By Christine Kraly
In one way or another, Pamela Paziotopoulos has been teaching about survival for 30 years.
As a lawyer, the 48-year-old advises victims and businesses on how to help protect against the corrosive cycle of domestic violence. And, as a young student and later a mother who battled cancer, she teaches how surviving personal anguish can help show others to do the same.
Through Forest Advisors, Paziotopoulos lectures across the country and trains companies on how best to implement policies to handle employee-partner violence issues.
She joined the private sector after spending several years in the Cook County state's attorney's office prosecuting domestic violence cases. She established and supervised the office's Domestic Violence Division while there.
Through her personal and professional life, she promotes a message of strength and demonstrates the importance of fighting for oneself and for others.
An early setback
In the winter of 1982, Paziotopoulos attended the University of Illinois as a bright-eyed freshman. The Oak Park native basked in the glow of joining a sorority.
That December, bothered by itchy skin that she couldn't stop from bleeding, Paziotopoulos visited a health clinic that advised her to go home and see her family doctor.
Pamela Paziotopoulos, senior vice president of Forest Advisors, a division of Forest Financial Group Inc., delivered a presentation with John P. Savas, senior vice president of Forest Advisors, during a meeting with the heads of Forest Financial Group on Aug. 19.
Photo by Natalie Battaglia.
There, she and her family received news they never expected for an 18-year-old woman just beginning life on her own: Paziotopoulos faced Stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma.
"It was tough, it was really hard," she said. "I was devastated."
She dropped out of school for a year to undergo intense chemotherapy that caused her to lose her hair.
"At the beginning, you think it's fine," she said of enduring the tough regimen. "By the sixth, seventh month, it's hard to get out of bed."
Close friends sent greeting cards every day and she tried to live a normal life.
"I just kept coming down for sorority dances, I put my wig on," she said. "I wanted to be just normal like every other kid — 'Hey, I look OK, I can have fun.'"
She said she watched fellow patients suffer the same agonizing treatment only to throw up their hands.
"I'll never forget a conversation with a patient," she said.
"He said, 'What's wrong with you? We're all going to die.'"
"I don't know about you,'" she told him, 'But I'm not going to die.' Mental outlook has everything to do with it."
She eventually became healthy enough to return to school. She returned with an admittedly different attitude.
"I was much more laid back when I went back — I never really thought I'd get sick again," she said.
As a senior preparing to graduate, ambling about her next phase in life, a professor made a prediction: "'You were born to be a state's attorney,'" he told her.
He was right.
Paziotopoulos graduated from the University of Illinois in 1987, concentrating on speech communications, and went on to earn her law degree from the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1990.
Her next stop — the Cook County state's attorney's office.
Learning on the job
Paziotopoulos said she remembers sitting with a domestic abuse victim in the state's attorney's office, listening in confused anguish.
"She was telling me how going home was such a prison for her and how she would want to work later, because she just dreaded going home," she said. "That just struck a chord with me."
The scenario proved the opposite of Paziotopoulos' life, of her secure and safe upbringing, of how she felt at home, she said.
"My parents' home was such a refuge, even when they weren't there; it was just such a safe place," she said. "I couldn't imagine that feeling, that feeling of not wanting to go home, that it was some kind of prison."
And yet, she said, this woman before her could easily have been her — been any educated, professionally successful woman.
That there is no "profile" of an abuse victim both stymied and fascinated her.
"Lots of women, lots of very intelligent women, from good families, are taken in by these predators," Paziotopoulos said.
"It has to be an interdisciplinary approach," she said of prosecuting domestic cases.
In many cases, victims may not have worked in 20 years. She needed to ask the victim what would happen to her if her husband went to prison. She took particular note of how complex the cases involving immigrants often seemed.
She worked with the profiling unit of the FBI, analyzing domestic violence homicides. She observed teachable patterns, common denominators in the homicides, including the high-risk time of when a woman wants to end a relationship.
She learned, and began to preach, of the importance of collaboration among prosecutors, victim's advocates, law enforcement and other groups in seeking the best outcome of a criminal case.
In 1996, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a senior attorney with the American Prosecutors Research Institute's Criminal Prosecution Division, the researching and training arm of the National District Attorneys Association.
She traveled to 38 states, training others on how to deal with domestic violence and learning the best practices of prosecuting offices throughout the country.
"Most importantly, I was really learning how various jurisdictions respond to domestic violence cases," she said.
It shocked her to see how one county may focus on convicting a perpetrator, treating the victim as simply a witness in a crime, whereas another might favor her approach, to see a solution that ensures victims can support themselves and their families at a case's outcome.
That perspective would become invaluable when Cook County called her home in 1997.
Then-Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine wanted to establish a division to specifically handle domestic violence cases and called Paziotopoulos to garner her advice.
