By REBECCA JONES
For Montclair Local
Jane Hanson was over 50 when she gave up a lucrative career in private sector law and founded Partners for Women and Justice, a local nonprofit that provides legal assistance to survivors of domestic violence.
Co-founder and former executive director of the organization, Hanson received the Hope Award from the organization on May 6.
She was the woman who made it all happen, her colleagues say.
Hanson retired this March after leading Partners for 18 years.
Since its founding in 2002, the organization has helped secure orders of protection, child support awards, safe visitation, and custody arrangements. Once housed in Montclair’s United Way Building on South Fullerton, the organization moved to Bloomfield last year.
“Jane’s impact on expanding access to legal services in N.J. for domestic violence victims has been profound,” Trish Perlmutter, Partners’ policy counsel, said in an email. Hanson, Perlmutter said, was instrumental in advocating for programs, practices, and policies that benefited more than 4,000 survivors of domestic violence.
“My heart has always been in public interest,” Hanson said. She had begun her professional life as an elementary school teacher in Chicago and New York City, but after five years decided she wanted to do something more. She saw that a lot of women were entering fields like law, business, and medicine, and so she decided to join their ranks.
Going to law school changed her, her husband, Pat Shrout, said in a video shown at the award ceremony: “Learning how to talk about the law and understand rights and justice was something that was really empowering for her.”
Hanson added: “It opened up the world to me and how the world operates.”
‘A LAWYER CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE’
After graduating from Rutgers Law School in 1984, Hanson spent five years at a private law firm doing commercial litigation and family law. Finding it hard to juggle the demands of a litigation practice and family, she began looking for alternatives. She found a job working at Prudential as in-house counsel and worked there for 13 years.
But she wanted to do something more meaningful with her law degree. “I wanted to round out my work in the private sector with work in the public sector,” she said.
About the time she turned 50, she decided it was time to make that leap.
Two women inspired her to start Partners for Women and Justice. The first was Hanson’s friend Catherine Douglass, who in 1993 founded a nonprofit called Her Justice in New York City, which provided free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence. “Cathy had been whispering in my ear for years to do something similar in New Jersey,” Hanson said.
Douglass introduced her to Grace Lozito from Montclair, who had just graduated from law school and was looking to do something entrepreneurial. “We were both very excited about the idea of providing free legal services to women who had nowhere else to turn,” Hanson said. “New Jersey has a very strong government-funded legal services network, but they can’t possibly meet the need. We saw a gap, and just decided to jump in, kind of on a wing and a prayer.”
Together, in 2002, they founded Partners. Lozito left later that year, and Hanson took over as executive director.
The organization faced many challenges in those early days, but Hanson saw it through. Having the support of her family made it possible, she said. Hanson’s husband had a mantra: “Failure is not an option. These women have nowhere else to go.”
In the beginning, Partners helped victims represent themselves, but as the organization grew it began training lawyers to represent survivors. Hanson considers New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act to be one of the strongest in the nation, but said it’s not always implemented as it should be.
Because judges haven’t practiced in all areas of law, she said, they often rely on lawyers to educate them on the details and nuances of individual laws. “A lawyer can really make a difference,” Hanson said, “especially in cases of domestic violence.”
For many years, Partners lawyers worked on a volunteer basis, but now the organization has a paid staff of 16.
Partners receives financial support from many Montclair residents. Several current and nearly a dozen former trustees live in Montclair. Current Partners board of trustees members include township residents Catherine Weiss, who serves as chairperson; Tina Jordan, who serves as vice president; and Cristy Turgeon. “Without these people,” Hanson said, “it wouldn’t be possible.” Partners has received grants from the Montclair Foundation, Montclair Fund for Women, and Partners for Health.
“I really wish that there wasn’t a need for Partners for Women and Justice going forward,” Hanson said, “but we all know that’s not going to happen soon. And we all know that during this pandemic there has been an explosion of domestic violence, and it will only continue. And we all know that when the restrictions are lifted, the floodgates will open and there will be thousands of survivors of domestic violence in desperate need of legal services.”
Julie Murphy, Partners’ new executive director, said she plans to build on the incredible foundation laid by Hanson. “Our advocacy leadership is impacting the lives of thousands of people, informing the legal system as to the reality of low-income, immigrant, and underserved communities,” she said.
Murphy hopes to increase the organization’s pool of pro bono attorneys, build on its funding, and bring even more people to its services.