HOLLIDAYSBURG - When Dorothy Winfield of Altoona was just out of high school, she considered a career in nursing, a profession dedicated to helping others.
Marriage put her hopes of being a nurse on hold, but Winfield has a career in which she very much helps people in need.
Those who come to her quaint and unpretentious office tucked into a corner of the Blair County Courthouse are often tearful. They are frightened and sometimes display bruises, black eyes and other injuries.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Dorothy Winfield of Altoona will retire from her position with Family Services Inc.
"It's sickening. ... It's horrible," said Winfield, who has served for more than 20 years in a program sponsored by Family Services Inc. of Altoona that helps victims of violence obtain protection-from-abuse orders and other services.
While the victims might be frightened when they warily enter the office, they quickly learn that Winfield is someone who can empathize.
She knows what they are going through because she was once a client.
That "wonderful guy" who swept her off her feet and dissuaded her from a career in nursing ended up abusing her during their 25-year marriage, she said.
She understands why many wives or paramours, after obtaining a court-ordered PFA, go before a judge and say they want to withdraw the protective court order.
People take vows, she said. They don't believe in divorce.
There may be other reasons a client doesn't want to break up or end her relationship. She may love her partner. Sometimes it's financial in nature - how are the bills going to get paid?
Some abusive couples stay together "for the children." Winfield, in mulling that proposition, asks, "What do the children see?"
She understands what it is like to have to go into a shelter for protection and how a client sometimes must make a break from the life she knows to escape the abuse.
"You learn normally that they [the abusers] are not going to change until they get counseling. They need that power and control," Winfield said as she explained why abuse happens in the first place.
Making a break means the client must get a job and seek out day care for the children. The choice to leave is not easy, she explained.
Wants to enjoy life
Winfield, who has decided to retire, began her career as a volunteer.
For the first five years, clients would call the Domestic Abuse Hot Line, and Winfield would meet the person and go to the courthouse seeking a PFA order.
Family Services was able to obtain a grant in 1998 that led to the creation of a PFA office in the courthouse complex.
It was first housed in the former Highland Hall Annex at Penn and Walnut streets.
When the county constructed a courthouse addition on Allegheny Street, the PFA office was moved to the third floor of the "old section" of the courthouse.
It is a small office that today contains Winfield and co-worker Tory Schwarze.
Boxes of toys for small children are visible. Winfield explained that when a mother with children comes into the office, she will play with the children while the mother goes through the PFA procedure with Schwarze.
She doesn't want the children to see what's happening, and she doesn't want the parent to involve the children in the abuse discussion.
For instance, a parent might want the child to relate what occurred in the home. Winfield discourages that and tries to keep the children out of the discussion.
If a child does happen to talk about abuse that he's seen or experienced, the PFA workers are "mandated reporters," meaning they must inform the Office of Children Youth and Families, also in the courthouse.
Winfield explained that her office works closely with the courts and CYF and often refers clients to those agencies.
She also refers clients to the agency she works for: Family Services.
Her office also operates a support group in which the women learn about domestic violence, what it is, why it occurs, why you should stay or go back to the relationship or why you should make a break.
It takes a couple of sessions for the five or six clients in a group to open up and talk about what occurred to them, but most do discuss their individual situations.
"Whatever is said in that room, stays in that room," Winfield said.
Because of her involvement in the many aspects of domestic abuse, Winfield, 66, has gone through a great deal of training, and in the early 2000s obtained a bachelor's degree in pre-law from Mount Aloysius College.
A pioneer against domestic violence
Blair County judges are asked to grant more than 600 protection-from-abuse orders each year, which means Winfield, who has been with the PFA program for two decades, has dealt with thousands upon thousands of cases.
Attorney Diana Ingersoll of MidPenn Legal Services, which represents indigent clients in domestic abuse cases, said Winfield has been with the local domestic abuse program since Ingersoll became an attorney in 1989 dealing with such cases.
Ingersoll called Winfield "an advocate for the Domestic Abuse Project" in Blair County, but she added that Winfield, because of her experience, "has been a true inspiration to all survivors."
She said Winfield has been "dedicated" to the cause of helping those who have been abused and was a force in obtaining a state Stop Grant that enabled the PFA office to open in the courthouse.
By creating an office in the courthouse, it made it easier for clients to obtain help from the courts.
She said Winfield has trained police officers and magistrates about domestic abuse and said she has been active in the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Abuse.
"Her program has been instrumental in making the system work," Ingersoll said.
She continued, stating Winfield has made a "huge contribution to the cause and she will be missed."
Winfield believes her program has saved many lives over the years, but, of course, she asked, "how do you put a number on lives saved?"
It's the lives lost that bother her. There have been cases in which husbands and boyfriends killed clients, others and in some cases killed themselves.
Blair, Huntingdon and Clearfield counties have experienced such tragic cases in the past few months. In Blair County, a man, attempting to kill his estranged girlfriend who had a PFA against him, killed a child when he set a house on fire. The perpetrator hung himself in the county prison.
In Huntingdon County, a father killed his own son and then himself, and in Clearfield County a husband pursued and murdered his wife because she attempted to gain her freedom.
The upshot of these tragedies, said Winfield, is, "I think people realize it [domestic violence] is a serious problem."
Winfield makes a point of saying she loves her job and she is not "burned out."
Instead she thinks it is time to retire [she will be available for spot duty] because of health problems and because, she said laughing, she no longer likes going to work on cold winter mornings.
Winfield attended her last PFA court session on Thursday, and like most days in court, it was a day of drama and the unexpected.
Senior Judge Thomas G. Peoples presides over PFA court. He asked a young client, a very well-dressed woman, how she came to be involved with a man who likes to drink and who sheriff's deputies can't find because he is homeless and sleeps in abandoned homes.
"He's my father," the woman answered. Peoples replied, "We can't choose our fathers." He extended a temporary PFA against the dad.
"I like it," Winfield said in talking about the way Peoples handles cases.
"He's stern," she said, but he gets through the cases in an expeditious manner.
Peoples wants to know why people think they are in danger, and if it appears the case is more about child custody or divorce issues, the judge cuts the lawyers short and tosses the case out of court.
Winfield said the cases don't just involve husbands and wives or men and their paramours. Elderly parents sometimes seek protection, and many homosexuals facing violence now use the PFA court.
On Thursday, 19 cases were scheduled, and only one person didn't show up. The judge found eight violations of PFA orders, which usually results in a fine and probation, and sometimes jail.
The judge cleared the docket by noon.
Winfield said Blair County has good judges, and she said a new system in which clients must appear before a judge prior to the issuance of a temporary PFA order is working well.
Some people are frightened to initially go before a judge, but she explains, "They are human too."
One woman who went before a judge recently took the oath to tell the truth and then frankly told the judge she lied in her PFA statement.
The judge replied, "How do I know you are telling me the truth [that she lied]."
"Because," she said, "I had to raise my raise my hand."
Winfield noted that people today are so short-tempered. You can see it in "road rage." You can see it in the schools when students need protection from people carrying guns. You can see it in the number of guns some people have. And, you can see it in PFA court.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.
The Winfield file
Name: Dorothy Winfield
Position: 20-year volunteer and employee of Family Services Inc. PFA program in the Blair County Courthouse
Parents: Weldon and Mary Wright of Bedford
Education: 1966 graduate of Bedford High School; 2003 pre-law graduate of Mount Aloysius College
Active: In the fight against domestic abuse
Quote: "They'll say, 'I'll get counseling; I'll stop drinking.' You believe it. Everything you learn is they don't change. You are the one who has to change."