Things Became Clearer When I... Gave Survivors of Domestic Violence a Voice
Victoria Goodlof ’09
Supervising Attorney, Domestic Violence Law Unit, New York Legal Assistance Group, New York, New York
“As a high school senior, I did a year-long internship with an organization called Alternatives to Domestic Violence. I’ve always been that friend who cares a lot. I was the shoulder to cry on. It kind of felt natural to go into a domestic violence internship. That’s when my eyes opened.
We went to hospitals, we went to police stations, and we did trainings on identifying signs of domestic violence and crisis intervention. And I got to observe at a very young age where the system or services were able to help people. And where they weren’t.
Later, during an internship through Stevens, I spent two years at the Bergen County (New Jersey) Surrogate’s Court, doing adoption and guardianship work. I have a very vivid memory of reading reports of families and children, of the violence and abuse they experienced. Seeing the impact that attorneys had on these families had an effect. And I saw how grateful the families were. It felt like: ‘Tori, this is it for you.’
We all do this work for a reason. We all have an experience in our past or observed something in our past. I come from an intact, low-middle-income family. But our house was the house where everyone came; it was the fun, safe place.
At Stevens, I started doing healthy relationships workshops. I taught about power and control, the cycle of violence, red flags in relationships. That opened the flood gates for me.
I saw in some of my friends just glaringly unhealthy relationships that involved a lot of yelling and cursing and being critical. Things have come a long way since then. No one was talking about it then; it was almost this shameful thing.
I had a really contentious, volatile relationship. Over time, my boyfriend got physically abusive with me. At the time, I always had the thought — if I didn’t nag him, he wouldn’t do this. I really used to think that. But I was afraid to talk to anyone about it. I think because I had not only my own experience but also observed my friends, I had to help. I can’t imagine doing something else with my life, where I would be lawyering for the purpose of billing.
I work for a nonprofit where I don’t charge my clients. I exclusively serve low-income survivors of domestic violence. I handle divorce, custody, child support, orders of protection and immigration relief cases.
In court, a lot of times, I serve as a bodyguard. I’ll sit strategically so the abuser can’t look right at my client. The tension in the courtroom is so intense, always.
I realized that because I am in the legal field, I could empower someone to have a voice they never had. That’s my job — giving people a voice.
Often, I’m managing expectations. The best I can do sometimes is help them plan for safety, have the right documentation in place, have orders of protection, have a go-bag in case something should happen.
But I realized that because I am in the legal field, I could empower someone to have a voice they never had. That’s my job — giving people a voice. But when you empower someone to tell their story, and there’s a lawyer there to say it in the right way for the court, that’s when the real change happens.
I’ll never forget my first immigration client, for whom I also did an order of protection and a custody order. At the time, she was trying to learn English, had a 3-year-old daughter and was living in a shelter.
Over time, I got to see her emerge from her situation. She got rental assistance and an apartment. Then I was able to get her work authorization, and she started working at a bakery. Now she’s living in Connecticut with her daughter, working as a bookkeeper, with a 401K. And I was able to help get her from fully dependent on her U.S. citizen husband to fully independent.
My clients, they just want peace. To have them come back to me and say, ‘Oh my God, over all these years, I’m so much better,’ it’s humbling to talk about it.” — As told to Beth Kissinger
If you or someone you know is being abused, support and help are available. Visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website at thehotline.org or call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).