched, that 24-hour access was not worth the time and effort it would take to staff. Twelve years later, a similar group  of county officials and legal advocates came to a different conclusion.

When Rice looked at the filings, she said she was struck by how many of them came in after midnight.

Following nearly a year of preparation, the court went live on Sept. 6 with an “expanded hours pilot” that puts clerks and judges on call to process applications for civil emergency orders of protection between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. on weekdays and from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. The court was previously only open on weekdays and closed at 4:30 p.m., meaning abuse survivors who applied for emergency protection after work on Friday would have to wait until Monday morning at the earliest for a legal order.

A report released by the court’s Domestic Violence Committee this summer called for the approximately four-month pilot to study the effectiveness of added hours. The program should either then be ended, made permanent or even expanded into a full 24/7 window based on the results, according to the report.

The new service saw only a trickle of activity in its first month. Clerks between Sept. 6 and Oct. 5 processed 32 total applications, 20 of which led to late-night Zoom hearings that ended in a judge’s order, according to court officials. They included six emergency orders of protection.

On average, 13 people have sought protective orders each week since the after hours program has been in effect, officials said.

The slow start has added fuel to the decade-old debate over whether 24-hour service is worth the expense and staffing when the court system is already flooded during regular hours.

In a 91-page report on the state of the domestic violence court published in August, researchers from the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts and the Chicago Council of Lawyers excerpted interviews with attorneys who questioned whether 24-hour access should be a top priority.

“Most of the advocates we talked to . . . don’t really care about 24/7 [access] that much,” said Elizabeth Monkus, a policy researcher with the Appleseed Center and an author of the report. “If it’s the middle of the night, you don’t need an order of protection. You need somewhere safe to stay. And that’s not going to happen with a courthouse.”

Joey Carrillo, a staff attorney with the Children and Families Practice Group who represents domestic violence survivors in court, agreed that many of his colleagues would rather see the extra resources poured into alleviating “incredibly packed” court calls during the day that regularly force survivors like Apriel to spend hour after hour waiting for court calls.

“Yes, it’s nice to make this more accessible after hours,” Carrillo said. “But to me, the bigger access issue is that some judges’ hours are so packed, litigants have to wait hours to be heard.”

But amid political pressure from county commissioners, a top-down order from Evans and months of staffing gymnastics to accommodate overnight hearings, the after-hours pilot remains on the front burner.

“I know Chief Judge Evans feels strongly that there needs to be a way for every victim of domestic violence to reach the courts at any time,” Rice said. “He says if one life is saved by us being able to be there at any time, then that’s what we need to do. And that’s a very strong mandate.”

Calls for transparency

The Appleseed Center Report landed on a conditional endorsement of the expanded hours pilot — but only if court officials collect and release a rich array of data assessing how it went.

Researchers seized on what they call a severe lack of data collection and information-sharing among a litany of administrative shortcomings they say are holding the domestic violence court back from its potential to protect people in danger.

“If you ask what a judge’s open caseload is, what their disposition rate is, what their turnaround time is, they just won’t tell you. There’s no formal data collection,” Monkus said. She added that the “problem lies squarely” with Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez’s office, which is responsible for collecting and maintaining court records.

The Appleseed Center report criticized the office for “disorganization” that has knotted information-gathering.

But the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office is simply “the keeper of the records,” according to Patrick Hanlon, a spokesman and senior official in the office. He argues it’s up to judges and their staffs to sift through them.

“Any compilation of the data has to be requested by the Office of the Chief Judge,” Hanlon said. “We don’t have the authority, nor the power, to do anything with it.”

The lack of public data severely limits what researchers and advocates can propose, since they don’t have basic measurements on the court system’s performance, they say.

The Administrative Office of Illinois Courts publishes quarterly reports on each county’s caseload for civil, criminal and juvenile cases, but it includes no breakout for the domestic violence court.