"We knew we wanted to make domestic violence a top priority," Devine said.
"I told them, 'This is what you should do, how you should do it,'" Paziotopoulos said. "I wasn't really ready to come do it."
But Devine said he kept other plans in mind.
"Pam came in and she was clearly the right person for the job," Devine said.
'A holistic vision'
The then-new Domestic Violence Division, Paziotopoulos told the Chicago Tribune in 1997, would require "someone who can be very patient, someone who can be understanding, who can look at the big picture."
Pamela Paziotopoulos worked out with personal trainer Noah Richter on Aug. 19. She trains twice a week at the East Bank Club and credits her trainer with keeping her healthy after battling cancer twice.
Photo by Natalie Battaglia.
Cases often drag along for months and years, creating a revolving door of attorneys. Paziotopoulos said she recognized this as a problem and, in founding and heading the new division, persuaded attorneys joining the department to commit to spending two years in this area.
"Domestic violence cases often are not where ambitious prosecutors want to cut their teeth," Paziotopoulos said.
But, she said, "I didn't take no for an answer."
"Pam's upbeat personality helped her," Devine said of successfully lobbying lawyers to stick with the fledgling division.
Paziotopoulos said she remembered the division's start as harried and exciting.
"It was probably the craziest time in my life, working 16-hour days," she said.
She became prosecutor and politician, jockeying for more courtrooms, building space and even desks for her small department.
Under her watch, the division prosecuted at least 100,000 cases a year as well as established programs and partnerships with other city departments to provide victims with housing and job support throughout their cases.
"To see the relief on that victim's face, to get those kids out of that abusive environment, you're helping them break the cycle," she said.
In 2000, Today's Chicago Woman named her one of 100 women making a difference in Chicago.
Paziotopoulos began focusing on how active a role a victim's workplace and work life played in domestic cases.
"They're putting the address of the business on the restraining order — to protect everyone they work with," she said. "But they're not sharing that information with their boss. They're not sharing that information with anyone."
"You have to be proactive today," she said of businesses.
In 2002, she left full-time legal work to form her own consulting firm, The Paziotopoulos Group. The practice focused on providing training and guidance in workplace violence protection.
She advised clients like the U.S. Department of Justice, Caterpillar Inc. and Pfizer Inc. on establishing procedures to prevent and protect against violence. She also toured the country lecturing and training on how best to react to domestic violence cases in the office and in court.
She helped produce a set of instructional videos and training materials for the Center for Personal Protection and Safety, published in 2009 and called "Silent Storm."
The materials cite U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics that show 85 percent of all victims of intimate partner violence are women and that the problem takes a particularly destructive toll on the workplace.
"Silent Storm" reports that businesses sustain $3 billion to $4 billion a year in employee lost wages, productivity and time away from work.
While partnering with Robin Runge, an assistant professor of housing and employment law at the University of North Dakota School of Law, Paziotopoulos helped publicize how a victim's workplace and co-workers might suffer.
Runge said she first met Paziotopoulos through the American Bar Association, where Runge worked as director of the group's Commission on Domestic Violence.
"I knew of her reputation way before I met her," Runge said.
Runge commended Illinois for boasting strong workplace violence policies, for which Runge credited Paziotopoulos' input.
Together, the pair wrote, "What Employers Can Do to Minimize the Impact of Domestic Violence and Stalking in the Workplace," which appeared in a 2008 ABA book called "Preventing and Managing Workplace Violence."
Runge called it a "lovely experience" collaborating with Paziotopoulos, whom she praised for being magnanimous with her advice in combining their work.
Paziotopoulos, Runge said, possesses a rare ability to view domestic violence as a problem afflicting and spanning a victim's private and personal lives .
"She's been incredibly powerful," Runge said, "because she has that holistic vision as well."
Runge, who has not practiced criminal law, called Paziotopoulos' criminal background "hugely important," saying it was a fitting complement to her workplace background when they provided real-world business logistics to tackle partner violence.
Runge lauded Paziotopoulos for acknowledging the impact of violence not only on the victim, but also on the employers who might otherwise be wary of how a domestic case may affect them legally.
Often, an initial hurdle arises in convincing employers that a workplace violence policy handling domestic cases proves valuable not only to workers but also to the company, Runge said. Many business leaders may deem such cases a personal, private matter to be avoided at the office, she said.
"She has done great work reaching out to employers," Runge said of Paziotopoulos. "It's not one-sided. That's really hard. It's rare to have two-sided credibility."
Rick Patterson, former director of security at Chicago's Sidley Austin, agreed, calling Paziotopoulos' work with the firm instrumental in establishing its threat assessment policies.
He touted Paziotopoulos' credibility in both prosecuting domestic violence cases as well as working with businesses to ensure their own assets — including their most important, their employees — are protected.
