The Story of AVDA and NCJW GHS
This history of the founding of AVDA by NCJW Houston in the 1980s was compiled and written by Barbara Hordern, NCJW Board VP of PR.
We have amazing women in NCJW Greater Houston Section, some of whom have done amazing things that the rest of us know little about. It is time to re-introduce them and their projects to NCJW Greater Houston Section. This is the story of AVDA, Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse.
Ann Reva Jacobson, Norma Trusch, Deedee Ostfeld, Toby Meyers, and a slew of devoted NCJW volunteers started AVDA (Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse) back in 1980, when there was little support for victims of domestic abuse. The Women’s Center of Houston was just opening its first shelter, and though the problem was on the minds of women’s organizations throughout the city, there was clearly a need for legal services for victims of domestic abuse. Too often, charges against abusive spouses were dropped or never filed. Charges had to be pressed by someone other than the victim, and if the victim changed her story, the police just let it slide. Psychologists and social workers were only beginning to understand how hard it is for dependent spouses to prosecute their abusers.
The courts were not friendly. To get a restraining order, attorneys had to get sworn affidavits describing the abuse in minute detail. Norma Trusch, a family attorney and president of what was then NCJW Houston Section’s Career Branch, would often spend weeks seeking restraining orders only to see her clients return to their abusers two weeks later. She began to realize these clients needed access to free legal counseling, and they needed more emotional support than a busy lawyer could provide. She took her concerns to Ann Reva Jacobson, then president of NCJW Greater Houston Section’s Day Branch.
Jacobson remembers Trusch’s first call. “She said she was tired of being a social worker; she had her hands filled as a lawyer.”
“I was very frustrated,” Trusch acknowledges “But I began to understand the cycle that battered women endure.”
They called on Deedee Ostfeld, NCJW Community Service Vice President, to form a steering committee and make this vision a reality. Toby Myers, who had helped found the Houston Area Women’s Center, gave her a list of potential steering committee members. It included attorneys Doug Warne and Linda Thompson from Gulf Coast Legal Foundation, Susan Eggert from the Women’s Center, Trusch, and Bette Pesikoff, also a family lawyer and member of NCJW.
The steering committee worked for a year to launch the project. “Initially, we partnered with Gulf Coast Legal Foundation, which handled mostly divorce cases,” Ostfeld explains. “Our first office at Gulf Coast was a converted janitor’s closet, with a desk, a phone, and one small lamp. For over a year we were a totally volunteer organization.”
The first volunteer class had 25 members, who completed 30 hours of training. “We worked in shifts and did intake and screened clients so the GCLF attorneys could handle more cases,” Ostfeld recalls. “Volunteers left notes for the next shifts. Ann Reva was the first director of the program, which opened its doors just after her presidency and just before mine. Deanne Gitner was president in the interim year while I worked with the committee toward reaching our goal. Joyce Gilbert took the training class as did Beverly Sufian, and Joyce Cramer and many other women still active in NCJW. By the time we opened, we had close to 40 volunteers who kept the organization running. It was quite amazing.”
Rhonda Gerson was in the first class of volunteers, Ostfeld recalls. “Ann Reva asked Rhonda to take over her job as director when she went back to work, and did she ever. She worked for many years full time as an unpaid volunteer, until the board forced her to take a salary, and then she often donated all or part of it back to AVDA. Without Rhonda, the agency would never have survived.” And without Ostfeld, it might never have gotten off the ground. After two years as president of NCJW Greater Houston Section, Ostfeld became AVDA’s first board president. In 2008, AVDA created the Deedee Ostfeld Award for Advocacy to honor her significant efforts.
Later, Eileen Silverman would devote 20 years to the AVDA board. Other devoted board members included Joyce Gilbert, Liz Morris, Barbara Elk, Janis Frank, Joey Fisher, and Karen Friedman. Board members and past board chairs include Edie Weiner, Glenda Kirshbaum, and Lynn Kamin, as well as Deedee Ostfeld.
For the first year and a half, NCJW was the sole source of AVDA’s funding. AVDA received nonprofit status in 1981, along with its first grant from the Joan Wait Hanlon Foundation, allowing it to hire a part-time attorney. Under Rhonda Gerson’s leadership, AVDA received state and federal grants allowing it to hire legal, paralegal and community outreach staff.
AVDA became an active advocate to change the laws in Texas and the U.S and to protect domestic violence victims. Gerson, in partnership with The League of Women Voters, took volunteers to the District Attorney’s office daily for months to gather evidence of the need for a family violence unit in the DA’s office. As a result, in 1984, the Family Criminal Law Division was created by the Harris County DA, and in 1990, AVDA helped create family violence units in the Houston Police Department.
Norman Trusch remembers serving on a panel with Lee Brown, who served as Houston’s police chief in the 1980s. “We were discussing how hard it used to be to get the police to take this seriously,” she recalls. “Lee said that the police were very careful with domestic abuse cases, because whenever they went to court, the first row was always filled with ‘those AVDA women.’
“One thing I’ve always loved about NCJW was their willingness to step in and address a need, and then to step back and let it go on. They are not proprietary.”
Greater Houston section continues to play an important role in supporting AVDA. NCJW volunteers serve on AVDA’s board, and NCJW provides emergency funds annually and gift cards for survivors of domestic abuse at holiday time.
Today, AVDA serves 3,400 survivors and their children annually. It employs a staff of 27, including Sherri Kendall, its CEO, a director of development, seven attorneys, seven paralegals, and five victim advocates. It employs another seven in the Batterers Intervention and Prevention Program (BIPP) a program for abusers started by Toby Myers in 1984. BIPP is first fully accredited program of the Texas Criminal Justice Assistance Division. AVDA continues to expand its trauma counseling and also reaches out to teens with dating and domestic abuse prevention presentations.
“We wouldn’t be here without NCJW,” says CEO Sherri Kendal. “Your continued support has been invaluable.”
“Unlike the money AVDA receives from grants, the money we give AVDA each year is unrestricted,” explains Karen Friedman, NCJW’s current (2017) representative on AVDA’s board. “It can be used in an emergency for anything from clothing to rent to school supplies.”
“When I think of where we were, how anti-victim the laws were, and see where we are, I am filled with pride,” says Deedee Ostfeld. “Of course, our ‘plan’ was to create this agency, serve the victims, educate on the cycle of violence, and reduce the need for the agency. Sadly, the need grows, but thank G-d it is here to help.”
Thank G-d and the many women who founded AVDA and continue to serve this worthy cause.