Stephanie Austin tried for years to escape an abusive marriage. When her then-husband finally left the family’s home in 2012, the Plainfield resident knew she wouldn’t have to see him anymore, but they were still legally married. At the time, she wasn’t able to afford hiring an attorney to go through divorce proceedings.
Eventually, she found a lawyer who was willing to help who took on her case pro bono. Austin was able to divorce her husband, and has moved on. But it continued to bother her that while she was fortunate to find an attorney to take on her case, many more women in her situation are not.
“[My lawyer and I] started talking about how ridiculous it is that I couldn’t find any help,” Austin said. “I talked to other [domestic violence] victims and found that so many had the same problem. So I decided to do something.”
That something was to found a nonprofit organization, Rise from the Ashes, with her attorney, Mike Biederstadt, in 2014. The organization works with attorneys who provide divorce and child custody legal services to domestic violence victims. Austin said that the clients are mostly lower income and have to be referred to the organization by local domestic violence shelters, including Mutual Ground, which serves a large swath of Kane County.
The organization rotates lawyers and has about six cases at any one time, with each case lasting from a few months to a few years, Austin said. She said that many people may be under the impression that as soon as a women wants to leave an abusive marriage, all she has to do is “pack her bags and walk out the door.” But that’s not the case, she said.
“Taking children and leaving is considered kidnapping,” she said. “You need a legal clause to take a child and flee. You can leave, but you need an order of protection. And you may still be married after moving out, which means you’re legally and financially tied to the abuser.”
Through years of hard work, Austin, who serves as Rise from the Ashes’ executive director, and Biederstadt were able to compile a list of about 30 attorneys with whom the group works. She said the lawyers are volunteers, but through donations and fundraising, she has been able to pay them a small stipend.
“There are so many people who are in need [of our services] and not enough resources to go around,” she said. “All of our attorneys are experienced and qualified. They are well-known and well-respected.”
Austin personally reviews each application and referral to Rise from the Ashes and looks at a set of criteria for each prospective client. She said the women have to have been physically or sexually abused, have to be near or at the poverty line, and have to be making an effort to better their lives.
“I didn’t realize the gravity of seeing how much this changes people’s lives,” Austin said. “We’re taking women who had a death sentence and giving them a future. Women are killed by domestic violence every day, and I didn’t realize the gravity of some of these situations and how many women truly need help.”
Austin hopes that because they are able to offer the attorneys support and a small stipend, more will become involved with Rise from the Ashes. There is currently a waiting list, and with more lawyers, Austin said they’ll be able to help more women.
“I just believe that every woman who wants to divorce her abuser and get custody of her children should be able to do so,” Austin said. “It should not be a privilege to legally leave an abuser – it should be a human right. Our organization needs more funding, more attorneys and we need businesses and people to stand with us and support what we’re doing.”
For information about Rise from the Ashes, visit www.rfta.co. [Reader’s note: It is not rfta.com.]