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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Supreme Court justices tour domestic violence services in Spokane

Washington Supreme Court justices Raquel Montoya Lewis, center, and Mary Yu, center right, tour the Family Justice Center with Gonzaga University law students and spoke with local staff, on Friday afternoon, at the YWCA. The center was opened five years ago as a way to combat domestic violence in the community and assist families dealing with its fallout. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington Supreme Court Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis learned an important lesson from a woman who left her Whatcom County courtroom as a potential juror some years ago.

The woman was a victim of domestic violence, Montoya-Lewis told an assembled group of staff and Gonzaga Law School students Friday afternoon at the Family Justice Center at the YWCA in downtown Spokane. A brief summary of the case during voir dire, and audio cues in her courtroom, were enough to make the woman ask to be dismissed from the case.

“Walking into the courtroom, she suddenly was overwhelmed with all these memories of being attacked by her ex-husband, right outside the courtroom, immediately after a protection order had been granted by the judge,” Montoya-Lewis told the group, summarizing a letter she’d received from the potential juror a week later.

That’s part of the reason Washington’s newest Supreme Court justice lauded the Family Justice Center, a space created five years ago that pairs investigators with victim advocates, prosecutors and other services to assist families afflicted by domestic violence in the county.

The space is designed to guide victims through the justice system while being mindful of the physical and emotional trauma of the violence, said Spokane Police Sgt. Jordan Ferguson of the department’s domestic violence unit.

“First and foremost is protecting the victims. After that, it’s holding the offenders accountable,” Ferguson said.

The department follows what Ferguson called a proven model of “focused deterrence,” which seeks to quickly investigate crimes of domestic violence, enforce orders preventing suspects and victims from further contact, and pairing families with social services necessary to keep the community safe.

Ferguson cited several examples of how focused deterrence works, including the absence of two of his officers who’d traveled Friday afternoon to Springdale to seize firearms from a domestic violence suspect. He also described an “off-the-record” interview with a victim who was concerned that if she spoke to police, the man who assaulted her would kill her. That interview allowed the police to corroborate her story with sources that wouldn’t be targeted by the man if they appeared in a police report, Ferguson explained.

Montoya-Lewis was accompanied by fellow Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu, who said she was inspired to bring her colleague to Spokane because of initiatives like the Family Justice Center.

“This is impressive,” Yu said, noting the growing challenge of addressing domestic violence in Spokane County.

The Department of Health and Human Services reports domestic violence rates in Spokane County was nearly double the state average in 2017, at 13.7 incidents per 1,000 residents.

Spokane County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald told Justices Yu and Montoya-Lewis that his office was processing roughly 560 protection orders, which are designed to prevent one person from seeing another, in an average month. Not all those are domestic violence cases, Fitzgerald clarified, but many of them are, and the numbers have been consistent.

Montoya-Lewis asked officials about their partnerships with local Native tribes, and told them one of the difficulties of practicing as a tribal judge was signing protection orders that would then not be enforced on non-reservation land.

“One of the things that I think is important, and it’s really hard to do, is to have good working relationships with the people in the tribal communities that are doing similar work,” said Montoya-Lewis in an interview after a tour of the center.

Montoya-Lewis, in addition to her work as a Superior Court judge prior to her appointment to the state Supreme Court in December, also served as the chief judge for the Nooksack and Skagit tribes and the Northwest intertribal court.

Members of tribal communities may not want to participate in programs that don’t have buy-in from their tribes, Montoya-Lewis said. That’s why it’s important for law enforcement agents, victim advocates and other social services to consider working with them on developing assistance plans.

“Many people in the tribal communities feel like these types of programs are not set up to really serve them, and their specific needs,” she said. “That may or may not be true, but just that perception is a real block for people.”

Repeated studies have shown higher rates of domestic violence against Native women, including a 2016 National Institute of Justice study that found higher rates of stalking, psychological aggression and physical violence by an intimate partner among women identifying as members of Native tribes compared to their white counterparts.

Staff members from the YWCA, the Family Justice Center and other social service agencies thanked Montoya-Lewis and Yu for their perspectives during the tour, which included discussion of other services that include shelter and funds to prevent eviction from existing housing. The goal at the center is to reduce the types of trauma in navigating the justice system for all victims, like the woman who sat in Montoya-Lewis’s courtroom.

“I’m really excited to hear you talk about this model,” Montoya-Lewis said. “I think those are things that a lot of people don’t think about, if they haven’t had those experiences themselves.”