– Once a week, a group of men file into a ​courtroom in Stearns County to take part in a legal rarity: a court for domestic abusers.

One by one, they answer the judge’s questions about their case, share job or family news and get a fresh reminder of what the court expects of them. A probation agent provides an update, and after a few minutes of conversation, the judge says: “See you next week.”

The meetings might lack Hollywood drama, but in the fight to stop men from killing their partners, they’ve made a difference.

“This is homicide prevention,” said Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall.

The weekly hearings are one facet of the Stearns County Domestic Violence Court, a novel program that was recently recognized by the U.S. Office of Violence Against Women as a “mentor court’’ where other jurisdictions could learn useful lessons.

The project, created six years ago under Kendall’s leadership, oversees 40 to 60 felony domestic abusers at a time, picking the worst cases for review. In addition to special court hearings, the program employs a special surveillance officer to monitor the men’s whereabouts and an array of services to build trust with victims.

The main goal: simply to enforce rules and court orders that domestic abusers so often ignore.

Such courts first sprang up in the 1990s, and while there are now as many as 300 across the nation, they’re still fairly new to the Upper Midwest. The courts have been shown to improve offenders’ compliance with court orders and, in the case of Stearns County, have helped officials intervene more quickly with children in danger and build a stronger safety net for victims.

“We’re seeing a lot of great change,” said Jim Hughes, chief of police in Sartell, Minn., and an early member of the group that advised Kendall.

Hughes himself was touched by homicidal domestic abuse at a young age when his older sister and her 2-year-old son were shot by an abusive boyfriend. Years later, after he had become a police officer and risen to the rank of chief, Hughes said the challenge remains the same: “How do we get those people in control?”

‘Frequent fliers’

Several years ago, while looking for ways to ease jail overcrowding, Kendall took a closer look at who was behind bars.

“I sat down and read 200 files,” she said. What she found was a group of hardened domestic abusers who would freely violate no-contact orders and even commit other felonies.

A Google search took her to the New York-based Center for Court Innovation, and staff there helped her assemble a plan for a domestic violence court. Kendall decided to focus on felony domestic abusers.

“These are only the frequent fliers,’’ she said. “They have not responded to supervision and behavior change.’’

In 2008, Kendall called together local law enforcement leaders, court staff and county social service workers. The need was urgent: In that year, seven of the previous eight homicides in St. Cloud had been domestic related, said Kendall.

Kendall hired a victim advocate for her office, and then she added a surveillance agent — an unarmed but experienced investigator who would roam the St. Cloud area checking in on the offenders.

That person today is Bill Nelson, a black belt who has years of experience working as a private investigator. Equipped with a vehicle and the daily schedules of each man in the Domestic Violence Court, Nelson makes random checks to ensure they’re not stalking their victims. He doesn’t have the power to arrest people, but works closely with police around the St. Cloud area.

With a caseload of 40, Nelson has developed a sense of what to look for when he suspects one of the men is violating an order to stay away from an ex-girlfriend or wife.

Last week, for instance, one of the men under surveillance claimed to be visiting his mother in another central Minnesota city. But he didn’t have a car or much in the way of income, so Nelson became suspicious. He drove to the city, called the man and asked to meet him. The man eventually confessed that he was lying and the judge sent him back to jail for violating the terms of his release.

The fastest turnaround for the surveillance system was less than half an hour. A convicted abuser left jail, called his victim and told her to meet him at a Perkins. He was back in jail 22 minutes after he left.

Deaths continue

At least 25 women died from domestic violence in Minnesota last year, according to the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, and the number is 16 so far this year.

That trend has spawned several innovative projects around the state, including a Duluth program that creates a communitywide response to domestic abuse cases. Known as the “Duluth Model,” it was recently recognized by a German foundation as the best policy of its kind.

Just having a service like the Coalition for Battered Women — that is not part of the criminal justice system and can continue to help a victim after a case is closed — can make a big difference. “So at 2 in the morning, if you need to pick up the phone and call somebody, you can call us,” said Liz Richards, the coalition’s executive director.

Another innovation, used in several counties, is limiting the number of judges who handle domestic abuse cases so that the judges begin to specialize and can recognize repeat offenders.

It’s a small step, but it follows several others, including safe houses for women and mandated arrests at domestic incidents, said Carol Arthur, executive director of the Domestic Abuse Project.

“It’s step by step, increment by increment, that we made some major progress over time,” Arthur said.