Wynona Ward: Road Warrior for Justice
Wynona Ward drives her Ford Explorer, an "office on wheels," for thousands of miles over Vermont back roads each year, to reach even the most geographically isolated families suffering from domestic abuse.
Ward has become an unlikely hero in her community, celebrated as "a true champion" by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy for the way her organization, Have Justice Will Travel, is "serving women and children throughout the state of Vermont," calling it "a shining example for grassroots domestic violence assistance on a national level."
Things weren't always so bright for this Vermont native. When she was 18, Wynona married her junior high school sweetheart, and dropped out of college to help her husband start a trucking business, hauling refrigerated freight across the U.S. and Canada for 15 years.
Ward's life took a fateful turn when she learned that her father had abused a three-year-old niece. This opened up a discussion between Ward and her sisters about their family's history of abuse. Ward led the effort to prosecute their father for abusing the little girl. He spent a few days in jail but his case was eventually dropped because the child was considered too young to testify.
This experience forced Ward to reflect on her own troubled upbringing. At an early age, Ward could only watch as her father abused her mother. Neighbors on their quiet country road looked the other way, and her family did the same if they heard screams coming from next door—a fairly typical response to domestic violence.
Six years later the same young girl reported being raped by Ward's brother. He was convicted, but requested an early parole because of bad health. Ward knew now that she wanted to be a different kind of road warrior—one who broke the isolation of families like her own to stop the ongoing generational cycle of abuse. She mounted a grassroots and media campaign against the Department of Corrections to get her brother's parole revoked, and she succeeded.
"The day came when another child in my family had been abused," Ward said. "It was at that point in time when I realized that to stop the generational cycle of abuse, I needed to become a lawyer."
Ward spent the last two years of her truck-driving career earning an undergraduate degree, doing her schoolwork in the back of the truck cab. She entered Vermont Law School at the age of 44.
During her last year of law school, Ward worked on domestic violence cases at a free legal clinic. It was here that her idea for Have Justice Will Travel was born. She noticed that many abused women failed to follow through after getting restraining orders against their husbands.
"I realized that these women needed transportation, in-home consultations, and legal representation," she said.
In 1998 Ward graduated from law school and started Have Justice Will Travel (HJWT) for victims of domestic violence in rural areas.
"Many of the victims of domestic abuse in these areas don't have a telephone or driver's license, and the nearest neighbor may be miles away," Ward said. "Ten percent of Vermont residents live below the federal poverty line. This geographic isolation and poverty is matched by poor education and social inequality which can make it especially difficult for women and children in abusive situations."
Instead of asking women to seek services in distant towns, Ward started driving to meet them where they lived. "It is very difficult for women to come forward when they have been abused," she notes. " They feel ashamed of what has happened to them. I can go and sit in their kitchens where they’re comfortable and talk with them as a peer."
HJWT provides free legal representation and social services to help clients understand the root causes of abuse and leave their abuser through economic independence and greater self-esteem.
"Stopping the generational cycle of abuse is the goal of everything we do at HJWT," Ward said. "I truly believe that we will not stop street violence, we will not stop school violence until we stop violence in the home, and to stop violence in the home we must stop the generational cycle of abuse."
Since 1998, more than 1,960 children, women, and several men have received the entire spectrum of HJWT services, Ward said. "The best measure of the effectiveness of our multi-service model is that few women—only about 10 percent of the women served—have returned to their batterers or entered into other abusive relationships."
Ward is currently working to replicate HJWT around the country, and is pursuing ways to move HJWT toward sustainable funding in order to service the hundreds of telephone calls received each year.
"We have expanded our services and engaged in a strategic planning process to set the stage for helping many more survivors escape the generational cycle of abuse," Ward said. "Have Justice Will Travel is truly the story of one woman helping another, who helps another, who helps another. We are making a huge difference in the lives of these women and children."
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