Jersey City first in NJ to provide safe space for victims in domestic cases
JERSEY CITY — One of the biggest challenges of Municipal Prosecutor Jake Hudnut's job is securing the courtroom participation of someone who believes they have been victimized.
This particular problem is now being magnified by something that was feared by public officials at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and which Hudnut said has sadly come to pass: a spike in reports of domestic violence incidents, particularly in urban areas of New Jersey where living space is tight.
To address a resulting increase in volume that now has its municipal court handling more than 100 cases per week, Jersey City believes it has established the state's first dedicated safe space for victims involved in court proceedings.
The "Safe Serenity Room" features comfortable furniture plus a child-friendly area, so that young family members don't have to feel like collateral damage as these court appearances play out.
A prosecutor's duty is to get to the root of a conflict from both sides, Hudnut said, and the Safe Serenity Room is designed to ease that burden on accusers.
"They're not in the courtroom with their abuser, they don't have to worry about being intimidated or talked out of their participating in the prosecution," Hudnut said. "We're seeing the volume of cases coming in, and as we're transitioning from virtual court to in-person court again, we thought this was a good opportunity to try a new approach."
Jersey City's municipal court remains all-virtual at this time due to the ongoing pandemic, but Hudnut said there will inevitably be a time when appointments are back to "normal."
He said the Safe Serenity Room, in theory, will be able to operate effectively in any format.
"We just want to be sure that when the doors reopen, we can do it face to face, and that's why we're launching this safe space when that time comes," Hudnut said.
Yet still another piece of the puzzle is what happens outside the courtroom, and making a space like this available gives victims "a way to get out of bad situations," according to Hudnut.
Domestic violence cases can start at the city level, he said, but if legal resolutions are not pursued to their fullest, these instances can progress higher -- and more dangerously.
Hudnut said no prosecutor wants to bring someone back to court as a victim of repeat abuse.
"Many times, by the time a case comes to court, the parties have reconciled," he said, "but there's still an issue there that, data shows, repeats and actually escalates each time."
And once a case has been resolved, victims may need help picking up the pieces.
So the Safe Serenity Room has brought two community nonprofits, Women Rising and Sarah's Daughters, on board to provide counseling services, and assistance with housing and job placement.