Inside the coordinated effort in Middlesex County to support victims of domestic violence
Too many have come to Women Aware seeking help from domestic violence.
But it was one woman’s case which sparked the birth of the organization’s Family Justice
In 2017, Women Aware was involved in a domestic violence case that left a woman
broken, battered and brain damaged.
Woman Aware tried to help, as did other agencies and organizations. But, at the time, each worked in a vacuum, separate from each other. And something somewhere was missed.
He hurt her. He did not kill her. But he hurt her. Permanently.
It was then that Women Aware knew its vision for a better future for victims of domestic
violence must come to fruition as soon as possible.
That why the Family Justice Center (FJC) on the fourth floor at 100 Bayard St. in New
Brunswick was created.
Before the FJC, help for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Middlesex
County was found in different agencies and organizations. Each had their specific mission
Going from one to the other, a woman might have to tell her story again and again to find
the assistance she needed. The victim had to relive trauma every time the story was told.
“You come into the Family Justice Center and that’s what our intake specialist is here for.
You tell your story one time and then that begins the connection process to the services
that you need and want,” said Mildred Torres, director of the Middlesex County FJC. “So
it’s bringing services under one roof, increased safety for victims. These are goals that
across the nation at Family Justice Centers could hold perpetrators more accountable.”
By housing resources in a centralized location, the FJC is better able to break down
barriers between victims and services. FJC’s mission is to increase safety for victims and
children, reduce domestic violence homicides and recidivism among offenders. Resources
and support from community partners are also available at the FJC.
The FJC also aids victims of sexual assault and human trafficking.
“We decided it was time to get everyone to the table,” Torres said. “We started talking
about this and everybody realized what was going on − we were not connected; we were
not talking. We’re all doing great work. We’re all very good agencies, and we’ve been doing excellent work, but we’re not talking to one another. If we came together, just imagine all that we could do. Imagine the possibility if we all got together and worked together to help these victims each victim together. And that was a start. It was a journey.”
A coordinated effort
The Middlesex County FJC is modeled after the first facility of its kind − A Safe Place –
Family Justice Center – which opened 20 years ago in San Diego. This FJC, which
officially opened in December 2021, is one of five in the state, joining Essex, Monmouth,
Union and Morris counties. All have recently started meeting on a bi-monthly basis.
“We started meeting so we can talk and make it so that New Jersey is the best state in the
United States to serve a victim − to have the best available comprehensive victim services, be trauma informed, and give them the best all-around services,” Torres said. “They deserve it.”
The FJC is a hub in a wheel with spokes in 13 directions − agencies and organizations that are community partners building a coordinated community response to domestic violence.
Those include the Middlesex County Office of Human Services, Prosecutor’s Office, Board
of Social Services, and Center for Empowerment; Central Jersey Legal Services, Jewish
Family Services, New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, Partners For
Women and Justice, American Friends Service Committee, Coming Home of Middlesex
County, Manavi, Town Clock Community Development Corporation and A Partnership for
“The communication between the community partners is key,” Torres said. “We have
personalized this. We have this communication in that they can walk in here or we can call
them and say, ‘Hey, we need your help. We need more eyes on this particular case.’ We can hold perpetrators to be more accountable and we are more accountable. And the victims have become what is most important. They’re going to get the best of the best from all of us. And we’re going to make sure that everyone gives their best − they are and they will. They committed − that’s a key word. Committed to the cause of safety and survival of victims and children.”
“Moving survivors beyond abuse is a community effort,” said Woman Aware CEO Phyllis
Yonta. “Working collaboratively, in one space, under the umbrella of the FJC, our purpose
is to radically improve family safety as well as offender accountability.”
Two years after its official opening, the FJC is a warm oasis of safety, recovery and
resources for the women, men and children who have come through its doors. A space of
support and solace is evident by the light blue walls, colorful children’s playroom, words of
hope and positivity etched on artwork and subtly placed stones, a waterfall and the faces
that greet every victim/survivor.
“That’s what we call them − victim/survivor,” Torres said. “Many of them still feel like a
victim and are in that stage. They haven’t moved on yet. Others may be closer to feeling
like a survivor − they have gotten out of the home. And so whatever they want, we respect
whatever they want to be called. We always meet the victim where they are at. We want
them to be comfortable.”
In 2022, Woman Aware served more than 2,500 survivors of domestic violence. The
organization sheltered 270 individuals, served more than 2,000 in safety net programs and responded to 6,000 multilingual hotline calls to provide support, information, safety
planning and resources. Women Aware has been the county’s domestic violence agency for more than 40 years.
Located in the heart of Middlesex County’s government center, the FJC could not be in a
safer spot. The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office Victim Witness Unit is a door away.
The FJC offers a 24-hour hotline, emergency shelter, legal advocacy, support groups and
children’s trauma therapy and support services.
