Lola – her true name has been withheld at her request – showed up at Gail’s House in White Plains after learning about it during her first visit to Family Court for an order of protection against her then-husband.
For the first time in a marriage in which she said she had long been verbally abused, he had hit her during an argument the night before, leaving Lola with a badly bruised and swollen jaw. “I said, that’s the first time and the last time you’re going to hit me,” she recalled.
Her husband told police she had struck herself on the jaw with the remote control, she said. He had their 10-year-old daughter lie to authorities to protect him, she said.
Lola sat in the courthouse for about seven hours that day. Her husband was removed from their Croton-on-Hudson home that night. The difficult process that would lead to legal separation and divorce after 18 years of marriage and Lola’s transformation back to the “happy-go-lucky person” with “a sparkle in my eye” whom she had lost to depression and self-doubt as the victim of spousal abuse, had only just begun.
On a quiet residential street that borders Pace University’s North Broadway law school campus, Gail’s House does not stand out. No sign on lawn or door announces it as the home of the Pace Women’s Justice Center, a nonprofit organization celebrating its 25th anniversary this month as a free provider of legal and educational services for victims of domestic violence and elder abuse in Westchester and Putnam counties and training for attorneys, police and others dealing with those victims in the justice system. For the women who arrive there needing help, often frightened and deprived of financial resources by controlling spouses or domestic partners, it is easier to speak of stopping by “Gail’s house” than to admit they are visiting a legal services office. And its location and appearance of a modest family home on a neighborhood street help protect its visitors from the aroused anger and stalking of their abusers.
“It was such a relief” to arrive there, Lola recalled. “Not having a sign outside …For many seniors or women going through it, it is so scary …To actually be comfortable about it is very difficult.”
She sat at a table in a small conference room in the basement of Gail’s House, where toys and a television in a small play area entertain children accompanying their mothers. Two floors above, women answered calls and made referrals for legal assistance of all kinds on the center’s Legal Helpline, which receives about 2,200 calls a year. The director of its Westchester Division at a computer introduced a new volunteer attorney – a former prosecutor in the offices of the state attorney general and Queens district attorney – to the center’s work.
Center officials plan to renovate the basement space as a walk-in legal resource and information center with a $100,000 grant awarded this year by Impact100 Westchester, a group of philanthropic women whose members combine their donations of at least $1,000 each to make transformational grants to nonprofits in the county.
Separated for one year, her husband gave Lola a cellphone as a gift, she recalled. There were strings attached: “He put an app on it to follow me.”
“He didn’t follow me here. This was the only place I was safe.”
“We have women come to our door every day,” said attorney Cindy Kanusher, executive director of Pace Women’s Justice Center. “We’re making a difference in people’s lives. Living under that type of emotional abuse and stress” that Lola described in her marriage “is horrific.”
Each year about 1,000 victims of domestic violence and abuse find free legal help through the center’s Family Court Legal Program in a county where police respond to more than 12,000 domestic incident reports annually, Kanusher said. The pioneering service, which operates walk-in offices at county courthouses in White Plains and Yonkers, was launched in 1999 after a woman without an attorney, denied an order of protection by a Family Court judge, was killed over the next weekend by her batterer.
Through the center’s several programs, more than 3,000 clients were served last year by its 25 staff employees – 18 of whom are attorneys – and 44 volunteers, including paralegals, Pace University law students and 20 lawyers.
With the Impact 100 grant and the opening of a walk-in center, the organization – which operates on an approximately $1.5 million annual budget and last year received from volunteers 8,400 hours of service valued at an additional $1.5 million – will be able to serve about 500 more clients yearly, Kanusher said.
The walk-in office at Gail’s House is especially needed by the clients it will serve. Most victims of domestic violence and elder abuse “are not going to go to the courthouse” and the center’s offices there, she said.
Founded in 1991 as the Battered Women’s Justice Center, the White Plains center’s first director was Michael G. Dowd, a criminal attorney who had defended women on trial for murdering their batterers at a time when “there was very little support for victims,” Kanusher said. The program at its founding was described by the dean of Pace law school as the first of its kind in the nation.
“Over the last 25 years,” said Kanusher, “the center has grown from being a training center for lawyers, prosecutors and the police to being the largest legal services provider in Westchester County for victims of domestic violence and elderly abuse. We realized that the needs were greater than just doing training and outreach.”
Fifteen years ago, the center’s main office was named Gail’s House in memory of Gail Katz-Bierenbaum, who was murdered by her husband, Robert Bierenbaum, in 1985. The Manhattan plastic surgeon – who had disposed of his 29-year-old wife’s never-recovered body by dropping it from an airplane into the Atlantic Ocean – in 2000 was tried and convicted of the 15-year-old crime and is serving a sentence of 20 years to life in a state prison. The victim’s sister, Irvington attorney Alayne Katz, is chairperson of the center’s advisory board, named Friends of Gail.
At Gail’s House, Lola met the attorney she calls “my hero” – Laurie Epstein, Pace Women’s Justice Center’s director of litigation. Other women whom she has represented in court have likened her to a pit bull.
“People stay in some dire situations longer than they should because they don’t have the support and services,” Epstein said. “They’re so brainwashed” by their abusers “that they can’t even believe that there’s another way or that somebody’s going to stand up for them.”
Pace Women’s Justice Center gets them the support they need. “Then they see they can leave,” Epstein said. For the client, “It’s like this whole new world because someone is standing up for them. It’s such an eye-opening experience to them.”
As in Lola’s case, “That’s kind of the final piece – divorce – to get people away from the situation,” Epstein said. “Until you take that final step, you are not free.”
“That’s why we need funding for divorce. We’re the only people in Westchester County who are providing free contested divorces.”
“I can’t tell you what it means to someone like me,” Lola said of the help she found at Gail’s House. “Just going through that whole thing was a big nightmare, but just having her at my side, I wasn’t scared anymore. I was coming here. It was my safe place.”
“Everything was a fight, but Laurie would not back down. Because she never backed down, I never backed down. She’s my hero. She saved my life. She literally saved my life. I didn’t want to get out of bed anymore.”
“I gave my kids their mom back,” Lola said. “Laurie gave my kids their mom back.”
Lola’s divorce was final two years ago. About four months ago, she returned to court for her share of her ex-husband’s pension. A case like Lola’s “is always never-ending, especially if they have things in common,” Epstein said.
“I could not have done this without the help of everyone here,” said Lola. “Eventually I got my sparkle back. I’m a completely different person.”
Yet habits of self-protection are not easily shed by some who have escaped the bonds of domestic abuse.
“I still keep a bat by my bed,” Lola said.
Pace Women’s Justice Center will honor the Westchester Women’s Bar Association with its 2016 Making a Difference Award at the center’s 25th anniversary gala dinner on Oct. 19 at Glen Island Harbour Club in New Rochelle.
The White Plains center’s former executive directors – Michael Dowd, Vicki Lutz, Susan Pollet and Jane Aoyama-Martin – also will be recognized.
A 6 p.m. cocktail hour will be followed at 7 p.m. by dinner and the evening’s program, featuring a fund-to-need to benefit Gail’s House, the center’s main office near the Pace University Elisabeth Haub School of Law campus.
For more information, contact 914-422-4396 or firstname.lastname@example.org.