The Domestic Violence Committee report called on the Office of the Chief Judge to publish “routine data reports of key domestic violence case statistics” including volumes and categories of protective orders, turnaround times, criminal cases charged and more. 

But the office has yet to deliver its first set of data. Officials could not pinpoint average wait times for petitioners or the number of cases pending before each judge. The committee is pushing forward the data collection project after a meeting this week.

The job of collecting data, tightening up administrative gaps and smoothing lines of communication has fallen on Renata Stiehl, a longtime domestic violence advocate who was hired this spring as the senior division attorney for the Domestic Violence Division — one of a handful of new positions county commissioners allocated to the court system last year.

Stiehl is tasked with conveying new policies to judges, coordinating with outside offices and sifting through research and data to fine-tune best practices within the domestic violence court.

On the Appleseed Center’s criticism of poor data collection, Stiehl noted the court system has access to heaps of rich information.

“I think the disconnect is that it’s not always public facing — and that’s what we’re working on improving,” Stiehl said. “Since I’ve started, I’ve been working on tweaking the criteria for information we’re getting and making sure we’re getting what’s most helpful for us.”

She’s working to gather data from logs kept by the division’s “help desk” that directs litigants around the building. And she said her office is “working on finalizing a mechanism” that would let litigants Zoom into Domestic Relations hearings from the domestic violence courthouse and vice versa when their cases overlap.

“If our goal is to provide services that the community needs, the only way we know how to do that is by tracking data that speaks to what services people are using — and what time of day,” Steihl said.

Stiehl and her colleagues have not set a benchmark for when they plan to start publishing the data called for in the committee report.

Training judges for sensitivity

Other problems are less tangible, Monkus said — like judges and other court officers who have not been trained to recognize common patterns of domestic violence and ill-equipped to help people who are facing trauma.

“Some of it’s racial, some of it’s gender-based, some of it’s economic . . . but there are a lot of assumptions that [judges] can have about people’s behavior,” Monkus said. “There are judges who still don’t understand why women don’t ‘just leave.’ That’s like, Domestic Violence 101.”

Carrillo said plenty of judges in the system are sensitive and patient with survivors, many of whom are wading through trauma and representing themselves in court. But others can be callous to the point of misapplying the law.

Earlier this year, Circuit Judge Thomas Cushing turned down a woman’s request for a protective order from her ex-boyfriend who had pushed her down a flight of stairs and locked her in a chokehold. Cushing wrote in his opinion for the case that evidence suggested the woman may have instigated one of their fights, and that discrepancies in her testimony “damage the petitioner’s credibility.”

Cushing could not be reached for comment. 

It’s common for people accused of abuse to argue in court that their partner egged them on, Carrillo said. The argument sometimes wins over judges. But it has no basis in the law.

“The petitioner’s burden is to show that they were the victim of abuse, period,” Carrillo said. “Judges can sometimes victim-blame and say, ‘What did you do to contribute to this behavior?’ But that’s not appropriate.”

Earlier this year, Appellate Court Justice Eileen Burke overturned Cushing’s order and granted the woman’s order of protection against her ex. Cushing had “erred in his finding that the respondent was justified in his use of force because petitioner may have been the aggressor,” Burke wrote in her July 27 opinion.

Rice said she’s clear-eyed about the systemic changes — both administrative and cultural — needed in her branch of the court system. She arranged earlier this year for judges in the division to undergo a two-day sensitivity training course led by the U.S. Office of Violence Against Women. The experience was “eye-opening,” she said.

“We had one judge who said, ‘When people present angry to me, I know they’re not really a victim,’” Rice said. “And the trainers said, ‘Be careful with that, because victims can present in all kinds of different ways.’”

Rice added that judges are being trained to recognize emotional abuse and intimidation as hallmarks of domestic violence, even in cases when no one is physically hurt.

“We had very deep conversations about these issues,” she said. “I think everyone walked away getting a lot out of it.”

Prosecutors in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, some of whom start their careers as young prosecutors in the Domestic Violence Division, are also undergoing sensitivity training, according to division supervisor Tene McCoy Cummings.

