Ida Petkus still remembers seeing Monica Cahill in 2009 standing in the Burlington County, N.J., courthouse lobby with her two young sons, a backpack full of toys, and a look of hopelessness on her face. Time was of the essence for Cahill, who was trying to get a restraining order against her husband after he told her he was going to kill her pets.
Petkus, a trained domestic violence advocate, was scheduled at court that day as a volunteer when she spotted Cahill. “She looked upset, and I went over to ask if she needed any help,” Petkus says. Cahill couldn’t take her children into the hearing, so Petkus offered to sit outside the room with them. Cahill became one of the first people Petkus helped as cofounder of her new organization, the Domestic Violence Advocacy Center in Mt. Holly, N.J.
“I was not alone anymore,” says Cahill. “[Ida was] like a guardian angel. I left my children in her care and went before the judge. I stated my case and was granted my temporary restraining order. I had a reprieve—finally.”
That day in court was the start of Cahill’s journey toward securing a better future for herself and her two children. “Ida was always there for me when I needed her,” says Cahill, who continued to get advice from Petkus as she navigated the court system, found housing, worked through a divorce, and re-entered the workforce. “She was my rock.”
Inspired by Empathy and Compassion
Petkus was never a victim of domestic violence herself. Her path toward courtroom advocacy had a most unlikely beginning: She was in line at a bagel shop in 2006 when she met a police officer who recruited her for that role. After receiving training, Petkus started serving as a volunteer advocate, guiding victims through the legal and judicial process.
She was once called to meet a deaf woman at a hospital who had been sexually assaulted. “I dropped everything and went,” Petkus says. It was during that visit that Petkus had an epiphany: She wanted to do more to help victims rebuild their lives.
Soon after, Petkus crossed paths with Patricia Seidman at a fundraiser for homeless pets. They discussed Seidman’s friend and neighbor, Alla Barney, who had been murdered by her husband in front of their then 4-year-old son outside his daycare center in 2003. There was an instant camaraderie between them: Petkus was a few years into her domestic violence advocacy work, and Seidman had always worked for nonprofits and had lost a dear friend. In 2009, they created the Domestic Violence Advocacy Center.
Petkus is “one of the finest women I’ve ever met,” Seidman says. “She’ll go into a situation totally blind, think on her feet, and figure things out fast.”
Petkus kicked off the center’s opening with an open house, drawing, as she often does, on the marketing and networking skills she’s honed in her real estate career. She invited key representatives and decision makers from nonprofits and shelters that provide services to domestic violence victims.
“The open house was a huge success because I surround myself with a great team and people know their role,” Petkus says. “In real estate, the customer is always right; I listen. In advocacy, victims know their story; I listen.”
Making a Difference One Victim at a Time
Today, their organization includes a dozen volunteers who work with victims in a variety of ways, including leading support groups, serving as courtroom advocates, providing informational workshops, and placing people who need emergency overnight stays. They work with men and women, teens, and LGBT individuals—anyone in need of their help. “Ninety-five percent of victims are women,” Petkus says, “but we do take care of the other 5 percent.”
No one takes a salary, and all their funds are raised privately through events and corporate donors. “We’re what we call a boutique agency,” says Seidman. “We deal one-on-one with people as they come in. One story at a time; one client at a time.”
Many of the people DVAC helps are referred by police and other agencies in Burlington County, N.J. Some hear about DVAC by word of mouth or find them online. DVAC is also part of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and they’ll take forwarded calls from local people in need of resources.
DVAC is not a shelter. They do have a few emergency beds in secret locations that are available for one or two nights, giving victims a chance to figure out their next move. From there, victims might get on a plane to be with family, set up their own housing, or move to a shelter, Seidman explains.
DVAC also has connections with the Humane Society, which helps place victims’ pets in foster homes. “A lot of times people won’t leave [an abusive situation] because of their pets,” Petkus says. Abusers often hold animals and children over their victims’ heads, she explains.
Cathi Rendfrey, director of the Women’s Opportunity Center at the YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties, works with women who are separated, divorced, widowed, or disabled, and are heading into the workforce. Many have been involved domestic violence situations, she says, and Rendfrey will often connect them with services offered by DVAC.
“Ida is our go-to person,” Rendfrey says. “She believes everyone’s experience is her own and treats everyone with dignity and respect. She’s an inspiration for many women.”
Petkus has sat in on more than 5,000 domestic violence court hearings, and DVAC’s Web traffic has grown from 2,000 to 9,000 annual visits in the past five years. She balances her career as a real estate agent with volunteerism by operating DVAC in the early morning and evening hours, while focusing on real estate during the day. Petkus says she also relies on her trusted volunteers to help meet the immediate needs of victims.
Looking to the future, Petkus says her vision is to buy a house that DVAC can dedicate to emergency stays with accommodations for pets. “Even when I’m feeling discouraged, even when I’m feeling burnt out, I’ll get a call from someone who needs an advocate. How do you say no to that?” Petkus says. “Just when I get tired of doing something, I get rejuvenated again because, unfortunately, every day there’s someone who needs me to have their back.”