Vanguard for abuse victims

Wynona Ward in town to talk about her cause

May 17, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

As a child in rural Vermont, Wynona Ward knew that the neighbors could hear her mother's screams as her drunken father punched her in the stomach.

No help came, Ward told an assembly of teen-agers at Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School this week. "They turned their heads, just as, frankly, we turned our heads on the domestic abuse in our neighbors' homes. A man's home is his castle, after all - except in our case, the castle was a prison for my mother and her children."

Later, Ward would help convict her own brother, who was abusing a family member, and then would fight to keep him behind bars when the Vermont parole board wanted to release him after two years. "It was one of the toughest things I ever had to do," said Ward, "but it was necessary to break the generational cycle" of family abuse.

Ward, who founded a nonprofit organization to provide legal and social services to victims of domestic violence in Vermont, spent two days in Baltimore at Bryn Mawr. She visited classes, delivered an evening talk to the North Baltimore school's community, addressed an assembly of middle and upper school students, and did some very discreet and unofficial counseling.

In a country in which 4 million women are abused each year, Ward said, family violence "knows no social or economic lines." In fact, she said, "Upscale family violence can be a worse problem, because the abusers have a lot more to give up - the prestige, the home, all the things that go with having money.

"And they can afford lawyers. Most of my clients can't afford lawyers. Some don't even have telephones. When they get black and blues, they can't use their MasterCard to check into a motel until the black and blues are gone."

Four years ago, Ward, 50, established Have Justice - Will Travel, a law office on wheels. Her 1996 Ford Explorer is equipped with a CB radio, scanner and cell phone. She sits in the kitchens of victims referred by courts, police or hot lines, hears their stories and explains their options.

If the chosen option is going to court, Ward provides free legal representation, even transportation to and from the courthouse. Her tiny operation survives on private donations and grants from the federal Violence Against Women Act.

Ward took an unorthodox route to Have Justice - Will Travel, she told the assembly. In large part to escape her abusive father, she married her steady boyfriend at age 18 - they're still married 33 years later - and worked with him in a trucking business, driving across country for 15 years.

In 1993, she earned an undergraduate degree, studying on a laptop in the "back of the cab," and then entered Vermont Law School. Diagnosed with a slight learning disability believed to have stemmed from head trauma as a child, she passed the bar on the fourth attempt and established her mobile legal service shortly thereafter.

A fluent speaker who displays a slight New England accent in private conversation, Ward urged the Bryn Mawr students to join her in the fight against abuse. "Children have to learn that it's not OK for Daddy to hit Mommy," she said. "We won't stop the street violence or the school violence until we stop the violence in the home."

The most dangerous time, she said, is when a woman leaves an abusive relationship. That's when the man's control, on which his abuse depends, passes to the woman, "and he almost always gets more aggressive.

"That's when women die."

There was silence in the auditorium.

Inviting Ward to Bryn Mawr "was a bit dicey," said Howard "Pete" Colhoun, a retired investment adviser who endows the lecture series of which Ward's appearance was a part.

"Some people around here said there were safer topics and that we shouldn't go to family abuse," said Colhoun, who had heard Ward lecture in Vermont, "and I saw the genuine article and knew we had to have her."

Besides, said Colhoun, "how much more timely could it be?" He mentioned the current scandal involving priests in the Roman Catholic Church and an incident a year ago in which a St. Paul's School lacrosse player videotaped himself having sex with a 15-year-old girl and showed the tape to teammates.

"Abuse in families is almost always kept a secret," said Colhoun. "It's terribly embarrassing and shameful, and it has legal ramifications that are usually messy."

After listening to Ward's talk, Christina Hanley, a 17-year-old senior, agreed. "Abuse is something we don't talk about, even with friends," she said. "And that's the problem."

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