Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Arlington’s courts exist for more than stern justice. Their officers also display compassion for those struggling outside the courtroom.

Joanne Hamilton for two months has been coordinating an intriguing new service of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. Known as Arlington Safe Havens in the Sequoia building, it has the appearance of a daycare center — shelves of toys, kid’s books and board games.

In fact, its comfortable furniture make up Arlington’s long-sought protected neutral territory at which children victimized by marital split-ups and threatened violence can enjoy supervised meetings with an estranged parent.

“The children are referred for many reasons from criminal or civil cases,” Hamilton told me. Domestic violence, stalking, intimate partner violence, sexual assault and, potentially, child sexual abuse, said the former probation counselor who speaks English and Spanish.

Often one parent (more often the father) is subject to a restraining order due to incidents of abuse, said Hamilton, the sole full-time employee with three-part-time aides. Co-occurring issues can include “substance abuse, mental health or anger management.” The noncustodial parent doesn’t know where the child is living or what school he or she attends, Hamilton said. Both parents meet her for intake. “They often have differing explanations of how their case got to court.”

Safe Havens allows supervised visitation during which “our monitors watch and listen to ensure safety and appropriate contact,” she said. “The child continues access to both parents and doesn’t have to choose between them.”
I witnessed the Safe Havens ribbon-cutting Jan. 10, attended by two judges, county board member Katie Cristol and a roster of partners in the legal, law enforcement and violence prevention community.

“This has been a goal of mine for years,” said chief juvenile and domestic Judge George Varoutsos. ”It’s not easy for this to happen — it takes a real champion and lots of money,” he added, citing a new grant from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women. Varoutsos pointed to a model program in Fairfax.

Presiding Judge Robin Robb catalogued the difficulties the facility helps ease. Parties in custody and visitation fights have long been forced to meet in “a public restaurant or the library, which are not conducive” to privacy and relationship building, she said. Many relied on private third parties, such as attorneys that charge $50 or $150 an hour. “And parents say the children don’t always want to see them.”

Cristol noted that the county issues 100 protective orders a year. The 35-50 families that use the facility “are not in a family celebration at a moment of triumph, but at a moment when they’re most challenged.”

Since the opening, Hamilton has done intake for 16 cases, “a great response,” she said. “At times not having control of when and where to see their kids makes people angry and anxiety-ridden. But now even the noncustodial parent doesn’t have to worry. The children know they’re going to see their parents, which diminishes anxiety.”

In the supervised setting, “parents know to be on their best behavior,” she said, which makes the facility “an artificial setting” — not good for final judgments about a parent’s suitability.

“Things get emotional,” Hamilton said. “People in these cases are repeating a cycle they learned and are not able to break. The kids really appreciate seeing their parents. We’ve found our niche.”

The county board’s 5-0 approval of Crystal City welcome-mat incentives for Amazon came Saturday evening after protests by an array of groups on the left.

To keep track: Nine of them recently merged to form “For Us, Not Amazon.” They include Revolution Arlington, the NoVA branch of the Democratic Socialists of America and Showing Up for Racial Justice Northern Virginia.

Also blitzing the tense public meeting were immigration and housing groups such as Tenants and Workers United, as well as the NAACP and a unit of the AFL-CIO.