She proved instrumental in convincing other members of the firm of the value in establishing procedures to deal with employee domestic issues, including how to engage in a criminal case against an offender.
"Anyone going through this, their productivity diminishes," Patterson said.
Runge praised Paziotopoulos for recognizing that "the criminal justice system can only do so much" and for finding a niche that calls attention to the damage domestic violence does outside the home.
"To see that need and dedicate her expertise to it is a gift," Runge said.
Summoning the strength, again
Three years ago, Paziotopoulos began preparing for a vacation.
As the 45-year-old waited for her routine mammogram, she ran over a to-do list in her head: Buy a bathing suit, pick up sunscreen. Because of her predisposition to cancer, she underwent regular, uneventful mammograms for several years. Until that day.
What inspires Pamela Paziotopoulos?
Who mentored you early in your career?
I was lucky enough to have a dream team for my mentors: (U.S. District Judge) Charles Kocoras, Richard Devine and (IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law professor) David Erickson.
What music do you listen to for inspiration?
Name a person who inspires you.
The two Anastasias in my life, my mom and my daughter.
What’s the biggest change in the legal community?
Obviously, there have been numerous changes in the field. However, within my area, I would cite the expanded knowledge base acquired by the judiciary who hear domestic violence and related cases. In contrast to when I initially pleaded these cases before them, they are light-years ahead in terms of understanding the salient and substantive issues involved, especially the risk assessment aspects.
What is the biggest day-to-day challenge?
Besides the medical challenges and raising a daughter as a single mom, it’s my current preparations in establishing a new department, Forest Advisors, within Forest Financial Group while creating a service that is on the cutting edge of training corporate and public employees on detecting and handling violence assaults in the workplace.
The results of this latest test showed an aggressive form of Stage 2 breast cancer — about 20 years after her first bout with cancer.
"I don't remember how I got home," she said. "I was just in total shock. I never thought once about getting breast cancer. I thought I was done."
Her 9-year-old daughter, Anastasia — named after Paziotopoulos' mother — was just 6 at the time.
"This time, it was a different motivation — to be my daughter's mother," she said. "Failure was not an option. Damn it, I'm going to raise my kid."
Paziotopoulos called chemo treatment, juggling work and motherhood as her body roiled a "horrific time."
At times, she could barely make it up the stairs of her old Victorian home.
"It was so much harder this time, as a mother," she said. "I can't even compare it."
As they did once before, her family helped her through treatment, watching over Paziotopoulos' daughter when necessary.
This summer, she received a clean scan and remains focused on her recovery. On the professional front, she now works with a longtime family friend in a spin-off of his employee benefits consulting firm.
Paziotopoulos has known Nicholas Gialamas since his childhood, when she baby-sat him.
"'Make sure Nicky doesn't fall down the stairs, watch Nicky,'" her parents used to tell her.
They attended church and played group basketball together. Fast forward almost 30 years, she and Gialamas ran into each other and he told her about an employee at his firm, Forest Financial Group, who seemed to be a domestic violence victim.
"He said, 'This is a really important issue,'" Paziotopoulos said.
After chatting with Paziotopoulos about her expansive experience in this area, the issue hit home even more for Gialamas.
"I'm the father of three children, two of them are girls," he said. "It's such an important topic. Talking to Pam, my wheels just started spinning."
They established Forest Advisors in August 2011. Paziotopoulos' projects with Forest Advisors include producing instructional videos and materials for colleges and universities about Title IX, sexual abuse and domestic violence. She seems poised to help teach a new, upcoming generation of women, of girls and daughters like Anastasia.
People react differently when facing adversity, Paziotopoulos' former boss Devine said.
"It just nurtured in Pam a desire to set goals and accomplish things," he said.
"What she has gone through did allow her to empathize with victims who went through a personal challenge of a different nature. She saw the many dimensions" of victims' struggles, he said.
That ambition borne of battle helps Paziotopoulos juggle consulting while teaching as an adjunct professor at IIT Chicago-Kent and remaining active with groups including the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals and the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women's Network.
She also recently served on the public safety committee of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's transition team.
She does all this while raising Anastasia and helping eradicate the damaging legacy of domestic violence.
"Eliminating potential harm to innocent people will become, hopefully, my signature to society," she said.
She recalled her "crazy Greek, 98-year-old grandma," her namesake. When the elder Pamela — who owned a restaurant with Paziotopoulos' grandfather — got robbed by gunmen years ago, she refused to give the masked assailants her purse.
Eventually, they relented, she said.
"She's the toughest cookie I know," she said. "She's been a mentor to me, as far as strength."
Paziotopoulos said she hopes she can exhibit some of that strength not only in her own personal battle but also in helping victims of domestic violence and their employers.
"You can get through, no matter what, you can get to that other side," she said. "That's what we try to do."