Whenever someone experiences domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, they are often extremely hesitant to take their case to court.
At least that’s what Becca Kearl noticed in 2016 when she worked with clients at the Center for Women and Children in Crisis. For more than a year, she helped those in transitional housing re-enter the community.
“That level of trust or protection you may expect should be offered by courts didn’t seem to be resonating with the clients at the center,” she said.
To bridge the gap between the community and the courthouse, Kearl decided to create a new courtroom monitoring program called CourtWatch.
As the director, she hopes the new pilot program will increase trust and transparency about what happens during a court case.
“For me, I feel like unless you are in the courts, you don’t really have an understanding of what goes on there,” she said. “So you form opinions based on what you read in the media, what you see on TV shows, but you’re not actually in there.”
Volunteers will sit and take notes during every court proceeding that involves domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse at the Provo Justice Court and the 4th District Court in Provo. The program is independently contracted and funded by a grant through the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
One in three women in Utah will experience domestic abuse or intimate partner violence in their lifetime, according to statistics from the organization. That average is higher than the national average of one in four women.
Even though state and federal services are available for those affected by domestic violence, Kearl said she would like to see community members become more of a resource.
“If we could just talk about these things and what’s actually going on in our community, then the community could rally around each other,” she explained. “We wouldn’t need to be so dependent on federal aid and funding for these programs.”
There are at least 75 volunteers signed up for the program, including Provo resident Kiersten Nielsen. She recently moved from Massachusetts and stays at home to care for her three kids.
“There is a high instance of women feeling like they can’t go to anyone for help,” she said. “I think it’s helpful for any woman who has experienced these things to understand and know they can be heard.”
Although the program is set to start on April 1, she has been attending court cases already to prepare for volunteer training on Saturday.
“I’ve been really impressed by the kindness the judges have shown to both the victims and the defendants,” Nielsen said.
Kearl explained that many of the volunteers are stay-at-home mothers or college students who want to be involved in the community. She hopes to have about 100 to 150 community members involved in the program throughout the year.
Each volunteer will fill out a worksheet about their experiences at the courtroom and look at efficiency, impartiality, accountability, communication and the general feel of the proceedings.
“It’s a mix of quantitative and qualitative data,” Kearl said.
At the end of the year, all the data will be collected, analyzed and used to push conversations about the links between domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.
“The way things play out in an actual courtroom is much different than any of the procedural dramas you see on TV,” Nielsen said. “It’s been a really fascinating experience getting a little more contact with the judicial system.”