Pam Paziotopoulos is an attorney and Senior Vice President for Forest Advisors, a division of Forest Financial Group, Inc, in the Chicago area. She assists organizations in developing policy guidelines and training managers and employees on workplace and intimate partner violence. Prior to joining Forest Advisors, Pam served as the Director of Public Affairs to the Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine. She also created and supervised the Domestic Violence Division of the State’s Attorney’s Office where she monitored the prosecution of over 100,000 domestic violence cases emanating each year from the city of Chicago and surrounding area. She is an adjunct professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, two-time survivor of cancer, and a highly sought-after speaker on intimate partner violence in the workplace.
Tell us about your journey to where you are today.
I was in the State’s Attorney’s Office in Chicago and was talking to a domestic violence victim in a dirty hallway at a run down courthouse. She had three children with her, all under 10 years old. I told her that I wasn’t going to let her drop the charges this time against her abusive husband. She said, “Well Ms. Prosecutor, if you convict him and send him to jail, will you pay my rent, tuition to my children’s private, Catholic school, and buy our groceries? I don’t work. Who will support us? If you get your conviction and he loses his job, we will all become homeless. Is that the justice you seek?” I was 26. And wow. I knew nothing about this type of crime; I thought there must be a better way to handle these cases. I resigned, moved to Washington DC and traveled the country exploring best practices about how to help victims of intimate partner violence who felt trapped like this young woman. I returned to Chicago and employed all those best practices I learned on the road. I started the domestic violence division for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and it is the accomplishment I am most proud of.
How has your life experience made you the individual you are today?
At 18, I was a freshman at the University of Illinois in Champaign. I pledged Alpha Chi Omega sorority and was on top of the world. You can imagine my shock when, at Christmas time that year, I was diagnosed with a cancer in fourth stage. I dropped out of school, had experimental chemotherapy for a year, and then went into remission. Twenty-seven years later, then a mother and a wife, I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer. I endured surgery, chemotherapy and radiation over a very long year. Shortly after that, my husband filed for divorce. Experiencing these “out of the blue” life changes has helped me adapt to the “unexpected circumstance.” I have become resilient, and I don’t ever allow the little things to bother me. I live life everyday, and don’t think too much about the future, other than to plan just a little bit out. I surround myself with only people that have positive, hopeful outlooks on life. I am determined to seek work that aids in assisting others in unfortunate situations. Nothing is more rewarding to me than to help a domestic violence victim see that she can pursue her dreams and that the only thing stopping her from achieving her freedom from abuse and from reaching the stars, is she.
What have you learned from these highlights and challenges?
Anyone can escape an abusive relationship if someone gives him or her a chance.
How is your work changing people’s lives?
I think the work has to be focused on prevention. Education on how partners can be abusive, from the physical abuse to the emotional abuse, must be employed. Sociopaths can be the most debilitating of all, even the ones that don’t physically abuse. We need to educate on what the characteristics and patterns are of these types of abusers, so when an individual sees the behavior, they can get out quickly and safely.
What practical advice can you offer those who are experiencing violence and need help?
Every state has a domestic violence coalition. Contact that organization and share with them the help that you need. They will direct you to free resources in your community.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Walks with my dog, time with my daughter when my phone and television are turned off. You need to unplug. Everyone can wait an hour or so for you to return an email, text or phone call. Kids grow up quick…don’t miss out on your time with them because you are too busy returning a text message.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The look in a victim’s eye when I ask her what she would like her life to look like and how we, together, can get her to a place where she can start dreaming again, is so incredibly rewarding. The victims I assist don’t realize that they empower me, and that they are my heroes each and every day.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Senator Olympia Snowe. She had several early tragedies including losing her mother to breast cancer at age nine and her father a year later. Despite a very hard childhood, she had an incredibly successful career. She voted on the merits of the legislation proposed rather than on party lines. In this fashion, she exhibited her independence. She is an inspiration to women, especially Greek women! I had the pleasure of meeting her at a breast cancer event for Greek survivors, and she is absolutely a class act!
Which words sum up where you have got to today?
Strength in the depths of darkness.