Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel was presented with the Governor’s Victim Service Pathfinder Award on Tuesday. At the event she was praised as having been instrumental in changing the way the courts treat domestic violence victims and prosecute perpetrators.
Cheered on by her peers in the legal community and members of the health and victim services community, Judge Donna Jo McDaniel accepted the award from the governor’s office.
McDaniel became president judge in 2009. She’s part of the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative and presides over the domestic violence court.
Stephen Zappala, District Attorney of Allegheny County said working with McDaniel, they have made changes such as allowing victims to file complaints via tele-conference if they are unable to report to court or feel making such an appearance would be unsafe.
“She empowers the victim, at the same time deflecting the animosity of the defendant, “ said Zappala
Standing in the Courthouse courtyard Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald reflected that when the buildings were built, domestic violence wasn’t even recognized by the courts as a crime.
“How much we’ve learned, how much we’ve come forward, and it was Judge McDaniel who was at the forefront of blazing that trail,” he said.
Nearly 4,000 individuals file for protection from abuse orders in Allegheny County every year, and the District Attorney's office prosecutes between 800-1,000 domestic violence cases each year.
Lorraine Bittner, The Legal Director of Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh said those numbers show domestic violence itself is still a prevalent problem.
“I think the justice system itself has improved a lot in the last twenty years. We now have specialists in the DA’s office who are just domestic violence prosecutors, we have specialists in the court system, we have special domestic violence courts so that people with an understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence can help victims better than I think they have historically,” she said.
The judge's interest is not limited to domestic violence issues. Last year, McDaniel started another specialty court – one for sex offenders.