Nearly 30 women sat around a long U-shaped table, grappling, in groups of two or three, with the task of role-playing in challenging situations.
What do you say to a 16-year-old who has come to court to get a restraining order against her 19-year-old boyfriend who hit her and, she says, she is struggling with feelings of shame? What about an older woman whose husband of 10 years, a well-respected professional and father to their two children, has begun being physically abusive?
Dec. 8 was the last day of a 40-hour training program provided by the Rachel Coalition, a local Jewish response to domestic violence.
Following the training at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark, the role-playing will become real, as the trainees go out to assist domestic violence victims in family court and other settings. Volunteers provide emotional support, as well as information on how to present cases in court and are equipped to provide information regarding available social services and legal resources.
“Individuals who are assisted by our volunteers are more likely to seek help from other agencies for counseling and legal assistance,” said Suzanne Groisser, coordinator of legal services for the Rachel Coalition, a division of the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest and a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
This month’s “graduation” also marked a new era for the project: Beginning in the spring, the training will be permanently endowed, thanks to a $100,000 gift from Anita Fishman of South Orange and Scottsdale, Ariz. The training will be known as the Fishman Family Court Advocate Training Program.
Until now, the program has been funded entirely through grants.
“Grants come and go, and we’re always a little nervous,” said JFS executive director Reuben Rotman. Having the program endowed “relieves the pressure to constantly look for another grant.”
The funding will cover the administrative costs of running the program. Each session — there are two each year, one in the fall and one in the spring — costs about $5,000, which includes staff time and materials.
Anita Fishman said she has no personal experience with this issue other than having compassion for victims of abuse.
“I’m a woman and I believe in supporting women’s issues. And when I discussed with my two daughters giving a sizable amount of money to something, both thought the Rachel Coalition was a great idea,” she told NJJN Dec. 10, by phone from Arizona.
One of her daughters, attorney Lisa Tane, worked for the juvenile division of the Legal Aid Society in New York. She and her sister, Caren Oberstein, have both supported women’s issues and advocacy against domestic violence, according to their mother.
The coalition’s court advocacy training program has been running since 2005.
In the latest cohort, half of the participants are professionals who will use the training to help them in their day-to-day work at places like the Essex County Division of Youth and Family Services, homeless shelters, and transitional counseling centers.
The other half will volunteer in the waiting room of the Essex County Family Court, helping victims of domestic violence navigate the judicial system.
The Rachel Coalition has trained over 50 volunteers, and many stay with the program for a number of years, according to Groisser. Each volunteer commits a minimum of one year to the program and goes to court once or twice per month. There are currently 15 active volunteers.
After receiving their diplomas and a handshake from Groisser on Dec. 8, participants described the impact the training has had on them.
Sherrille McKethan said it changed the trajectory of her career. After 15 years in the fashion industry, she went back to school and is finishing up a bachelor’s degree. Although she had planned to pursue education, she said, she has decided instead to pursue a master’s degree in social work to continue helping victims of domestic violence on a professional level.
McKethan came to the training to help start up an anti-domestic violence ministry at First Baptist Church of South Orange, where she belongs. “One of our church members died at the hand of her husband. That really woke me up that something had to be done,” she said.
Longtime DYFS professionals applauded the quality of the training.
Cassandra Scott Love, deputy director of Turning Point Community Services in Maplewood, told the trainers she was moved to volunteer with the Rachel Coalition.
At Turning Point she sees many victims and survivors of domestic violence and will be able to “pour into women all the information you have given us,” she said.
But the training has also had a personal impact on her.
“I am a child witness of domestic violence,” Scott Love explained. “You have connected the dots for me. My father was a batterer, and my mother was a victim. I am able to see more about my father. I am able to understand more about my mother, and I’m able to understand more about me, even these many years later. I feel so empowered.”
She also pointed out, however, that at 40 hours, the program was not long enough. And she urged that more time be spent on training volunteers to work with children.
“Please don’t forget the children. That’s a group nobody is dealing with. And children [from abusive families] either become victims or batterers,” she said.