Woman Aware also offers access to crisis intervention services, such as the Domestic
Violence Response Team, victim advocacy and a housing navigation program. Survivors
can get a myriad of information on everything from resume writing and job placement to
immigration and citizenship.
Woman Aware and the FJC also are spreading awareness about their programs and
services, reaching out to places where potential domestic violence victims may frequent −
churches, temples, schools, organizations, agencies, etc. Staff also is continuously
participating in trainings and self-care for their own mental health needs.
Walk-ins are welcome and appointments are not necessary. The FJC’s services are free.
Woman Aware and the FJC are funded through foundation, corporate, public and private
donations and grants. In November 2021, Women Aware received a $1 million grant from
the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Violence Against Women 2021 Improving
Criminal Justice Responses to Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, Sexual Assault, and
Stalking Grant Program. The grant provided the bulk of the funding for the Middlesex
Protection without consequences
Through the FJC, a victim has options. It is not the FJC’s place to tell a victim what to do,
but open their eyes to the options, Torres said.
For example, a victim wants help and to get protection for themselves and any children. If
they go directly to a police station and she has obvious injuries, she can get a restraining
order. If she accuses him and says she is abused, it’s a mandatory arrest. If she goes to
Family Court first, even if she is injured, she can obtain a restraining order, but there is
not a mandatory arrest.
Many times, the victim does not want their abuser arrested, Torres said.
“And they know people that don’t understand domestic violence will say, ‘What? Why
not?’” Torres said. “Because they still love this man. They need this person for two-income
housing. They think about the housing. They’re worried that if they are home, work part time or even if they work full-time − can they make it on that salary alone? What about
when they have children? There are a lot of barriers. Sometimes, it’s immigration issues.
There are a lot of reasons why a victim does not want to get their abuser in trouble or get
them in the criminal system.”
Everything is spelled out at the FJC. A victim can feel free to get protection with without
“It is the survivor’s choice to decide what direction in which to go,” Torres said. “They just
need to know that they have choice with no judgement. And that’s something that they
haven’t been given in this relationship with this person. They haven’t been given choice.”
This may be the first time a victim has been empowered. Empowerment is very important
for victims, Torres said. FJC has advocates − legal, intake specialist, Domestic Violence
Response Team, even Torres herself − that offer information, not advice. It is confidential
“Even for this person to say, ‘I believe you. I am listening to you. I’m giving you supportive
listening. I validate you,’ that is powerful,” Torres said. “She will feel this person is there
for her and is going to listen to her. And she can trust that person. And she’s going to
follow through for her.”
Torres said the advocate may not agree with the victim’s decision. There may be a danger
risk, and they do inform them of their thoughts about the danger, but the victim’s decision
is respected. Safety planning is huge, every step of the way, Torres said.
“We let them know they can change their mind at any time, and tell them, again, that we
are here for them,” Torres said. “We need to give that power back to the victim and
empower her to make that decision and know we’re there for them throughout the
journey. And if they decide to drop the restraining order, which many do, that’s okay. They
know we’re here. They know they can come back for different services.”
Torres said there is so much more that they can do, so much more that she wants to see
Torres and the FJC staff are passionate about their work keeping victims and children
safe. She loves her job and the people she helps and her co-workers but would give it all up for a day when domestic violence is no more, when there is no need for Woman Aware or a Family Justice Center.
“I would do so happily,” Torres said. “I love what we do. And it’s needed − the stories that
you hear. … But I would be happy to give up my position − to not have to have this job − if
domestic violence can end tomorrow. But the sad point is that it is not happening.”
The Middlesex County Family Justice Center is open for victims and survivors of domestic
violence and their families Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more
information about Women Aware and the FJC, go to womenaware.net/news/familyjustice-
Cheryl Makin is an award-winning features and education reporter for MyCentralJersey.com, part of the USA Today Network. Contact:
Informational Webinars in English and Spanish - March 16, 5:30-7:30p.m.
Click on flyers for more information.
March 14 Legal Workshop - Domestic Violence in the South Asian Community
The Middlesex County Family Justice Center will host a legal workshop, “Domestic Violence in the South Asian Community” on March 14, 2023, 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the Middlesex County Bar Association, 87 Bayard St., New Brunswick.
Bhavini Shah, Esq. will present.
To attend virtually, click on https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83448109559?pwd=VnMxTldtZDBoamw3NHFsVkdwVHlyZz09.
Meeting ID: 834 4810 9559
Enbridge and Women Aware partner to move survivors beyond abuse
“Last year, we served the most individuals we ever have in our 41-year history.”
That’s Women Aware, the leading domestic violence services agency which for more than four decades has served Middlesex County in New Jersey.
With a population of 825,000, the county relies on Women Aware to find placement for people who need to escape an unsafe situation and help them get back on their feet.
