Tracy Love is not a victim, though she understands why some would use that descriptor when they hear her story. Married to a man who violently assaulted her countless times throughout their 20-year relationship, she lived much of her life thinking most everyone suffered from some degree of abuse in their relationships. But when her husband’s violence escalated to include the use of weapons, Tracy knew she needed to make a plan of escape that included obtaining full legal and physical custody of her three children. She also knew that Wellspring in Saratoga Springs offered free consultations with lawyers through a partnership with Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York (LASNNY). And it was there at Wellspring she met with Joanna Davis, a lawyer with LASNNY and the woman Tracy credits with helping her transform into what she prefers to be known as today—a survivor.
According to both Tracy and Ms. Davis, there was more at work in their meeting on that October 2019 day than either of them understand. Having worked for more than 15 years to legally protect the safety and interests of those escaping domestic violence, Ms. Davis was no stranger to the tales of true terror told by those courageously speaking up for themselves, and her experience told her that Tracy was in even more danger than she likely realized. “The severity of the violence, the information Tracy gave me, all indicated a serious case with possible mortality issues,” Ms. Davis recalls. “I gave Tracy legal and safety advice,” Ms. Davis says, and then she asked Tracy to do something which Tracy credits as the reason she is alive today. “Joanna asked me to promise that I would file a report if my husband ever got violent again. I made a promise to her, and I don’t break my promises.” Before the month was over, Tracy would follow through on that promise.
On October 31, 2019, Tracy’s husband attacked her as she shielded her children from his violence, and on the following morning, Tracy went to the hospital for her injuries and honored her pledge to Joanna by filing a police report. For the first time in 20 years, law enforcement and medical professionals knew the truth behind the wounds on her body. Upon her husband’s arrest, a stay away order of protection granted and Tracy was told she could go home and sleep in peace for at least one night while her husband was confined to jail. Upon her arrival home, though, an insistent nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach would not leave Tracy alone. “You cannot stay here, my gut said,” Tracy recalls with urgency in her voice even all this time later. “Whatever you do, you cannot stay here.” She listened to her instincts, packed up a few items for herself and her children, and then sought refuge at the home of her parents. That night, her husband returned to the marital home and burned it to the ground unaware that Tracy and their children were asleep elsewhere.
“I don’t fault the judge for releasing him,” Tracy says. “My husband told a very convincing story of his mental illness and how it was the first time anything like that had happened and how he was sorry. But if I hadn’t made that promise to Joanna and if I hadn’t listened to my gut instincts, I wouldn’t be alive today. If I had been there, he would have killed me. No doubt.”
In the aftermath of her husband’s arrests for both abuse and arson, Tracy turned to Ms. Davis and LASNNY to help her obtain every legal protection she could for herself and her children. Ms. Davis filed for a five-year order of protection—the maximum allowable under the NYS family court act—and sole physical and legal custody of the children to be granted to Tracy. Ms. Davis also worked with the DA to provide information pertinent to the criminal case against Tracy’s husband. Without the assistance provided through LASNNY, Tracy is certain she would not have been able to protect herself and her children. As Ms. Davis explains, “People are only entitled to a public defender if they match income guidelines, so someone like Tracy could be over the income guidelines, but that doesn’t mean they can necessarily afford an attorney. Legal Aid allows people to access the court for free so they do not have to worry about coming up with the money for a retainer and attorney fees on top of all the trauma they are facing.” Because of Ms. Davis’s work through LASNNY, both the five-year order of protection and sole physical and legal custody were granted to Tracy, and the work of healing and rebuilding was able to begin.
“I wasn’t there at Wellspring that day to change my life,” Tracy says. “I was there to listen to what Legal Aid had to offer. Before Joanna, I’d never trusted anyone enough to tell the truth of what was going on. But I trusted her. From day one, I trusted her. And it was the trust I placed in her—not the system, not the sheriff, not anything else—that got me from there to here because somehow I knew she would help me get through it.”
The assistance provided to Tracy through LASNNY, though, did not stop once the legal goals of Tracy’s case were achieved. “LASNNY adopted my family for Christmas that year, too,” Tracy recounts. “Their job was to help me in court, and they went above and beyond. I had a carful of gifts from people who did not know us but who cared about us. They gave each of my kids presents so perfectly suited to their interests, I couldn’t believe it. The humanity we felt we had lost was given back to us that Christmas because of them.”
When asked what she would like donors to know about the importance of LASNNY’s work, Tracy says, “Because of LASNNY, I learned I have a voice. And I hope donors will see that. You are giving a huge gift to people who have been abused. You are giving them a voice. You’re giving them a voice when before they could say nothing.” And Ms. Davis echoes the importance of donors. “Without the support of donors, we would not be able to do this type of legal work here at LASNNY. And that would leave people vulnerable to losing their children, their protection, and possibly even their lives. That’s why legal services are vital to our area.”
Because of her own courage, resilience, and tenacity and because of the legal assistance and emotional support she received through LASNNY, Tracy’s life story has entered a new chapter—a chapter filled with gratitude, optimism, and goals which keep Tracy going during the dark times of recovery and relearning to trust herself and the world. And for her new lease on life, Tracy is forever grateful to LASNNY. In her words, “If it weren’t for Legal Aid, there would be an obituary for people to read instead of my success story.”