“This is not a vendetta.”
JoAnne Paul doesn’t look like she could harbor one. In her sixties, Paul is busy entering a stage of her life that was never planned: After her daughter Monica Paul was murdered in the Montclair YMCA last summer by her estranged boyfriend, Paul found herself once more raising children — this time her two grandchildren — while waging a battle on behalf of victims of domestic violence everywhere.
Paul speaks of the letters read at the funeral, letters Monica had written to her children in the case of such an unspeakable event. The letters were dated on the same day in 2007 that Monica filed for a restraining order against the father of her children.
So with no legal background, Paul set out to change the law for other victims of domestic violence; she didn’t want to see the law fail them too. “I’ve been very tired, but I said to myself, ‘I don’t care how I’m feeling, I’m going through with it; I want Monica’s life to count for something.'”
Paul has been working tirelessly to promote Monica’s Law, legislation drafted to protect victims of domestic violence and their children. Still in the petition stage, the proposed law would hinge visitation rights to psychological testing in the case of documented violence, impose harsher penalties to restraining order violations, and in the cases of continued harassment, violators would be required to wear electronic devices alerting law enforcement of their proximity to the victim.
Although New Jersey has some of the strictest laws against domestic abuse, there are scant penalties against breaking a restraining order. Tougher laws might have kept Monica alive: “That was the only legal avenue she had available to her, and she tried to make it work, but it didn’t. Someone is crying out for help, saying ‘I’m being abused here,’ and the law does nothing. The man can threaten, threaten, threaten; the woman is scared all her life, always looking behind her back, locking her doors. The only time the law will step in is when the man pulls the trigger. And that’s very sad; in this day and age, that’s very sad.”
Paul and family friends have been working with New Jersey Assemblyman Thomas Giblin and Councilor Dr. Renee Baskerville of Montclair; support has been warm. As of late April, the number of signatures on the petition was in the 700s. Family, friends and strangers show their support and sympathy in the comments; some anonymous petitioners pray that the law will be passed soon enough to protect them from a similar fate.
“Obviously, the law will change as it goes through the process. Even if they don’t accept all of it, that will be OK. They have to start somewhere, because the alternative is to do nothing.”
Not everyone has been so understanding. Paul has faced opponents who are against the law, saying that such legislation would be abused and used to deny parents custody. “People are so busy looking at the rights of the one doing the violence, they have forgotten about the one who is being violated. So to the people who are protesting for the rights of the violators, I would like to ask them, ‘Do you have a daughter? And if so, has she been through domestic violence? Has your life been affected by this kind of crime?’
“My objective is not to beat men down; I am not a man-hater. That is why Monica’s Law asks for documented evidence, to prevent those that are just plain vindictive from using this law for their own hatefulness. Of course it’s a catch-22 sometimes, because not all [abusers] are thinking like murderers. Most are dealing with their own hurt. But when there has been a threat made to a person’s life, and it has been spoken and documented, then yes, their rights should be reconsidered for the safety of others.”
The law offers a chance for redemption, too, Paul hopes. The required testing and denial of visitation rights would give cause for reflection, for perpetrators to recognize the pattern of destruction they are caught in, and offer guidance for rehabilitation.
For now, Paul will keep her hopes close to home. “I can’t take on the whole world. I know it’s going to happen again,” she says, bluntly. “It would be unrealistic to think it won’t, but maybe I can make it less. I’m just one little person, but all it takes is one person to start something.”