“We shelter more than 200 women and children on average per year for anywhere from 30-day stays to 90 days or even more,” says Susan Dyckman, Development Director at Women Aware. “Last year, that number rose to 278.”
During the pandemic, Women Aware expanded its shelter capacities by starting a hotel placement program, meaning that staff could still provide case management services until an opportunity to move individuals into safe housing emerged.
“It’s really amazing that, throughout the entire pandemic, Women Aware did not have to close our doors,” says Catherine Cintron, Director of Grants and Compliance at Women Aware. “Because we have always been committed to cross-training our staff, we could adapt staffing and expand shelter capacity to serve more clients than ever before.”
Cross-training was key for Women Aware, as staff who might normally spend their time in legal advocacy were able to rotate into roles such as a hotline operator when the situation called for it.
In 2021, Enbridge donated $15,000 to Women Aware as part of our commitment to help build sustainable communities near our operations.. The funding enables Women Aware to meet 2023 goals that include sheltering 215 women and children, answering 6,000 hotline calls and providing non-residential services to 1,800 victims.
In addition to the daily services offered by Women Aware, the organization puts on the Moving Beyond Abuse 5K & Charity Walk during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October. Enbridge provided a $5,000 grant in 2022 to help put on this event that connects Women Aware with the community.
The overarching vision for Women Aware this year is to continue to build upon an established facility that brings all services under one roof.
“We opened the doors of the Family Justice Center in late 2020, where the goal is to bring all resources necessary for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and their children under one roof,” says Dyckman.
The goal is to be as seamless as possible—particularly for individuals in times of urgent need.
“A survivor can walk in, no appointment necessary, and then an intake process occurs where a trained advocate meets with a survivor to hear their story and connect them to all necessary resources.”
And once a survivor moves through the shelter and resources and has landed back on their feet, they’ll often stay in touch.
“Often our client services colleagues will share survivor success stories,” says Dyckman. “To hear where the survivor was, and how far they have come, is a truly overwhelming feeling.”
(PHOTO: From left, Women Aware’s Catherine Cintron, Melinda Clugsten, Josephine Mingione, Maria Betanzos and Maliha Janjua sport jeans at Denim Day, an international movement to “wear jeans with a purpose,” stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault, and promote awareness and education.)
It takes a village to move survivors of domestic violence and their children beyond abuse. Here is Women Aware’s Top 10 List for 2022!
By TAPINTO NEW BRUNSWICK
Published December 26, 2022 at 1:42 AM
Last Updated December 26, 2022 at 8:35 AM
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Women Aware, a city-based, state-designated lead domestic violence agency for Middlesex County that has been saving lives for 40 years, has received a $20,000 grant from the Mary Kay Ash Foundation.
The grant from the foundation, which supports the ending of domestic violence and other issues impacting women, comes at a crucial time.
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, more than 72,000 adult and child victims receive domestic violence services across the United States in just one day. Unfortunately, in the same period of time, more than 11,000 requests for services are unmet due to a lack of resources.
In 2022, Women Aware is on track to serve the most clients in agency history.
Women Aware focuses on practical skills while offering intensive case management, including safety planning, counseling, housing assistance, life skills, parenting education, creative arts therapy for children, advocacy, health education and screening and translation services. All services are free and confidential.
Women Aware also offers an array of services that include a 24-hour hotline, emergency shelter, support groups, children’s trauma therapy programs, legal advocacy, and supportive housing.
Each year, Women Aware moves approximately 2,000 survivors beyond abuse.
“We are deeply grateful for the Mary Kay Ash Foundation’s generous support for survivors of domestic violence in Middlesex County,” stated Women Aware CEO Phyllis Yonta. “The Foundation’s partnership makes it possible for our advocates to provide safe shelter for survivors and their children, and support them with the services and resources necessary to build independent lives free of abuse.”
This year, more than 147,000 women and their families will receive domestic violence support services through the 50 agencies awarded grants by the Mary Kay Ash Foundation.
The Foundation is committed to funding the life-saving work of women’s shelters, and the annual shelter grant program has helped critical financial needs including emergency shelter, transitional housing, counseling and legal aid. All of these resources support women and children as they seek refuge and relief on their journey to an abuse-free life.
This year, more than 1,100 organizations applied for the Mary Kay Ash Foundation shelter grants.
“At Mary Kay, we believe in helping women improve their circumstances and live their best lives,” said Foundation Board of Directors Michael Lunceford. “One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime and it is our responsibility to support the women’s shelters that aid these survivors. At the heart of the Foundation’s work is the shelter grant program which is actively supported by our Independent Beauty Consultants. We’re proud that our commitment makes such a powerful impact in local communities and in the lives of domestic violence survivors across the country.”
If you or someone you know is in need of assistance, call Women Aware’s free 24/7 hotline at 732-249-4504 or toll-free at 833-249-4504.
