Singleton, Mosquera, Vainieri Huttle & Greenwald Bill Package to Strengthen Protections for Domestic Violence Victims Advances

"Monica's Law" Would Create Risk Assessment Program in Honor of Resident who was Killed by Estranged Husband

An Assembly panel on Monday approved a bipartisan package of bills sponsored by Assembly Democrats Troy Singleton, Gabriela Mosquera, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Majority Leader Louis Greenwald to strengthen legal protections for domestic violence victims.

The first bill (A-4034), dubbed "Monica's Law," is named for thirty-one year old Monica Paul who was shot to death in June of 2008 in the presence of her 11-year-old daughter at a Montclair YMCA. Convicted in the killing was her estranged husband Kenneth Duckett against whom she had obtained a restraining order.

"We've come a long way since the Domestic Violence Prevention Act was passed in the early '90's, but as we continue to examine this issue more closely we find many new ways in which our legal and law enforcement system can work to better protect victims and their families," said Singleton (D-Burlington). "The tragic death of Monica Paul is just one example of how we can create an additional safety net within our judicial system to prevent warning signs from being overlooked."

The bill, sponsored by Singleton, Mosquera and Vainieri Huttle, would establish a statewide evidence-based risk assessment program within the courts that would incorporate: 1) a parenting time questionnaire to determine custody or parenting time by a parent asserting a concern for the safety or well-being of a child; 2) an evidence-based guide of risk considerations to assist the court in determining custody and parenting time alternatives when there are allegations of violent or threatening behavior by a parent that could place the safety and well-being of a child at risk; and 3) an evidence-based risk assessment instrument to be used by law enforcement to aid in the evaluation of the likelihood of whether a person charged with any crime, or any offense involving domestic violence will commit a future act of violence against the victim.

"Children can often be used as a pawn by domestic violence perpetrators to continue inserting themselves in their victim's life. I know this, first hand," said Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester). "An active restraining order should be a clear warning to the court to consider how child visitation may impact the victim and the children."

The bill also stipulates that in any court proceeding to establish custody or parenting time of a child, if one parent asserts a concern for the safety of the child due to past violent or threatening behavior from the other parent, the court shall temporarily suspend or restrict parenting time and order the parent asserting safety concerns to complete a parenting time questionnaire, unless the court finds that the statements made by the parent seeking parenting time restrictions are arbitrary and capricious.

Upon request, court professional staff shall assist the parent in completing the questionnaire, or a parent may seek the assistance of an attorney, a domestic violence advocate, or a licensed social worker, family therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist to complete the questionnaire. A parent shall not be required to complete the parenting time questionnaire, in part or in its entirety, if they believe that it would create any possibility of further risk of harm from the other parent.

"It shouldn't take a tragedy to spur action, but hopefully Monica Paul's life will serve as the impetus for greater protections for other victims of domestic violence," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "If this pilot program proves successful, then we hope to see it expanded across the state to create an additional layer of protection for victims of domestic violence and their children."

Additionally, the court may order continued suspension of parenting time only when a parent is provided with procedural due process and the court finds on the record no other alternative would protect the safety and well-being of the child. If there is any allegation during the court proceedings that a parent has physically or emotionally abused a child, the court shall refer the matter to the Division of Child Protection and Permanency in the Department of Children and Families for investigation.

The second bill (A-4036), sponsored by Singleton, Mosquera & Greenwald, concerns the training and oversight of domestic violence crisis teams established or participated in by law enforcement agencies, which may include social workers, clergy, or other persons trained in counseling, crisis intervention, or treating domestic violence victims, or elderly or disabled victims of neglect or abuse. 

Currently, there are inconsistencies in how and when the services of domestic crisis teams are made available to victims. The bill would establish greater uniformity for future domestic crisis team responses by requiring that such teams be made available to victims whenever law enforcement responds to any reports of domestic violence and abuse and neglect of the elderly and disabled related to domestic violence.  

"These crisis teams often prove invaluable when it comes to handling the complex factors at play in domestic issues," said Greenwald (D-Camden/Burlington). "Making sure they are all well-versed in handling the nuances of domestic violence cases will hopefully mitigate both the physical and psychological damage victims often experience."

This training course and curriculum shall include procedures to be followed in activating the services of domestic violence crisis teams established or participated in by law enforcement agencies.

This bill was born out of a recommendation contained in the report of the Supreme Court Ad Hoc Committee on Domestic Violence issued in June of this year.

The last measure (AR-161), sponsored by Singleton, Mosquera and Greenwald, requests the New Jersey Supreme Court to require certified matrimonial attorneys to complete a minimum of three hours of domestic violence training each year as part of their Continuing Legal Education requirements.

"Because the issues regularly handled by matrimonial attorneys, things such as divorce, alimony, child support, child custody, and visitation, may also involve domestic violence, it's important that these attorneys receive appropriate training in domestic violence issues," added Singleton. "These bills bring together the courts, law enforcement and attorneys to ensure that every facet of our criminal justice system is working together on behalf of domestic violence victims."

Under the New Jersey Constitution, the New Jersey Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over the practice of law and the Rules of Court require all attorneys in the state to fulfill certain educational requirements under the New Jersey Continuing Legal Education program, which include requirements related to certification in a particular specialty.

The resolution notes that the "Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991" is intended to provide victims of domestic violence with the maximum protection from abuse that the law can provide.  

This bill was also inspired by a recommendation contained in the report of the Supreme Court Ad Hoc Committee on Domestic Violence issued in June.

The bill package was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.