‘Have Justice Will Travel’
After 17 years OTR with her husband, Wynona Ward found a different calling while on the road

By Greg Grisolano, staff writer

For most people, the road to becoming a lawyer isn’t usually traveled by semi.

But for Wynona Ward, her journey through law school and a second career as a lawyer and victim’s advocate began as a team driver with her husband, Harold, in the cab of a 1989 Diamond Reo.

Today, Ward is the executive director of Have Justice Will Travel – a Vershire, Vt.-based nonprofit organization that provides legal and support services to victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

From the cab to the courtroom
The Wards spent 17 years over the road, based out of their home in Vermont. The couple would drop-and-hook while leased to Trailer Transit out of Indiana.

“We would pick up new trailers, new equipment to be delivered,” Ward said. “We did a lot of team driving where we would pick up Disney On Ice shows, Cirque du Soleil, and other plays and concerts and so on, that we would run from coast to coast.”

When tragedy struck her family in the early 1990s, Ward said it inspired her to change the course of her entire life. A brother was arrested for sexually abusing a child in the extended family, and Ward said the incident forced her to confront her own abusive childhood.

“I grew up in a home where abuse was a common, everyday occurrence,” she said. “Where when the neighbors heard screaming coming from our home, they simply turned their heads. And when we heard screaming coming from their homes, we frankly turned our heads … because it was an accepted way of life.”

Beginning in 1993, she enrolled in an adult education program and started taking correspondence courses to complete her undergraduate degree while still driving over the road with her husband.

“They had a program where you could be on campus twice a year for 10 days,” she said. “It was situated so you could be there to end one semester and start the next. Everything was written and done through the mail. So wherever we happened to be on the road, I would send by FedEx my work for the month.”

The experiences on the road also helped open her eyes to the impact of domestic abuse – not just in Vermont but everywhere.

“So many times when we would travel team, I would visit with either other team drivers or we’d go on an off-channel on the CB and talk about abuse in families, and how that happened,” she said. “I discovered that there were many, many instances when that was really happening then everywhere across the country.”

In 1995, she began studying at the Vermont Law School with one goal in mind.

“When I went back to law school, it was really with the intent of being able to prosecute child abusers – child sexual abusers,” she said. “But I soon found out that to really be able to help victims, and be able to spend time with them and help them improve their lives, that family law was the place to be.”

Putting the ‘travel’ in ‘Will Travel’
Founded in 1998, “Have Justice” provides pro-bono legal and other support services for low-income women and their children. The “Will Travel” part of the name comes from Ward and the staff’s willingness to provide in-home consultations for the victims and their families.

“It’s a bit different model than what has normally been used,” Ward said. “We travel to people’s homes because in rural areas, transportation is a real problem. There aren’t buses, or taxis or trains or subways, so it’s really necessary. Many people don’t have transportation and are really isolated.”

But beyond just the logistical challenges in reaching clients who often don’t have cars, or in some cases, even phones, Ward said there are other important benefits of making house calls.

“When one has been abused in rural areas, there comes a certain amount of shame that that’s happening,” she said. “So for someone to want to get out of that abuse, to have to go to a fancy lawyer’s office and sit down and say ‘I’ve been abused,’ that’s very difficult.”

Ward said she finds it easier to make an assessment of what clients need by going to their home.

“If we can talk to them where they feel comfortable, in addition to getting from them their legal issues, we can also make an assessment of what they may need. Do they need a place to live? Do they need heat, or food, or clothing in the winter time? Do their kids need hats and mittens?

“So we can make those connections that they need for resources to help them continue on their own so they can become independent and strong and not just rely on the abuser for financial support and other support that they may need.”

The organization also provides free legal services from protective orders to child custody issues, divorces, parentage cases and, in some instances, landlord-tenant and probate court issues.

“It’s helping people,” she said. “And we help a lot of women and children, but we also have men clients that we help, many who are dads and want their children protected. It really is a family law practice.”

Ward said Have Justice keeps track of the number of consultations it provides on a six-month basis. She said her organization does 1,200 to 1,400 consultations per year, including telephone and at-home consultations.

“We stay with the woman from the beginning of her case, which more than likely begins with a relief from abuse, but then we stay with her and we go on to help her out until she’s really independent and strong and on her own and able to support herself and her children.”

The organization is presently licensed to provide legal services in Vermont only, but Ward said the group can still help refer victims to an appropriate resource within their own state, through its affiliation with the National Association of Legal Aid Organizations.

“People are realizing is this is no longer an accepted way of life,” she said. “I think one of the most important things that we can realize today is that there is help out there. We can definitely provide that help for women and children.” LL