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Along a tree-lined residential street in White Plains, N.Y., there is a pleasantly ordinary split-level home known simply as “Gail’s House.” Visitors are asked to keep the precise location a confidence. The house is named for Gail Beth Katz, who was murdered by her husband. It is where students from nearby Pace Law School, as well as other law students in the Northeast, engage in what Susan L. Pollet calls “God’s work” — teaming with Westchester County police officers, prosecutors and judges to protect, avenge and empower victims of domestic violence. Pollet is the new executive director of the 13-year-old Pace Women’s Justice Center, with offices at Gail’s House. Like everyone else at the center, Pollet is mindful of the cloud of cruelty under which the lawyers work, personified by the center’s namesake. In November 1985, Gail Beth Katz disappeared from the Manhattan apartment she shared with her husband, Robert Bierenbaum, a prominent plastic surgeon. It would be 15 years before police detectives and the Manhattan district attorney assembled sufficient evidence to win a second-degree homicide conviction against Bierenbaum. Although Katz was never found, prosecutors indicated at trial that Bierenbaum killed her at home, then transported her body to New Jersey, where he rented a small airplane from which he dumped her remains into the Atlantic Ocean. “This culture is so violent — so violent,” Pollet said on a recent sunny Friday morning during an interview in the office she shares with a part-time attorney for the center. The daily onslaught of hypersexual images in the media, she added, “makes women feel like they’re body parts.” Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, who recently spoke at a center-sponsored seminar for high school students on dating violence, said the problem has a long but largely hidden history. When a domestic violence bureau was instituted within her office in 1978 — one of only four such units in the country underwritten by the federal government — Pirro said the issue of battered women was considered an unfortunate problem among the lesser tiers of society. “One of the reasons we were funded was because there was a question of whether domestic violence even occurred in middle-class suburban communities like ours,” Pirro said in a telephone interview. “It occurs in all socio-economic groups, all age groups, all racial groups. It can occur in the home of someone who’s a friend of yours.” Indeed, playwright Eve Ensler, creator of “The Vagina Monologues,” spoke of her own grim suburban childhood earlier this year during a fund-raiser to benefit the center, which operates on a $1 million annual budget, provided by county, state and federal governments, as well as foundation grants and individual donations. “Middle-class Westchester County where I grew up,” she told a reporter for The Journal News, “has some of the darkest and most disturbing things going on.” In the past, law enforcement officials tended to ignore such darkness, said Pirro. “Back in ’77, it was not even a crime to shoot, stab or brutalize your wife. It only became criminal if you killed your wife.” “Obviously, that’s changed tremendously over the years,” said Robert M. Fleming, community resources director for the New Rochelle Police Department and one of the center’s staunchest supporters. “Domestic violence is criminal activity, no matter if the person who is committing it is related to the victim.” When the police respond to a domestic call, he said, “To really deal with the problem appropriately, you need to be put into contact with an attorney immediately — as soon as the police get to the scene. The idea of taking steps to go to court for an order of protection can be pretty intimidating. Having an attorney on the scene makes a big difference.” Accordingly, the 13 staff attorneys at Pace Women’s Justice Center carry beepers on a 24/7 rotating basis. Young lawyers are at the forefront of the effort. During the regular school term, Pace students qualify to work with the center’s lawyers under practice orders granted by the civil courts after completing special instruction on domestic violence advocacy. Summer internships, at the current rate of about seven a year, have been offered to students from outside campuses. including Brooklyn Law School, Syracuse University College of Law, University at Buffalo Law School, Yale Law School, St. John’s University School of Law, Harvard Law School and City University of New York School of Law. Under the center’s extern program, law students prepare applications for orders of protection and present them in two Westchester Family Court venues, White Plains and Yonkers. Also, students provide research and writing for center-initiated articles, publications and seminars, such as the one in which Pirro participated. The increase in coordination between police officers and young attorneys and law students from the center, especially under an initiative called Project Deter, has shown dramatically improved results in terms of battered women following through on obtaining permanent court orders of protection from their abusers. Rebecca J. Fialk, a center attorney responsible for Project Deter, said some 90 percent of her clients now get permanent orders — as opposed to slightly more than 20 percent prior to the program’s inception in 1999. “That’s unheard of,” she said, noting that the national average remains at 20 percent. Fialk also acts as keeper of statistics for the center, which calculates 60,000 orders of protection that went out last year in state courts. Nationally, the center found 4 million incidents of spousal abuse. Lawyers, police officers and district attorneys — or a playwright with the distance of time — may possess a certain ease in speaking of domestic violence and its statistics. But victims have a more difficult time. “Women in these situations are awkward, they blame themselves,” said Ms. Pollet, whose 25-year law career has included duty as court attorney for the Westchester County Family Court. Even in this more enlightened time, she said, “They’re embarrassed, they don’t want to cause trouble. They put up with [violence] because they think they have to. They think they deserve it.” And so there is a dual purpose to the Pace Women’s Justice Center: to provide lawyerly aid and human comfort. To that end is Gail’s House — like a Hollywood set for wholesome TV fare, it is complete with a playroom for clients’ children and a grassy backyard dappled with the shade of blossoming trees. “We’re providing a family peace that sometimes families don’t provide,” said Pollet. “We’re trying to provide lessons in how the law can change lives, and make [our clients] feel good about themselves.” Another upside to the work of the center is the bipartisan recognition that domestic violence is a serious criminal problem — therefore government’s problem, said Pollet. Republicans and Democrats realize that “we don’t have an agenda here,” she said. “Nobody can disagree with anything we do.”

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