Charity Spotlight: Seeking Justice, Guarding Lives

Helping child abuse victims heal  

Organization: Defenders of Children


Founder — Donnalee Sarda

CEO — Johanna Fierstein, MSW


Defenders of Children was founded in 2007 by Donnalee Sarda as an Arizona offshoot of the national organization, Justice for Children. Defenders of Children was borne of a desire to do better for child abuse victims in our community. It is a grassroots effort to explore systemic inadequacies and fill gaps in helping families protect children. Located in Central Phoenix, Defenders of Children is a fierce, interdisciplinary team of domestic violence and child abuse experts from the legal, clinical mental health and survivor services-focused social work professions, collaborating under one roof to provide comprehensive services to families.

CEO Johanna Fierstein came to the organization after a decade working in private law firms as a paralegal for attorneys focused on family and juvenile law. She had witnessed many failings within the systems designed to protect children, including children and abuse survivors being revictimized through unjust custody orders and antiquated ideas about domestic violence. After years of volunteering with domestic violence and sexual assault victims, Fierstein wanted to help bridge gaps at the intersections of family law, clinical mental health, victims’ rights and child welfare. She worked under the agency’s founder, Donnalee Sarda, who was and is a true warrior for abused and neglected children.


Defenders of Children’s mission is to protect children and families from violence, fight for their access to justice, facilitate healing and end the intergenerational cycle of abuse. With a focus on helping survivors of child abuse, domestic, interpersonal (dating) and sexual violence, as well as human trafficking, Defenders of Children works with low-income clients and their families, community partner organizations, domestic violence shelters, schools and city/county victim advocacy offices to promote its vision of healthier, violence-free families. The agency is known for taking a holistic, full-service approach to creating change for clients; both empowering survivors (of all ages) through legal systems and helping them walk the path down their emotional healing journey with the assistance of their counseling department. Defenders of Children is the only nonprofit agency in Arizona providing both of these services, with litigating attorneys who argue the most complex cases next to survivors in courtrooms, and independently licensed trauma clinicians, under one roof and always free. (Clients are never charged one penny.) Defenders of Children is known for providing unparalleled trauma-informed litigation services and expert therapists that practice the most up-to-date techniques and modalities for treating the complexities of trauma after acute and/or long-term abuse and violence. The agency has a truly transformative impact on clients’ lives.

Annual Budget: $750,000

Most Surprising Thing About the Organization:

In addition to their work with clients, Defenders of Children engages in extensive community outreach. For example, the agency holds an annual event at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, which is free to all their clients and community partners’ clients, and any families currently in family violence shelters. In 2022, they hosted 400 parents and children for a day of fun, confidence-building, learning, free food trucks and tons of free raffle prizes. In addition, they hold an annual Family and Juvenile Law Conference to advocate for families by training lawyers, judges, mental health clinicians and child welfare advocates about how we can and should come together to do better for Arizona’s most vulnerable children.   

Program Highlight:

Defenders of Children provided $1.7 million in free legal services to children and families in 2022. Their legal department’s programs were essential in protecting children and training advocates across the state. Their clinical department provided weekly, life-altering psychoeducational classes for sex trafficking survivors.

Recent Challenges:

The team at Defenders of Children has observed that many abusers misuse the court system to maintain control over their former or current partners. Abusers file frivolous lawsuits to keep their victims coming back to court to face them, as courts are often the only tool left for abusers seeking to maintain a hold over their victims’ lives. This process retraumatizes victims, draining them of their finances, forcing them to miss work and face a terrifying, overwhelming legal system. Litigation involving child custody cases (which are often appallingly contentious) is one of the most common ways domestic violence perpetrators prolong contact with victims. The team at Defenders of Children gets hundreds of calls per month from desperate parents and guardians asking for help. The agency’s biggest challenge, by far, is inadequate funding and the need for more lawyers to litigate these cases in courtrooms.


There is a dire need within the child abuse and family violence communities not just for legal services, but for attorney-based litigation services so survivors of child abuse and family violence get access to justice in family and civil courts. Defenders of Children is motivated to continue their work over the summer, when children are out of school and reports of child abuse tend to surge.

To learn more, visit

About Frontdoors Media

Frontdoors Media celebrates the people and groups who give generously and work to build the future of our community. It’s the premier source of information – and inspiration – for those who strive to make the Valley of the Sun a better place to live.

From Frontdoors Magazine

Back to Top