Jewish Family Service’s WISE program empowers victims of domestic violence
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Jewish Family Service’s WISE program empowers victims of domestic violence

Loss of income is only one effect of the economic downturn, says Sheila Steinbach, director of clinical and adult care management services at Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson.

“The downturn has caused higher stress levels in families. Over the past two years, I’d say we’ve seen a 50 percent increase” in the number of women who report domestic violence, said the Teaneck resident, whose agency recently won a $45,000 grant to help abused women.

The monies – a Stop Violence Against Women Act grant awarded through the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety – will provide counseling and employment services to 24 domestic violence victims.

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Sheila Steinbach

“We’re very excited about this,” said Steinbach, who developed the concept.

Pointing out that the program’s acronym, WISE, stands for “Women, Independent, Strong, Enriched,” she said, “research points to the fact that economic hardship and dependence, or lack of financial independence, is one of the biggest factors” compelling women to stay in an abusive household.

Steinbach is hopeful that by giving abused women the skills they need to find and keep a job, the program will empower them to move forward. The WISE program will use staff from both the JFS Job Search Network and clinical department.

“We’ll work together as a team so we’ll know if something from the clinical end is interfering with their finding a job,” said Steinbach, adding that part of the agency’s work is to reduce the shame and stigma associated with domestic violence.

“We’ve been running a support group for a year, the same six or seven women, and the level of support among them is unbelievable,” she said, noting that the women – “from all ethnic, religious, sociological, and economic groups” – remain in touch even outside the group.

The number of Jewish domestic violence victims seems to be proportional to those from other groups, she said.

“But I have a gut feeling that they [experience] more shame and embarrassment,” she added.

She is hoping to begin the first of the year’s three program cycles during the first week of October. Each cohort will include eight women “who are appropriate for the program,” in terms of both clinical needs and economic position. For example, they must be unemployed, underemployed, or looking to enter the workforce.

Each session will last for eight weeks and include intensive individual therapy as well as group therapy.

Steinbach said that each year, businesses lose millions of employee days because of domestic violence issues. WISE will provide sensitivity training for employers and, when necessary, dispatch a “work coach” to mediate problems between job holders and employers.

“We have the ability to have on-site help,” said Steinbach, promising that “we’re not saying goodbye after eight weeks. There will be an aftercare group and up to a year of support groups even after they’re finished.”

The WISE program “uses the existing strengths of our agency,” said Steinbach, noting that Bergen County experiences some 5,000 domestic violence offenses every year “and there are never enough services.”

“It just makes sense to help [abuse victims] gain employment,” she said. “They feel less isolated, less ashamed. We support them as they make healthier choices in their life.”

She said that the JFS program would undoubtedly engender resistance among abusive spouses, “so confidentiality is of the utmost importance to us.” Part of the clinical work will be to help participants build a safety plan.

“If they feel they can make it on their own, then they can get out of the relationship,” said Steinbach, adding that the program will include family counseling for victims and their children “so they can come in and work on those issues. We’re looking at it as a holistic approach.”

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