On Her Watch

Laurie Duker works to improve how local judges and courts deal with domestic violence cases

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Laurie Duker in front of the District Court of Maryland. Photo by Liz Lynch

Laurie Duker works to improve how local judges and courts deal with domestic violence cases

It's depressing and hard to hear these stories,” says Laurie Duker, her voice breaking. “I have a lot of pictures in my head I wish I didn’t have.”

There’s the woman who tried to stay awake all night because “she was permanently terrified that her husband would kill her in her sleep.” Or the husband
who was ordered to pay child support and later “beat the hell” out of his wife in the parking lot next to the Montgomery County courthouse. Or the patient confined to a wheelchair whose husband sprayed her with a hose and left her outside in the cold.

These are the pictures that drive Duker every day. She is the co-founder and executive director of Court Watch Montgomery, a small nonprofit that monitors how county judges deal with domestic violence and recommends improvements in court procedures.

No bureaucracy changes easily, particularly one run by judges who are not used to being questioned or criticized. Still, the county courts have adopted several suggestions made by Duker and her team, most recently a “safe passage center” where mothers or fathers can exchange children with their partners and not fear a confrontation. The center, about a mile from the courthouse in Rockville, has separate waiting rooms, separate parking lots and trained personnel to provide security.

“It’s very exciting, in a small way, to be part of helping somebody get out of a terrifying situation and then be able to blossom, to get them to safety, to get their kids to safety,” Duker tells me.

Duker, 60, has lived in Silver Spring for 27 years. Like a lot of Montgomery County residents she spent years working in Washington on large policy issues. Today she finds special satisfaction focusing on the needs of her neighbors, not her nation, on individuals not institutions.

“I wanted to be more grounded, and help people I lived near and knew and loved,” she explains. “One out of four women experience partner violence in their lives and that meant a lot of women where I lived were terrified in their own homes.”

Duker’s father was a businessman who moved around a lot, and she often felt like an “outsider.” But that itinerant childhood gave her a “real sympathy for the underdog,” and when the aftermath of Watergate dominated her undergraduate years at Pomona College in Southern California, her career path crystallized.

“I was sort of a Watergate baby,” she says. “The minute I finished college I moved to D.C. I was eager to work on making government work better.”

She found a job at Common Cause, the pioneering “citizens’ lobby,” and focused on getting money out of politics. “That didn’t go so well,” Laurie laughs, but her social life was more successful.

She met her husband, Jeremy Rosner, now a prominent campaign consultant, at Common Cause, and by the time she was working against President Reagan’s attempt to aid the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, she was a young mother without a babysitter. So for one key vote she brought her 2-month-old daughter, Sarah, to the Capitol, dressed in a T-shirt that read: “Another baby against aid to the contras.”

Jobs and grad schools took the young family away from Washington for several years. When they returned, Laurie worked for an environmental group
devoted to preserving ancient lakes. After the funding dried up, she decided to take a year off , focus on her two teenagers and volunteer in the community.

Thanks to a website run by the county she became a “victim advocate” for the Abused Persons Program, which helps survivors of violence navigate the court system. “A lot of the victims hadn’t talked to anybody about this before,” she discovered, and needed help presenting their cases to the judge.

The victims also “needed someone to stand between them and their abuser in court, to be a physical barrier, to create a bigger sense of safety,” Duker says. “They needed to know they were not alone.”

Within a year Duker was running the program and eventually she shepherded more than 1,000 victims through the legal process, helping them secure court orders that protected their families and provided child support. But her frustration with the system continued to grow.

“Judges just aren’t as accountable as they should be,” she says. Some were just “bad apples,” in Duker’s words, who should have been removed from the bench. But even well-meaning jurists made damaging mistakes.

Maryland judges received “minimal” training on the subject of domestic violence, Duker says, and while their initial education has improved they’re still not required to take additional courses after joining the bench. Moreover, judges lived isolated lives and had no idea “people were getting beaten up in the parking lot” after leaving their courtroom.

Yet everyone involved “was cowed by the judges,” she says. Court personnel didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs; lawyers didn’t want to harm their clients. “Nobody saw it as their job to change the system,” Duker concluded. So she decided to do it herself.

Court Watch started in 2010, and its first recommendation was a simple one. Don’t release victims and their abusers from the courtroom together. Staggering the times reduced the chances for a violent confrontation.

A sane and simple idea, but Duker remembers the morning of her group’s first press conference: “I was so scared I put my granola into the coffee grinder.”

Within a week, however, county courts had adopted the idea and since then the judges and their critics have achieved a decent working relationship. As one judge told a Court Watch volunteer: “We like you, we’re just a little scared of you.”

That suits Laurie Duker just fine. A woman who grew up as an “outsider” still relishes that role. And after years of working on abstract national issues, she embraces the chance to help one family, one mother, one child at a time. 

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. This column was suggested by a reader; send other ideas to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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