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Montclair-based legal aid nonprofit breaks cycles of violence

July 29, 2013 Kelly Ebbels, Staff Writer, The Montclair Times

Breaking the cycle, finding justice...Ten years in, legal-aid nonprofit serving abused women wins grant and inspires public art project

Partners for Women and Justice, a Montclair-based nonprofit organization that provides free legal assistance for low-income women who have been abused, has much work to do.

Calls come in every day from women across Essex and other nearby counties to its office in the United Way Building, 60 South Fullerton Ave.  They seek restraining orders or other help navigting the legal system in opposition to domestic partners who have been abusive, whether psychologically, physically, or emotionally.  Often, they are also seeking protection and assistance for their children.

Cases move quickly, as restraining orders are fast-tracked in the courts in New Jersey, attorneys explained.  "I prefer it that way, because we get things done," said Jessica Goldberg, an attorney with the organization.

The nonprofit provided legal assistance to 400 women in 2012. But, even with the weight that comes with the casework, the organization is celebrating.

In June, Partners for Women and Justice was awarded a $10,000 New Jersey Heroes grant by First Lady Mary Pat Christie; the money will be used for supporting a fellowship program.

Further, a public mural painted by Montclair State University students, and inspired by the organization's work, was mounted in an alleyway off Valley Road near Bellevue Avenue in late May.

Now, as Partners for Women and Justice marks its 10th year of service this year, its co-founder and executive director, Jane Hanson, said it hopes to send a consistent message to low-income women facing situations of abuse.

"We'll be here for you," Hanson said.

TURNING THE PAGE

Hanson, a Montclair resident, oversees a small team of attorneys and support staff, some bilingual in English and Spanish. The organization also partners with hundreds of attorneys willing to provide pro bono casework, but the more complex cases tend to be handled in-house.

A case begins with a phone call - which Hanson highlighted as a courageous action for women facing situations of abuse.

"By the time somebody calls us, they've taken a huge first step, a very optimistic step, and that takes a lot of courage," she said.

Yet things don't necessarily get easier. The time period immediately following a split with an abuser can be traumatic and sometimes quite dangerous for a victim, explained Director of Development Sue Greenwald.

Then, even when the courts get involved, Hanson pointed out, "sometimes the [legal] system re-victimizes victims of domestic violence."

Still, every time the legal team sees a case through, it helps break a cycle of abuse and facilitate the beginning of a new phase, attorneys said.

"We're helping women and their children get to safe places so they can get to a new chapter in their lives," Hanson said.

Greenwald pointed out that the organization gets many thank-you notes.

"The theme that keeps coming up in them is peace," Greenwald said.

For one client of Partners for Women and Justice, who requested anonymity for safety and privacy reasons, an abusive situation began when the father of her child choked her during a verbal disagreement. She filed for a restraining order.

Then, more than two-and-a-half years ago, that father told a judge that the mother wasn't complying with visitation - an allegation that the client told The Montclair Times was false. However, the judge decided to take away her custody of her young daughter.

She then received a suggestion from a prosecutor to contact Partners for Women and Justice.

About 20 court motions later, the client said that, on top of the instance of physical assault, she has faced psychological harassment via the father's abuse of the court system. But throughout, Goldberg, her attorney, guided her, she said.

"She became my voice. She was able to help me with my rights so I would be dealt with fairly in the courts," she said.

In June, Goldberg and her client had a "breakthrough," when they were able to win a ruling from a Family Court judge that effectively ended the motions, the client explained.

"It's been a tremendous help. I don't know what I would do without them," she said of Partners for Women and Justice.

'PAINTING ADVERSITY'

This year, Partners for Women and Justice inspired a mural project, "Painting Adversity," now mounted in an alleyway off of Valley Road in the Upper Montclair Business District.

The mural project was overseen by Catherine Bebout, an associate professor of art and design at Montclair State University; the lead artist was Laken Whitecliffe, and a secondary artist was Jeremy Bell.

Mounted on the brick wall on May 28, the mural's artwork represents children who Partners for Women and Justice indirectly assists. The mural transitions from left to right. On the left, children's faces are shadowed and craggy. On the mural's right side, children's figures are vividly colored as they create art.

"The mural gets brighter with color. Then you start to see children coming off the wall and actually being very proactive," Bebout said.

As Whitecliffe stated in an email to The Times, on the brighter side of the mural, he painted "kids working together as a strong Montclair community to paint over these darker images, to represent the work of organizations like Partners for Women and Justice to eliminate this problem."

The artwork's message, Bebout said, is "hope," and that "things can evolve when communities can work together."

THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

Attorneys with Partners for Women and Justice observed that people wondering about domestic violence situations may not be asking the right questions when they think about the issues.

"The question often posed is, 'Why don't they just leave?' But really, 'Why is somebody so abusive?' That's the real question," Greenwald posed.

It will take renewed efforts to lessen violence and abuse against women, and to lessen domestic-partner abuse more broadly, the attorneys said. In the meantime, Hanson underscored that Partners for Women and Justice would continue to offer its services to as many women as it can help who require help.

"After 10 years, we're sorry we're still here. But the need is great," said Hanson.