How Cuyahoga County's domestic relations court is making sure survivors are still safe during COVID-19 crisis

Hearings, paperwork, counseling is happening over the phone
Posted at 12:17 PM, Mar 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-26 18:38:52-04

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Coronavirus-related social distancing and isolation means experts expect domestic violence incidents to increase.

The Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center (DVCAC) tells News 5 calls to the center’s hot line are currently up 30% with about 20 calls coming in daily with survivors in isolation or who are stuck at home because of COVID-19.

The empty courtrooms and hallways outside Cuyahoga County’s Domestic Relations courtrooms, when they’re usually bustling and chaotic, show just how serious coronavirus social distancing can be.

“Sometimes it’s kind of scary,” said Administrative Judge Leslie Ann Celebrezze. “Normally, I can’t make it from my office to another department in under 20 minutes because I’m being stopped. There’s no one to stop me.”

The court’s 90 employees are mostly working from home now because of the coronavirus.

Only 15 are left in the building, doing what’s essential to keep the process for domestic violence survivors to get help and stay safe from their abusers.

“You're isolated already as a domestic violence survivor,” said Judge Celebrezze. “This only adds to your isolation.”

Usually, survivors have to come to the court house in person to go through a series of hearings, interviews, and paperwork to get an order to removes an abuser from their home if they live together.

That can take a few hours of in-person interaction, which isn’t possible right now.

The Domestic Relations Court is now doing all that work over the phone and trying to cut down on how long the whole process takes.

Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center
Domestic Violence groups say calls are increasing during periods of social distancing while abusers are often home with domestic violence survivors.

“We don't want you on the phone with us for three hours because if you're still in the home, with your abuser, they’re going to ask you what you’re doing,” said Celebrezze.

If the order is granted, Judge Celebrezze says Sheriff’s Deputies are still serving the order and removing abusers from survivors.

Full hearings have to happen to within 10 days, giving the abuser and survivor a chance to make their case before the court.

“It’s difficult because we have to be aware that there’s rights on both sides of these civil protection orders,” said Judge Celebrezze.

For now, those hearings have to happen in person, inspiring the court to take extra steps in those cases.

“A Magistrate had a full hearing [a few days ago], and there were witnesses so he only allowed the two lawyers, the two parties, and every witness had to sit in their vehicle and then we’d call them in when we needed them to come in,” said Judge Celebrezze.

When the coronavirus outbreak passes, Judge Celebrezze says the court will get back to doing as much work as it can in person because of the sensitive situations they often encounter.

Until then, she says help is available no matter what is going on outside.

“There will never be a point at which we close this courthouse for domestic violence,” said Judge Celebrezze. “That's never going to happen.”

  • The Domestic Relations Court can be reached at 216-698-8529.
  • Cuyahoga County Witness/Victim Service Center: (216) 443-7345
  • Domestic Violence Help Line: (216) 391-4357
  • Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center: (216) 229-2420
  • Catholic Charities: (440) 843-5501
  • Jewish Family Service Association: (216) 292-3999
  • The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland: (216) 687-1900
  • The Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association: (216) 696-3525

If you or someone you know needs help, you can find it here.