Sarah was four months’ pregnant when she decided to leave the abusive relationship she was in.
She was 24 years old at the time, she says, “and the last person you would ever expect to be in this situation … pregnant and alone.”
Her parents paid for a private family law attorney to help with issues of custody and visitation, but as many women know all too well, if you have children with your abuser, there’s often no breaking the ties for good.
“I can’t get away from him,” Sarah (not her real name) said of her ex. “(We) have a daughter … and he uses it to control me. He takes me to court and it’s a never-ending battle.”
But paying for ongoing legal help was beyond Sarah and her family. And the idea of always having to represent herself in court was overwhelming.
“Attorneys take care of everything,” she noted. “They’re always with you. If I had to represent myself, stand in front of a judge who may or may not believe me, who may or may not have read the file … I wouldn’t be able to fight it. I would probably give up.”
Fortunately, she said, a friend’s father told her about the UC Davis School of Law’s Family Protection and Legal Assistance Clinic in Woodland. Staffed by law students, the clinic provides everything from representation in court to assistance with paperwork and court filings, all free of charge to low-income individuals.
For Sarah, walking in the clinic’s doors changed her life.
“Every time we go to court they make sure my side is being told,” she said. “They can almost predict what’s going to happen. They told me what I needed to do and how to keep myself safe.”
It’s been four years since Sarah first called the clinic, and though she hasn’t been in court with her ex for more than a year, clinic staff still provide regular assistance when she needs it.
“He’ll do something, and I’ll call the clinic and say, ‘This is what happened to me this weekend … what should I do?’
“If I had to call a regular attorney, I’d be billed for one question, and how can I afford that?” she noted. “The best thing about this program is it gives me the ability to fight.”
It’s something the clinic has been doing for 10 years now.
Over the past year, eight law students each worked 12 hours per week helping domestic violence victims obtain restraining orders, custody orders and financial assistance. Students handle about 80 cases per year.
The clinic originally was funded by the state, but when that revenue stream dried up, the law school had to turn to private sources, most notably of late, Verizon.
In recent years the Verizon Foundation and Verizon Wireless HopeLine have donated more than $160,000 in grants to the clinic.
“Without that support,” said UCD law school dean Kevin Johnson, “the clinic would not have continued.”
On Wednesday, Johnson and other clinic representatives honored Verizon in a brief ceremony at the clinic. Among those joining Johnson in thanking Verizon for its support was third-year law student Atzimba Reyes, who had been working in the clinic for the past year and plans to continue doing so.
“I love being a part of the clinic,” she said. “It’s really amazing, all the skills I’ve learned and I’ve met truly amazing women.
“Without us,” she added, “they would not have had any legal services at all.”
“I would be lost, literally, without it,” she said. “But to be able to come in to a place, where this is what they are here for, it’s amazing.”
Domestic violence she noted, “knocks you down.”
“It knocks down your self-esteem, your self-worth, your courage.”
And one of the worst things about it, she said, is when people don’t believe you.
Living in a small town, she said, people who knew her ex would approach her all the time, saying ‘Oh, he would never do that.’ ”
“You start to doubt yourself,” she said. “You start thinking you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.”
But at the clinic she said, “I don’t think there’s been a moment here that I felt like I wasn’t believed. And it made me stronger. It’s empowering.”
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at email@example.com or (530) 747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy