When love turns ugly
A YOUNG WOMAN NAMED Bianca alleged that her boyfriend had punched her in the face, whacked her with a broom, then hurled a piggy bank full of coins at her. There was so much blood she had to go to the hospital.
A YOUNG WOMAN
Bianca alleged that her boyfriend had punched her in the face, whacked her with a broom, then hurled a piggy bank full of coins at her. There was so much blood she had to go to the hospital.
Still, she wanted to be with him.
On a recent fall morning, Bianca stood before Family Court Judge Edward R. Summers and asked him to drop the protection-from-abuse order she had filed against her boyfriend.
"Ma'am, if he has done any of these things to you, I guarantee you that you will be in the hospital again," Summers said to the Feltonville woman. "It's not going to stop."
"I'll be all right - we spoke," she said softly, sneaking a shy look at her boyfriend, who stood at the defendant's table a few feet away.
Summers implored her to reconsider. She refused.
"I'd like to drop it," she muttered.
And so Summers did. He had no choice.
"It drives me crazy," Summers said after the couple left together. "It absolutely drives me crazy."
Summers is on the front lines of Philadelphia's domestic-violence epidemic. He is one of two Family Court judges assigned to hear a virtual tsunami of protection-from-abuse cases filed by quarreling partners and a Rubik's Cube of kin: Mother against son. Stepfather against stepson. Aunt against niece. Brother against sister, or against sister's husband.
Summers, an arguably hard-boiled judge with a soft inner soul, hears 30 to 50 cases a day in a courtroom no bigger than a master bedroom.
The cases are mostly he-said/ she-said among family members, and Summers must make a judgment call. The vast majority don't have money for lawyers and so they represent themselves. The cases are often as nuanced and as intricate as are the families.
With the stroke of a pen, Summers has the power to evict alleged abusers from their homes, to order them to turn over their guns to police and to decide who gets to keep the kids before a custody hearing is held. And if the defendant violates the protection order - which forbids any contact, abuse, threats and stalking - Summers can jail them. The order, known simply as a PFA, can last for up to 36 months.
Summers' job is to try to protect people from harm. But he spends most of his day trying to defuse disputes - some petty, some violent - among people who once cared about each other and often still do. Case after case, day after day, Summers is more like a therapist in a black robe than a judge with a gavel.
"We say we don't do family counseling here," Summers said. "But guess what? That's what we do."
People at the breaking point
Many people who stand before Summers aren't sure what they want; they only know that they've reached a breaking point.
"Ma'am, do you wish to not see your daughter for the next 36 months?" Summers asked a 57-year-old woman who filed for a protection order against her 26-year-old daughter.
The woman stood silent. The question is not easy to answer.
"I'd like to see her get help," she said finally.
The daughter glared at her mother. She stood a few feet away in handcuffs and shackles. She had been in jail since her mother had her arrested a few weeks ago after she came into her mother's West Oak Lane house, asked for money, then punched her mom in the forehead, leaving a welt. A criminal case was pending.
The daughter agreed to stay away from her mother and voluntarily signed the protection order. A sheriff's officer led her away.
In just three days in Summers' courtroom, dozens of families in crisis appeared before him hoping he'd fix something he has no authority to fix. One mother asked him to order her drug-addicted son into rehab; another wanted him to evict her grown son from her house for not paying the phone bill.
And one woman complained that her brother "has my stuff in storage and won't give it back," and that he called her "a psychotic bitch," she said.
"I can't make life perfect, ma'am," Summers told her. "All I can do is make sure there is no abuse."
Next came a volatile mother-son battle.
A diminutive female sheriff's officer, whose name plate read "Killman," escorted a 40-year-old guy into the courtroom. If not for the handcuffs and shackles, the man - wearing a black T-shirt with the words "pimp juice" on it - looked as if he would attack his 63-year-old mom.
When Summers mentioned the word "mother," the guy snarled, "I don't have no mother."
She had had him arrested six days earlier for breaking into her West Philly home. He demanded to go to trial on the protection-order complaint. Summers set a trial date.
As he was led away, he yelled to his mother: "I'm suing you. I'm suing you for assaulting me and for opening up my mail. I'm suing you!"
The woman walked out quietly. She looked defeated. Summers shook his head.
Later he evicted a 19-year-old boy for threatening his stepfather with a knife and a hammer.
"Today you are out of the house," Summers told the teen, whose mother didn't attend the court proceeding. "You can still see your mother, but you have to see her outside of the house."
After the teen left the courtroom, Summers seemed to agonize over his decision. "He's almost 20 years old," he said. "He's a man. He will be out on the street. I don't know what he's going to do. Hopefully, he'll get a job and start his own life."
With gray hair, and glasses that make him appear owlish, Summers looks like a kind-hearted grandfather. But the former pro-wrestler, who towers over most people, has an intimidating bark when he needs it.
"If I think that you threatened her the least little bit - the least little bit - I will put you in a juvenile facility," he bellowed at a chubby teenage boy whose girlfriend claimed he hit and shoved her. "You think twice about hurting any girl you may date. You are not a big tough guy."
The boy was in court with his mother; the teenage girl came with her grandmother.
"You both should be ashamed," he later scolded a couple who played tug-of-war with their 3-year-old daughter on the steps inside their home.
Then: "Do what your mother tells you to do without cursing at her or spitting at her," Summers warned the young man from West Philly who ran up his mother's phone bill.
Minutes later, a 51-year-old woman from North Philadelphia came before him and said that her 80-year-old mother, whom she cared for, routinely berated her, threw things at her and threatened to hit her with her cane. The woman had hoped that one of her five brothers would take their mother off her hands. Summers threatened to toss the elderly woman out on the street if the brothers didn't step up. He sent them home to work it out over the weekend.
"What's been decided?" Summers asked when the family returned before him on Monday morning.
"My mom is going to stay with me," the woman said.
"With you?" he asked. "Are you sure you can take the pressure at this time?"
The woman hung her head and began to cry.
"It's going to be the way it's always been," she said softly. "I've accepted it."
Summers turned to the only brother at the hearing.
"Don't you understand what's going on here?" he asked.
"Yes," said the brother, who appeared to be in his 60s.
"No you don't!" Summers snapped. "What this is going to lead to is either your sister's breakdown or your mother being thrown out of the house."
Summers entered a protection-only order, which meant that the mother could continue living in her daughter's house as long as she didn't abuse her.
"Ma'am, you're not allowed to hit your daughter," he told the elderly woman, who sat at the defendant's table wearing a defiant expression, cane by her side.
Summers ordered the family to return to court in 30 days so he could check up on them.
With that, the brother fumed out of the courtroom with his mother.
"I want him to feel bad when he walks out of here because nothing has changed," Summers said.
Summers likes to employ scared-straight tactics. So when a 36-year-old Kensington man violated a protection order, he immediately sent him to jail. The worried-looking man tried to explain that he went back to his house only to get some of his things - and he went there with a police escort to avoid any fighting between him and his wife.
"The order is the order is the order!" Summers roared.
A sheriff's officer cuffed the man and led him to one of three holding cells inside the court building.
"I'm going to give him a little lesson," Summers said with a slight grin when the man was gone. "I could hold him for up to six months. I'm going to let him out in a half an hour."
Summers' critics and fans
Summers, 62, has been a Family Court judge for the past 20 years, and happily married for just as long. Born in South Philly and raised in the Olney/Logan section, the father of two teenagers made a name for himself as the city's tough-love truancy judge.
His unorthodox style has drawn both critics and fans.
"Judge Summers takes domestic-violence cases very seriously and he understands the emotional, difficult nature of these cases," said Molly Callahan, director of the Women Against Abuse Legal Center. "While we do not always agree with his rulings, we believe that he is a fair and compassionate judge."
But some experts, like Carol E. Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project, question his judicial approach.
Summers is the king of the 90-day continuance. Rather than issue a final order, Summers prefers to keep a temporary protection order in place, then bring parties back 90 days later - sometimes in 30 or 45 days - to see how things are going. If all is well, he can dismiss the case without prejudice. If not, he can either continue the temporary order for another 90 days or issue a final, three-year protection order. After 180 days, the plaintiff must decide whether to get a final order or drop it.
"It's reasonable to continue a case if one party needs a lawyer," Tracy said. "I'm concerned about continuances for status hearings that just go on and on. People are entitled to a decision."
Tracy said that it's a hardship for some victims to travel to and from court. Many have to take time off from work, pay for public transportation or parking and hire a baby-sitter. She said she's troubled by the number of people who fail to show up at court on the continuance date.
Summers said he rarely, if ever, hears complaints from victims about returning to court. He argued that he continues only those cases in which the abuse is marginal. Perhaps there are threats, but no physical violence, though he stressed that he takes both seriously.
"You got to work with these people," Summers said. "They're upset with one another but they're family.
"I try to make sure people don't get so far apart," he said, "that they can't get back together when the allegations are not that serious."
Continuances, Summers said, allow him to keep tabs on people.
In one case, Summers ordered a couple from East Oak Lane back to court in 45 days. He didn't want to wait 90 days.
The wife, 38, alleged that her husband rammed his SUV into her car. Their three kids were sitting in the back seat of his SUV.
"You don't play games with cars - period!" Summers yelled at the 41-year-old husband. "If you take your car and you hurt one of my kids, you're going to have to face me."
They each had temporary protection-only orders against the other. Summers kept the orders in place and told them to return in 45 days.
"I'm not happy with the kids being in the house with all this nonsense taking place," Summers told them. "I want to have a little more contact with you."
The couple has been before Summers at least four times, the wife said in a later telephone interview.
"He's fair," she said, speaking of Summers. "He's heard enough stories that he knows bull----. He's very stern. He doesn't want you to speak when he's speaking, but it's all good. I mean, he's the judge."
She said she doesn't mind returning to court for the judicial equivalent of a psychological and physical checkup. It's good to have a judge looking out for her, she said.
While final protection orders last only three years, the order lasts forever on the abuser's record as a civil violation in Pennsylvania State Police computer files. It's a permanent black mark that can hinder one's ability to get a job or promotion, particularly in law enforcement.
Summers said that he's mindful of this fact, particularly when an order is filed against a juvenile, which is another reason why he hopes people work out their problems while the temporary order is in place.
Summers said that most people who return to court say that they're satisfied. They've either gotten back together or they haven't had any contact and no longer feel the need for a written order to keep the peace.
But he admits that many people he orders back to court don't show up, and he's not sure whatever happened between them. He'd like to think they reconciled. He knows many people do - some more quickly than others.
"We have cases where I'll give an order and then they're out in the hallway hugging and kissing one another," Summers said. "Other judges might say, 'That's contempt of court.'
"But I'm like, 'Thank God they're not hitting and punching each other.' " *