Rise From the Ashes helps abused women get legal aid


Formed less than a year ago, Rise From the Ashes is a DuPage-based, nonprofit group that helps women who have left abusive relationships and are unable to afford an attorney by providing them with legal council so they are able to fight for custody and get divorced.

One of the founders, Stephanie Austin, says she found herself in just such a situation before an attorney stepped forward to help her, and now she and her group want to repay that debt by helping others facing similar problems.

She says RFTA is working with its first round of clients right now, but eventually hopes to assist as many as 20 women a year who are referred by Family Shelter Service in Wheaton, Mutual Ground in Aurora and Groundwork Shelter in Joliet.

RFTA is planning its inaugural fundraiser -- a "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" improv show -- at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7, at The Comedy Shrine, 4034 Fox Valley Center Drive, Aurora.

Today, Austin talks to us about her group and what it hopes to accomplish.

Q. What is your organization's mission?

A. We provide civil legal aid to financially struggling women who have left an abusive relationship so they may sever the legal ties to their abuser and gain custody of their children.

Q. How do you work toward accomplishing that goal?

A. Each woman is given an attorney, a counselor and a court companion to help her get divorced, obtain sole legal custody of her children, separate her finances, and allow the law to recognize that the relationship is over.

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Q. What area do you serve?

A. We serve the women of DuPage, Will and Kane counties.

Q. When and why did Rise From the Ashes start? How has it grown?

A. Rise From the Ashes was formed to fill a gap in the services available to the abused women of our area. Until this point, there has been no central organization specifically trained in providing civil legal council to women fighting for their lives.

We realized what was happening was that a woman who had attempted to leave an abusive relationship could not only not afford legal representation in her divorce, but was unable to fight against her abuser's attorney in court for the custody of their children.

Unable to understand the system, unable to afford an attorney and unwilling to leave her children behind, we were seeing women choose to set aside concerns of their own safety and re-enter the relationship in an effort to protect her children.

We are a new organization and just in the beginning stages of working with the shelters to assist the women they have in their care. We have been surprised at how welcoming the community has been to us and look forward to seeing how we can help.


Q. What is your role in the organization?

A. I am the founder of the organization, so my main job thus far has been a lot of outreach into the community and shelters and recruiting our wonderful attorneys and counselors. Lately, I've been focusing a lot of my efforts into heading up our fundraiser.

Q. What kind of successes has the group had?

A. To be honest, I am one of them. I founded this organization after an attorney did for me what I want to do for these women. He is now on staff as one of our founding members and we are excited to see more lives transformed.

I would say our biggest success so far has just been how welcomed we have been by the local shelters and the attorneys and counselors who are volunteering their time with us.

Q. What challenges does your organization face?

A. The biggest challenge we face is that the need is so great. There are so many women who need to get out of the situation they are in; so many women who don't understand the legal system enough to be able to get out on their own. Finding enough attorneys and counselors willing to donate their time to a woman in need has been our biggest challenge.


Q. What do you wish the community at large knew about your organization?

A. I think the community would be surprised to know that while domestic abuse shelters are phenomenal places that help many women, they are not able to legally sever a woman's ties to an abusive relationship and they cannot help her fight for the custody of her children.

I also think many people would be shocked to know that an abuser has a better chance of gaining custody of his children than the woman he abused does. This is because the abuser most often has the financial resources to hire an attorney, while an abused woman does not.

Stuck in a legal process she doesn't understand where domestic abuse is not always considered as a custody factor, 70 percent of the time a woman will lose custody of her children.

At Rise From the Ashes, we believe that if a woman is fighting for her life, she shouldn't have to fight alone. Regardless of her financial situation, we will make sure she is well-represented by a team specifically trained in dealing with abusive situations.

Q. How can readers get involved?

A. At RFTA we are always in search of not only attorneys and counselors who want to join our team, but volunteers who want to be a part of our community outreach team. From fundraising to event planning, community outreach to clerical work, RFTA is always in need of dedicated volunteers.

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