Group aims to change lives of battered women who are in prison
Yellow Springs woman says she encounters ‘very tragic stories.’
Nancy Grigsby, legal assistance program director at the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, received the Robert Denton Special Achievement award in 2016, recognizing her work with incarcerated women.

By Beth Anspach
Contributing Writer

Between July of 2016 the end of June, 2017, there were 116 fatalities in the state of Ohio related to domestic violence. Many of these were women, though some were also their attackers. Nancy Grigsby of Yellow Springs has worked with the Ohio Domestic Violence Network (ODVN) for nearly 10 years and has been in the field since 1995.

“We’ve been doing outreach to incarcerated battered women since 2010,” Grigsby said. “We are mostly focused on helping them regain relationships with their children, but also offer other legal services.”

The grant-funded program involves sending attorneys into the three women’s prisons in Ohio - in Cleveland, Dayton and Marysville. The attorneys are paid at a greatly reduced rate by ODVN.

“Before I started working in this job, I had never stepped foot inside of a prison, ” Grigsby said. “I was overwhelmed with the number of battered women I met in prison with very tragic stories.”

Grigsby helped write the first grant to fund the prison program in 2010, just a year after she began working at ODVN.

“The research is very compelling,” Grigsby said. “One of the most famous studies that was done involved going into prisons to ask women about their abuse history.”

Researchers identified four types of abuse - physical and sexual either as an adult or a child. The results showed that almost half of the women said they were physical or sexually abused before their imprisonment, with more than a third stating they had been abused as children.

“Women have a unique pathway to prison,” Grigsby said. “Many have events in their lives early on that set them to become incarcerated eventually.”

Many women prisoners have been drug addicts, having started using illegal substances in an attempt to overcome their pain and trauma. But a large percentage are in prison because they were defending their own lives or the lives of their children, resulting in a homicide, or they fled with their children and lost custody battles.

“We are working to change the way domestic violence programs look at formerly imprisoned women,” Grigsby said. “Just because you made a mistake or used violence to protect yourself doesn’t change the fact that you have been a victim of assault for years.”

Grigsby said that research has also proven that children who grow up having a relationship with their parent end up having more positive outcomes themselves.

“And we know that incarcerated women will do better if they have not completely lost their relationship with their children,” she said.

One of the largest changes the ODVN has worked to implement, is allowing more parent/child visitations to happen in prisons. Sometimes this is accomplished through a court order, but Grigsby said it’s vital that children and parents continue their relationship, regardless of legal sentences.

Besides working to help maintain visitation, the ODVN also helps women who have been victims of identity theft or who need other financial services.

“We want to remove barriers to helping people succeed,” Grigsby said. “When you get out of prison, it’s definitely hard to get back on your feet.”

ODVN also operates a program for survivors of domestic violence who cannot get help through the legal aid system. About 350 families participate in this program annually and learn about resources, including attorneys, who can help them.

Grigsby said listening to the heart-wrenching stories from formerly battered and imprisoned women is part of what motivates her, her team and all those who volunteer their time to the program. After two years in prison, for example, a women will automatically lose custody of her children. If no family member steps forward to take them, the state takes custody.

“The magic time frame that you have to get yourself together is two years,” Grigsby said. “But if the state takes their children, they come out of prison and have no idea where their children have gone and can no longer see them.”

Though the prison program is far from Grigsby’s only focus, she said she would do it full time if she could. And the ODVN is always looking for more attorneys who are interested in working with incarcerated women.

“You can’t participate in hearings if you are in prison,” Grigsby said. “We have hundreds of cases waiting to get matched up with attorneys. They all need our help.”

The Violence Against Women Act helped ensure an investment was made in hotlines and legal services, but Grigsby said that regardless, the statistics for women haven’t changed much.

“When women leave prison, oftentimes their abuser is the one picking them up at the gate,” Grigsbysaid. “Theygo from prison back to the life they had before with their abuser.”

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