The pandemic has restricted access to government buildings across South Florida. But courthouses in Miami-Dade are now expanding capacity following an NBC 6 report.
“This area was created after NBC 6 brought to our attention the issue that we had in this building,” said Paul Collado, the acting assistant director for the Miami-Dade District Courts Operations, while showing us additional seating areas at the North Dade Justice Center.
The courthouse handles a number of cases, including domestic violence.
“We have nine seats here for additional petitioners and there are also additional seats further down the hallway,” Collado said.
In August, NBC 6 reported a woman was turned away twice from the courthouse and sent to another location because of COVID-19 restrictions. Jean Richardson, the woman’s attorney, told us it took her client days to file a restraining order against her abusive husband, even though she had visible injuries, including “scratches on her neck” and a “large bruise on her face.”
“We, at that time, were what is considered maximum capacity. We reached out to one of our other locations and spoke with management there and they were able to assist that individual right in there,” Collado said when asked about the woman’s case.
The Miami-Dade Clerk’s Office told us the story prompted meetings with members of the court and the county’s Internal Services Department, which oversees the building’s operations.
“My reaction was we need to address this. The pandemic has created all sorts of situations,” Judge Carroll Kelly, from the domestic violence division, told NBC 6.
“We knew there would be problems because when you changed an entire system, there would be things that are overlooked and stuff that would come up.”
Judge Kelly says adapting to the new normal has not been easy, especially at the beginning of the pandemic when the number of domestic violence cases filed in civil court dropped by more than half.
“We were really concerned because we know domestic violence doesn’t stop in a pandemic,” Kelly said. “In fact, we know that domestic violence was probably increasing due to all the factors that contribute to domestic violence. People being home, people losing their jobs, drugs and alcohol, children around constantly, not relief, no help.”
Judge Kelly tells us the number of domestic violence civil cases are back on track.
While most procedures continue to be virtual, the judge says they have set up courtrooms inside the courthouses so people can be assisted during Zoom hearings. They also partnered with local organizations to provide additional support for domestic violence victims.
The Miami-Dade Clerk’s Office says they have taken multiple steps to increase capacity and speed up the process in all of the county’s courthouses. When asked about the changes, Richardson says it’s a small step in the right direction.
“I’m glad they are making some changes,” Richardson said. “We don’t know how many people were turned away, I hope not too many. We don’t know how many people were discouraged by the process, hopefully, not too many. But at least now, we know for sure, it has been given the attention that’s required.”
He says more needs to be done to prevent this from happening again.
“COVID is going to be around for the foreseeable future. We definitely cannot use it as an excuse, to turn people away,” he said.
If you are a victim of domestic violence, these are some resources:
- Florida Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-500-1119
- Miami Dade County Coordinated Victims Assistance Center (CVAC): (305) 285-5900
- Miami Dade County Clerk of Court DV intake unit for information about filing an injunction: (305) 349-5813
- Miami Dade County Clerk of Court website with information on filing an injunction.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).