Judge’s Corner

It’s (supposed to be) the Most Wonderful Time of the Year:
Let’s All Do Our Part to Make Sure It Is


by Judge Elisabeth M. Espinosa

You really never know what someone is going through. With the additional stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, this holiday season it is more important than ever to practice patience, kindness, and compassion with one another. One another, meaning everyone we encounter, strangers, friends, and family, alike.

As a Judge presiding over Domestic Violence Court, I am well aware that every single person who appears before me for a case, whether accused of domestic violence or a victim, is having a bad day in that moment and going through a rough time. However, before the litigants leave the courtroom, they do not affix a visible label on their shirt that says that they are experiencing domestic violence in their own home. On the contrary, these litigants leave the courtroom and essentially disappear into the 2.7 million residents in Miami-Dade County. They blend right into our workplaces, our churches, and our child’s school pick up line. They share the road with us on our way to work, stand in line next to us at the grocery store, and have their family dinner at the neighborhood restaurant in the table right next to our own family. Perhaps they are even the ones who prepare or serve our celebratory family meals and provide services that help us prepare for the holidays.

These victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, and their children, make a concerted effort to disguise the chaos and instability, and instead pretend that it is the most wonderful time of the year because that is what society says that they are supposed to do. All the while, the reality for a victim of domestic violence is a tormented existence that they must endure while meeting all the same demands of life during the holidays as those fortunate enough to live in peace.

Many look forward to the holiday season as a special and valuable time to recharge, create joyful memories, and strengthen bonds with loved ones. Families experiencing domestic violence look forward to the joys of the holidays, as well. However, for a family living with domestic abuse, the pursuit of holiday joy is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. This season places pressure on families who would benefit from separation for purposes of individual self-care, to instead reunite pre-maturely while unresolved issues perpetuate the cycle of violence. During the holidays the number of victims coming to court to request the removal of a stay away order or the dismissal of their case, increases significantly.

Society’s portrayal of what a family during the holiday season should be, places stress on all families to keep up with appearances of what a happy holiday family should look like. Families living with domestic abuse especially, want to achieve a picture-perfect family. Victims convince themselves that the abuser will change or undergo a miraculous holiday transformation. For a domestic abuser, there is nothing more important than to keep up the appearance of a perfect and loving relationship because this gives them the ability to continue the control and abuse behind closed doors. Children are often caught in the middle, as they are used as an excuse to keep the family together, or perhaps the parents may sincerely believe remaining together during the holidays, despite the abuse, is what is in the best interest of the children. In other words, both parties want to be together at all costs, although their flawed reasoning may differ.

A perpetrator of domestic violence constantly seeks to have power and control over their victim, which they achieve by controlling the mind of the victim. The holidays unfortunately create a fertile breeding ground for abusers because the abuser and victim are suddenly at home together for an extended period, with nothing else to do but focus on each other.

Domestic abusers achieve mind control primarily by employing coercive control tactics including manipulation, interrogation, guilt trips, verbal abuse, gaslighting, the silent treatment, and physical intimidation, just to name a few. All of these psychological control tactics are meant to and in fact do isolate the victim both physically and mentally from family, friends, and any support system the victim may have. Time off work and school means that both the adult and child victims have few excuses to leave the house and no other place to take refuge. As a result of not being able to leave the home freely, it becomes too dangerous to seek assistance from police or from the courts. This time at home together actually causes a significant decrease in the number of domestic violence cases reported during the holidays, but an increase in unreported domestic violence. However, the number of reported domestic violence cases does increase after the holidays, once the victims are back at work and school and everyone is back in their daily routine.

During the Covid- 19 lockdown of 2020 the number of petitions for injunctions filed in Miami-Dade County decreased 11.5% from the steady number of cases in 2018 and 2019. Likewise, the number of arrests made in Miami-Dade County for misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence decreased 13.8% from the steady number of cases in 2018 and 2019. During the weeks the Stay-At-Home Order was in place, very few people filed petitions to obtain injunctions. As domestic violence judges we would sit and wait for petitions to barely trickle in, as opposed to the steady stream of cases we are accustomed to. It was sobering to know that these filings decreased, not because domestic violence miraculously disappeared during the pandemic, but on the contrary, because victims were not able to escape their abusers and seek assistance. It is interesting to note that the total number of domestic violence cases filed in criminal and civil court in 2018 was almost the exact same number of cases filed in 2019. In the year 2018 there were 12,502 domestic violence cases filed and in 2019, there were 12,464 domestic violence cases filed. By contrast, thus far the number of cases filed in 2021, is on par with the 2018 and 2019 statistics.

The other Domestic Violence Judges and I, have the benefit of being able to easily identify our neighbors who are going through a rough time because during the moments they are before us, they do wear a domestic violence litigant label, which is promptly removed the moment they leave the courtroom. From the bench, we see behind the curtains. Collectively, the domestic violence judges in Miami-Dade County see behind thousands of different curtains, per year. As such, I can confirm that the best remedy for the unfriendly cashier, is a smile. Whether someone is secretly experiencing domestic violence, an illness, a death in the family, or financial hardship; patience, kindness and compassion for our neighbors goes a long way.

Please be mindful that families experiencing domestic violence walk silently among us. Everyone wants to experience joy and love during the holiday season. Let’s each do our part to truly make the holidays the most wonderful time of the year.

¹ “Domestic Violence cases” include petitions filed to obtain a civil injunction, petitions filed to obtain a risk protection order, and charges filed for misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence.