By Jane Whitehead. “We’re always on high alert here,” says Janet Donovan, JD ’89, as she greets a visitor at the secure entrance to the offices of Casa Myrna Vasquez. Since 1999 she has managed the Legal Advocacy Program at this multi-service agency for battered women and their children in Boston.
On an April afternoon, Donovan reviews a typical day’s work: checking in with a student intern about an ongoing family court matter, a half-hour crisis call exploring options with a client who reached the legal helpline in “a fairly lethal situation,” supervisions with two staff attorneys, and sending out a notice to the Casa Myrna Facebook page about a gathering at the State House in response to new regulations governing access to shelters for homeless people.
Multitasking has been Donovan’s style ever since she volunteered in the late 1970s at Transition House in Cambridge, a women’s collective that was one of the first shelters for battered women in the country. “We were all doing everything,” she recalls. “Running support groups for the residents, spending overnights, answering the hotline, going with clients to the welfare office, running a shelter for about eight families.”
Her impetus to take on domestic violence work, says Donovan, came from the disclosure by two good friends that their husbands were abusing them. “That was the eye-opener for me, that this was happening to close friends,” she says. The standard response to battered women at the time, she remembers, was blame: “What are you not giving your husband that he needs?” Donovan notes with satisfaction that media attitudes to reporting domestic violence stories have changed radically. “Nobody says any more, ‘What did she do to provoke it?’”
Through her work at Transition House, Donovan met Christine Butler, Practitioner in Residence (Family) at Suffolk University Law School, when she and others were drafting the state’s Abuse Prevention Act (1978). Under the new law Donovan and colleagues at the shelter received training that enabled them to go to court with their clients and get restraining orders. Butler was “hugely influential,” says Donovan, and throughout her subsequent career, she has tried to balance systemic work for change with hands-on direct service provision.
Even though her work with domestic violence victims inspired her to go to law school, Donovan did not see a career in the field as inevitable. With a commitment to helping people who would otherwise not have access to the legal system, she also considered immigration law and juvenile defense. But after a couple of years working as a judicial clerk, she joined a law firm in Newton, Massachusetts, that specialized in domestic relations and special education cases, and from 1995-1999 ran her own general practice with a focus on family law cases in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
While in private practice, because of her previous contacts, Donovan received many referrals for domestic relations cases in which abuse was a factor. “I felt I could be an effective advocate in those cases,” she says, “and those were the cases I really had strong feelings about.” They were also cases that occasionally led Donovan to fear for her safety, like the time when a client called to say that her abusing husband was on the loose with a shotgun. “We went into lockdown at the office for a couple of days,” Donovan recalls.
A trustee and past president of the Women’s Bar Foundation, Donovan has received several awards for her work in training and mentoring attorneys who work pro-bono with domestic abuse victims. These include the Women’s Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award (1999) and its Leila J. Robinson Award (2005). She tells the young lawyers she trains: “Respect your own boundaries. Don’t give out your cell phone number, be very guarded about your personal time, don’t see yourself as a savior.”
Far from being a narrow area of legal practice, says Donovan, domestic violence illuminates large social forces. “I think if you understand where domestic violence comes from, you actually understand where war comes from, where oppression comes from,” she says. Tough as the work can be – and she warns young attorneys of the vicarious trauma symptoms they might experience when dealing with difficult cases – Donovan finds her days full of inspiration. “Helping people figure out how to move on from something that’s been so devastating in their lives, helping people reach into their strongest parts, is very rewarding.”