Monday, December 19, 2011

Fast food & fast justice

Approximately one year ago, CourtWatch began a letter writing campaign to specific locations of the above fast food restaurants in our community because Judge Sally Kest was ordering unmonitored exchange of children between parents in domestic violence injunction cases at their locations. We dubbed these "McDonalds Exchanges" because the golden arches was overwhelmingly ordered by the judge as the site for these potentially dangerous encounters.

To understand how risky this practice is, we have only to remember the case of Emmanuella Biziyaremye, age 28, who on May 6, 2007 had a copy of her final injunction in hand when she went to meet her estranged husband to retrieve her children from their visit with him.  This injunction, granted by Judge Janet Thorpe only 17 days earlier, designated the parking lot of the Walgreens store at East Colonial Dr & Bumby Rd as the place where the parents would meet. This site was selected because there were video surveillance cameras that covered the parking lot.

Mrs. Biziyaremye was shot twice in the head by her husband, Anselme, who then fled to Jacksonville where he was killed a few days later in a shootout with law enforcement after threatening suicide.

The couple's children had been left with a friend in Orlando by their father before the shooting of their mother.  Another child, whom the victim was babysitting, was present in her car and was unhurt.

Judge Kest did this so frequently that her injunction paperwork has the instructions pre-printed on it.

How is it that the other two judges in the Injunction division manage to order only monitored exchanges in the cases they hear? The options are:

  • via school, daycare or babysitter where one parent drops off in the morning and the other picks up in the afternoon
  • via a family member or friend who is agreed upon by the parties (either at that person's home or that person does the transporting of the children)
  • via Family Ties at the courthouse during regular business hours or at a downtown location on weekends.
CourtWatch recognizes that the Domestic Violence with Children injunction hearings can be the most difficult ones to conduct. The parties can be acrimonious and unwilling to negotiate with one another.  Their geographical and/or work schedule differences can make it nearly impossible to work out an arrangement that will be satisfactory to both parents. But the other judges seem to have it figured out. They seem to be more willing to take the time needed during these hearings to broker an arrangement between the parties.

A minor victory
Shortly after our first letters landed on the desks of fast-food restaurants around Central Florida, we received a call from McDonalds asking how they could have their restaurant removed from an injunction.  Rather than provide their attorney with the case number (because we wanted to avoid having the parties yanked back into court, thus inconveniencing them and potentially inflaming their situation further), CourtWatch recommended they write to Judge Kest and copy Judge Perry on their request.  I since learned they did exactly that.

A short time thereafter, we watched another hearing where Judge Kest was ordering unmonitored exchange, but this time said "Pick a family-friendly restaurant that's convenient to you both.... anyplace but McDonalds."

It's interesting to note that McDonalds recognizes the potential for danger. Not only does this practice jeopardize the safety of the victim and children involved, but also the restaurant employees and its patrons. Just because a court order spells out how to "safely" conduct the exchange, there is nothing to prevent a violent abuser from arriving early and doing what Mr. Biziyaremye did.

It's also interesting to note that none of the other letter recipients, to our knowledge, acted upon the information we provided to them.

We wonder why Judge Kest doesn't seem to, in spite of the specialized training that is available to judges, understand the danger as well. Nor does she seem to recognize that it is against the law for her to order that a business be mandated to conduct commerce (specifically the unmonitored exchange of children) for which it is not designed.

Last month, Judge Kest transferred to Domestic Relations division where she hears divorce cases. Unfortunately, she is still in a position to order the unmonitored exchange of children while in a courtroom that CourtWatch does not traditionally visit.  We can only hope the practice ceases.