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Special court holds two seminars

Niagara County's court that combines domestic crime prosecutions, child custody issues and matrimonial matters marked its third anniversary Friday with a pair of legal seminars.

County Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza, who presides over the Integrated Domestic Violence (IDV) Court, said some 75 attorneys attended a morning session on mental health issues related to domestic violence.

A smaller turnout participated in an afternoon panel discussion on ethical problems for lawyers involved in Domestic Violence Court.

"The goal is 'one judge, one family,' " Sperrazza said. "The goal is to protect the victims of domestic violence and hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. The goal is to make it convenient for the litigators. The goals have been met."

But the court has grown so much that some action might need to be taken to deal with the burgeoning caseload. In the three years the court has existed, 142 families have come before Sperrazza.

The cases tend to be extremely involved, combining all the touchiness of a Family Court matter with the controversy of a criminal case.

When the court started, it met Wednesday afternoons and had only a few cases. Now, it lasts all day every Wednesday, and then some. "We don't take a lunch break. We work late," Sperrazza said. "We pack a ton of cases into our IDV Wednesdays. They're difficult cases."

"Judge Sperrazza will bring the children in [her chambers] and speak to them in my presence," law guardian John M. Aversa said during the afternoon panel. "She's hands-on. That's why the court works so well."

Sperrazza said law guardians in her court are in an unusually tough position.

"The dad will be charged with a crime and his attorney will tell him not to speak to anyone, including the law guardian," the judge said. That makes it harder to ascertain the best interest of the child.

Assistant Public Defender Joseph Leone, who is assigned exclusively to IDV court, said the conflict of interest issues that can arise for lawyers are "dicey."

"The conflicts office gets a call every Wednesday, one way or another," said Leone, referring to the county's attorneys who represent poor defendants.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com1

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