Center History

Founded in 1991 under its original name, the Battered Women’s Justice Center, the Pace Women’s Justice Center was established by Governor Mario Cuomo in a joint partnership with New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence (OPDV) and Pace University School of Law, under the leadership and guidance of Law School Dean Steven H. Goldberg. Attorney Michael G. Dowd, whose pioneering work as a criminal defense attorney defending battered women (often pro bono) who were being tried for murdering their batterers, was appointed the founding director.

“Battered women in New York have a better chance to be helped rather than hurt, by the legal system, because our Battered Women’s Justice Center is training lawyers in this difficult and little understood area of advocacy. The program is the first of its kind in the nation.”

Steven  H. Goldberg, J.D., Dean, Pace University School of Law, “A Law School For Our Time,” Pace, Vol.X, No.2, October 1992

Victoria L. Lutz, Esq. was hired in 1991 to create domestic violence training programs, notably for prosecutors throughout New York State. Lutz, who became the Center’s Executive Director in 1996, came with an extensive background in both academic law and legal practice. In addition to teaching at Pace Law School, Lutz worked for eight years as an Assistant District Attorney at the Westchester County District Attorney's Office, where she prosecuted rape and domestic violence cases.

Audrey Stone joined Vicki Lutz in 1996 as Associate Director, serving as coordinator for OPDV’s Prosecutor’s Training Program. Under the leadership of  Lutz and Stone, the Battered Women’s Justice Center left the auspices of OPDV, and became an integral part of Pace Law School. In 1998, the Center was renamed the Pace Women’s Justice Center.  Along with Law School Dean Richard Ottinger, Lutz and Stone expanded the Center’s training programs into additional areas, including sexual assault, elder abuse prevention, and teen dating violence and also began to offer direct legal services for domestic violence victims.

In 1999, the Center’s first direct legal services program for clients, the Family Court Legal Program, opened its on-site legal office in White Plains Family Court to provide legal and support services to women applying for orders of protection while also providing professional training to law students. Because of its success, the program was expanded to Yonkers Family Court in 2001. Since then, the Center has greatly expanded its programs and services. In partnership with the White Plains Department of Public Safety and other local police precincts, the Center also provided 24/7 legal services to domestic violence victims under two former programs, Project DETER and Project ASSIST. The Center also created a Legal Helpline and conducted Matrimonial Legal Clinics, Elder Law Clinics and began to administer a Moderate Means Divorce Panel which matches middle-income clients with low-fee attorneys.  In addition, the Center began its partnership with The Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale’s Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Center for the Prevention of Elder Abuse.

The affiliation with Pace Law School brought the benefit of the involvement of now retired Professor Janet A. Johnson as Executive Director for Academic Programs, who continues to serve as a valued advisor. Professor Johnson was instrumental in providing a direct link between the Center, the Pace Law School faculty and law students. Prior to joining the faculty of Pace Law School, Professor Johnson served as Dean of the Law School from 1983-1989 and previously served as an Associate Judge of the Iowa Court of Appeals.

In 2001, the Center named our main office “Gail’s House,” and our Advisory Board the “Friends of Gail” in memory of Gail Katz, the sister of Alayne Katz, Esq., who is chairperson of the Center’s Advisory Board and a long time supporter of the Center. On July 7, 1985, Dr. Robert Bierenbaum killed his wife, Gail Katz Bierenbaum, a doctoral student in psychology. For fourteen years the murder remained unprosecuted since investigators could find no physical evidence directly linking Bierenbaum to the crime.  In 2000, after new interviews revealed startling inconsistencies and new evidence, Bierenbaum was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to 20 years to life in a New York State prison. The establishment of “Gail’s House” is a lasting tribute to Gail, and to the many women like her who struggle with the terrors of domestic violence, and to her family.

Audrey Stone served as Director until 2002 and Vicki Lutz left the Center in 2004. Susan L. Pollet, Esq. served as Executive Director of PWJC from 2004-2005. During her tenure the Center created the Elder Civil Legal Services Program, expanding the services of the Elder Law Unit to provide direct legal services to victims and survivors of elder abuse. Pollet brought to PWJC her extensive record of service as a Court Attorney in Westchester County Family Court, court-appointed law guardian, and Westchester County DSS attorney.

In 2005, the Family Law Unit was established to provide free legal services to clients in a wide array of legal matters arising from domestic violence and abuse in both Westchester and Putnam counties. The Family Law Unit also partners with community-based agencies, including domestic violence shelters, to provide civil legal services for domestic violence survivors.

From 2006-2015, Jane Aoyama-Martin served as the Executive Director. Under Aoyama-Martin, the Center greatly expanded the delivery of much needed legal services to domestic violence and elder abuse victims through the development of the Pro Bono Legal Program. With the assistance of pro bono attorneys, volunteers, and law students, PWJC’s Pro Bono Legal Program leverages limited financial resources and helps thousands of victims of domestic violence and elder abuse every year. In 2015, volunteers donated 7,500 hours of service, allowing us to assist many more people than would otherwise be possible. Also under Aoyama-Martin, the Center’s Bridge the Gap Program saw significant expansion, with more services being offered in Putnam County, as well as the addition of a staff attorney dedicated to helping victims and survivors of domestic violence specifically in the area served by the New Rochelle Family Courthouse, which covers New Rochelle, Mt. Vernon, and the Pelhams.

In 2015, Cindy Kanusher became the Executive Director. Cindy has been with the Center since 1998—starting as a staff attorney providing training to rural law enforcement officers around NY State, developing the Center’s numerous training initiatives, overseeing the Center’s programs such as the Legal Helpline, the Moderate Means Panel, the Elder Justice Program, and the training component of the Westchester County Family Justice Center; and from 2006-2015, serving as the Center’s Deputy Director.

Over the years, the Center has become a highly respected leader in fostering a coordinated community response to domestic violence and a multi-faceted legal services center. PWJC has frequently been featured in the media, on radio programs, in informational videos, and in newspaper and magazine articles for its expertise in the domestic violence field.  PWJC has also been the recipient of a number of awards including the 2003 Governor’s Justice Freedom and Courage Award to End Domestic Violence, the 2003 New York State Bar Association President’s Pro Bono Service Award, the 2002 Westchester Women’s Bar Association Family Friendly Workplace Policy Award and the 2000 Westchester County Bar Pro Bono Publico Award. The Pace Women’s Justice Center’s experienced staff remains firmly committed to providing comprehensive innovative and quality legal services and training that empowers clients to be self sufficient and to live their lives free from violence.