“We always want to make sure that our [assistant state’s attorneys] are trained to accommodate the cases that come before us, which are some of the most difficult,” Cummings said. “One of the most important things is for them to be trauma-informed so they can be part of a victim-centric system.”

Court ‘limping along’ through staffing crunch

Promised reforms on training, data collection and court access have all been hampered by a severe staffing shortage that pervades the county court system. The labor crunch reaches up to Stiehl’s own office, where two law clerk positions were budgeted for this year but the first was only filled this week.

County commissioners voted as part of the 2022 budget to increase  the number of full-time employees in the State’s Attorney’s Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Division from 58 to 67. But as of this month, Cummings counts only about 50 on her staff. She said county agencies are “suffering shortfalls across the board” amid nationwide labor shortages.

Likewise, the Office of the Chief Judge received five new law clerk positions and 15 new court coordinators for the Domestic Violence Division in its 2022 budget, but many of the posts remain unfilled.

Even more pressing is the need for judges. The county court system overall has 38 vacancies on the bench that won’t be filled until after the Dec. 5 swearing-in. The shortfall has left just 10 judges available to preside over the Domestic Violence Division’s 10 courtrooms, not including Rice, meaning the system is under capacity any time a judge is sick, on vacation or presiding over after-hours court.

The Cook County Domestic Violence Division courthouse at 555 W. Harrison St. in Chicago (Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)

Leaders of the division have asked for at least four more judges to be assigned to the division next year to help lighten the load. In the meantime, Stiehl estimates that each judge hears about 40 cases per day, and between 50 and 100 new civil cases are filed daily to the division.

“We’re over-extended . . . it would be a lot more sustainable to be able to distribute the work, because it does take a toll in the long run,” Stiehl said. “But right now, we’re limping along until we can get new judges in January.”

The shortage isn’t just burning out judges; it’s also squeezing survivors and drawing out their cases, Carrillo said. One recent client couldn’t schedule a hearing until next May because the judge’s calendar was booked for six months solid. In the interim, the petitioner must attend a status hearing every three weeks, putting their job at risk. Another was summoned to an 11 a.m. court call but didn’t hear their name until mid-afternoon.

Carrillo called the wait times “unacceptable,” especially since many survivors seeking protection are low-wage workers who risk their jobs by missing shifts.

Court officials also say they’re working to relieve pressure on the system by diverting stalking cases that don’t involve intimate partners or family members — like Apriel’s case — to the county’s First Municipal Division instead of the domestic violence court. About 30% of civil cases heard by the Domestic Violence Division last year involved requests for stalking no contact orders, according to Rice.

A spokesperson of the Office of the Chief Judge said officials are looking to make the switch in the coming weeks.

Until then, the courts are leaning hard on advocacy organizations like Connections for Abused Women and their Children and Legal Aid Chicago to help survivors work their way through the court system.

Apriel connected with both organizations after reaching out to her local county commissioner, and they helped her revise her petition to strengthen her case for a more permanent order, she said.

More coordinators and pro bono legal advisers would go a long way to help survivors in the courthouse, she said. So would more resources outside the courtroom, so a piece of paper isn’t the only protection she has from her neighbor, whom she said threatened her again, the day after she went to court in January.

“I feel like this paperwork is the best I can do right now, because that’s the rules, because that’s how I can have proof that this is real,” Apriel said. “But do I actually feel safe walking the street because I have that paperwork? Absolutely not.”

Alex Nitkin is a solutions reporter conducting investigations on efforts to fix broken systems in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois government. Before joining Illinois Answers, he worked as a reporter and editor for The Daily Line covering Cook County and Chicago government. He previously worked at The Real Deal Chicago, where he covered local real estate news, and DNAinfo Chicago, where he worked as a breaking news reporter and then as a neighborhood reporter covering the city's Northwest Side. A New York City native who grew up in Connecticut, Alex graduated Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a bachelor’s degree.