Stacey Neumann walks fast, thinks fast and talks fast. It’s always been like this – in fact, her grandfather predicted she’d be a lawyer because she talked a blue streak from the moment she uttered her first word, and as she grew, she was known for creating rapid-fire and persuasive arguments at the dinner table. Stacey demurs, with a slight smile, saying she did not decide to become a lawyer until midway through college at the University of Massachusetts (UMass Amherst), when she took her first of several criminal justice courses. She enjoyed the classes more than she thought she would and ultimately secured a law degree from Brooklyn Law School. From there she walked around the corner to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, where she worked for 17 years, 14 of which she spent in the Domestic Violence (DV) Bureau.
The DV Bureau was not an easy place to work, Neumann recalled. Most of her counterparts left after about six months. But Neumann stayed. “I worked side by side with career prosecutors, who were great role models and taught me so much,” she said. More importantly, she derived great satisfaction from working with hundreds and hundreds of victims, trying to find the best solutions for the victims and their children. “Criminal conviction and jail weren’t always the best outcome for the family,” she commented.
The Nascent Hope’s Door Legal Center
Fast forward to December 2018, when Stacey became the Director of Legal Services of the Hope’s Door Legal Center, made possible by a five-year, federal grant award of $1.9 million. Five days into the job, she hired staff attorney, Mia Pergolizzi, and within 48 hours they were seeing their first clients. From there they went on to build the foundation of their legal services practice, including developing intake forms and procedures and incorporating Hope’s Door danger assessment and safety planning tools to their practice, not to mention “ordering legal pads and computers,” she says, with a smile.
For 39 years, Hope’s Door has provided emergency shelter, counseling, support groups, and other assistance to victims of domestic violence. By offering legal services, Hope’s Door can now also assist victims seeking civil orders of protection or U-Visas, fighting custody battles, or needing divorces. “We can now provide the full complement of compassionate and effective care a victim may require, all under one roof, and in a supportive setting,” says Neumann. The collaboration among all the staff – program directors, counselors and lawyers – offers the ideal service model for Hope’s Door clients.
“I can walk across the hall and find out if the victim is still going to her counseling sessions, or update my client’s counselor on the progress I’ve made in the trial. We no longer need to hunt down information or get caught in the endless back and forth of voice messages and emails; we’re all right here working together,” Neumann explains. Hope’s Door Counselor/Advocate Yanira Villaman agrees, saying “it adds a layer of comfort, especially if I’m in session with a client who is in distress, that I can so easily find out what legal options are available, so she can feel safer. It’s as if the doors in the Legal Center are always open to me, even when they are closed.”
While some referrals come from Pace Women’s Justice Center and other outside agencies, most are already clients of Hope’s Door, some residing in the emergency shelter and others engaged in counseling or the Next Step Economic Empowerment Program. Still others call the Legal Center or find us through the Hope’s Door 24/7 Hotline (888-438-8700). Hope’s Door Legal Center does not, however, take walk-in clients.
From a strictly numerical standpoint, the grant calls for the Hope’s Door Legal Center to serve 150 clients in their first year. “It’s only been three months and we’re closing in on 50 clients already,” Neumann says, “so we’re sure to meet the criteria.” Very importantly, the Hope’s Door lawyers are conscientiously practicing trauma informed care. Careful to acknowledge the trauma their clients have experienced, and to remain sensitive to the dynamics of trauma throughout the duration of each case, they focus on encouraging self-determination for each individual.
Neumann says the greatest challenge the Hope’s Door Legal Center faces is not being able to help everyone who applies for legal assistance. The grant provides for two attorneys and a paralegal, a relatively small team. In the extremely rare cases that Hope’s Door has not been able to help a client, Neumann has referred to the Pace Women’s Justice Center and in future she plans to develop relationships that will enable her to secure pro bono help from lawyers in private practice.
Neumann raves about her team at Hope’s Door. “I feel like I won the lottery – twice!” she exclaims, adding, “Mia brings compassion and a wealth of experience and expertise from her years in private practice, and we just hired paralegal Brittany Miraldi, recent graduate of Penn State University. Brittany is young, energetic, and soaks up information like a sponge.” Together, these three women are playing a key role in the collaborative Hope’s Door process that transforms victims into survivors.