Mission and impact featured in annual Needy Cases profile
Needy Cases 2022: Women Aware coordinates efforts to combat domestic violence
Closing doors is never an option for Women Aware.
Throughout the pandemic, the nearly 50-year-old nonprofit organization remained open − and saw its numbers rise to record amounts.
“Survivors of domestic violence count on us to be here,” said Phyllis Yonta, Women Aware’s CEO. “Women Aware’s greatest challenge continues to be answering survivors’ needs for shelter, safety planning and comprehensive services in the wake of the COVID-19 public health crisis. It is a testament to our dedicated professional staff that our 24/7 hotline and emergency shelter remained open through the pandemic.”
Women Aware has been a guiding light for those suffering from domestic abuse. The state-designated lead domestic violence agency for Middlesex County, Women Aware moves approximately 2,000 survivors beyond abuse each year, said Susan M. Dyckman, development director.
Despite the challenges, Women Aware has continued to operate the only 24-hour domestic violence emergency shelter in the second most populous county in the state.
“Our trained, trauma-informed professional staff are experts when it comes to serving survivors, but it takes an entire community to save lives,” Dyckman said.
Founded in the 1970s, Women Aware started by providing shelter services to women seeking safety from domestic violence. When the organization became incorporated in 1981, the nonprofit began offering additional services. Today, the organization offers shelter along with legal advocacy, counseling, community outreach, supportive housing, liaisons in child protective services, community education and a creative art therapy program for children.
In 2021, the organization served 2,195 survivors of domestic violence, including 176 children. Women Aware sheltered 250 women and children, which was 35% more than in 2020 – the most in the history of the agency. The organization provided 11,440 bed nights − 49% more than in 2020 − and answered 7,278 hotline calls, a 14% rise from 2020.
Last year, Women Aware expanded shelter capacity through a hotel placement program to accommodate victims’ need for emergency shelter, spoke with callers in 10 different languages, provided legal advocacy for 1,137 clients − up 38% from 2020 − and increased individual, group and family therapy sessions by 23% in the Peace: A Learned Solution (PALS) program.
Women Aware also hosted and participated in court intervention, accompaniment and preparation sessions as well as case management, legal clinics and workshops.
Women Aware is on pace to exceed these numbers in 2022, Dyckman said.
A major project in the next year is the Middlesex County Family Justice Center (FJC). As the lead agency for this ground-breaking initiative, Women Aware will be laying the foundation for a coordinated community response to domestic violence and sexual assault.
The goal of the FJC is to reduce domestic violence homicides and increase the safety and confidentiality of domestic violence survivors and their children in collaboration with co-located victim services agencies. The FJC will help survivors and their families get the resources and support they need at one location.
“Working collaboratively, in one space, under the umbrella of the Family Justice Center, our purpose is to radically improve family safety as well as offender accountability,” Yonta said.
Last year, Women Aware was awarded a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Violence Against Women. This helped to provide funding for the FJC, Dyckman said
This effort is partnership with the Middlesex County Office of Human Services, Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, Middlesex County Center for Empowerment, Central Jersey Legal Services, Jewish Family Services, American Friends Service Committee, Middlesex County Board of Social Services, New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, Coming Home of Middlesex County, Manavi, Town Clock Community Development Corporation, A Partnership for Change and Dress for Success Central Jersey.
The FJC is open for walk-ins from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at 100 Bayard St. (fourth floor) in New Brunswick.
Dyckman said Women Aware relies on community support to fund and fulfill its mission to provide free and confidential services to survivors moving beyond abuse.
“We are grateful to the individuals, community organizations, businesses, foundations, government funders and service providers who support our mission to promote the safety and self-sufficiency of individuals and families affected by domestic violence in Middlesex County,” Dyckman said. “Individual financial donations are used where most needed and are always welcome.”
The Woman Aware annual holiday gift program will be comprised of gift cards only. Gift cards give victims of domestic violence some financial independence, helping them purchase what they need for themselves and their children, Dyckman said.
Suggested gift cards include Visa, Mastercard, Uber, Target, Walmart, CVS, Walgreen’s, ShopRite, Stop & Shop, Amazon and gas cards. Gift cards can be dropped off from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday at 250 Livingston Ave. in New Brunswick. You can call 732-249-4900 ext. 0428 before stopping by or with any questions. Gift cards also can be mailed to Women Aware at 250 Livingston Ave. New Brunswick, NJ 08901.
For more information about Women Aware go to womenaware.net or call the free 24-hour hotline at 732-249-4504 or toll-free at 833-249-4504. If it is too dangerous for a victim to reach out directly, a trusted family member or friend can call the hotline. The statewide hotline also is available at 800-572-SAFE (7233).
Message from New Jersey State Federation of Women's Clubs