“All I Needed to Do Was Tell My Story”: A Survivor’s Perspective

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Anna works as a full-time medical assistant, and she is a single mother to a three-year-old daughter. She explained with a laugh that those details alone describe her life at present: “There’s no time for anything!”

Anna generously took time out of her lunch break to share her experience seeking legal representation for protection against domestic violence and interpersonal abuse. She explained that, for years, she had been hesitant to report her experiences because she thought she wouldn’t be taken seriously. “A lot of it was mental and emotional abuse,” she explained, “and I know people experience worse.”

Anna decided to go to the police in July 2019, after her former partner lashed out at her and her daughter with physical violence and verbal threats. Anna explained that this behavior was part of a larger pattern of abuse stretching back over three years. After they broke up and made child visitation arrangements, his behavior took a dark turn. “He would get handsy, start screaming, pushing, shoving. I always kept quiet because he would threaten me. He’d say he would come after my boyfriend, take my daughter away, follow me home, or have someone else follow me home.”

That day in July, after dropping off their daughter at Anna’s mother’s house, he refused to let them drive away. He punched the car window and threatened to beat her. After Anna managed to drive away with her daughter in tow, he pursued them at an aggressive speed in his own car. He tailgated her so closely that if she had braked, they would have collided.  And he tried to run her off the road. Anna called 911 and held the phone up to the window so that he could see. “That’s when he sped away, and I went to a police station for help,” she said.

At the station, an officer advised Anna to find a pro bono lawyer. She was referred to the Domestic Violence Collaborative, a part of BayLegal’s regional Pro Bono Program, which integrates volunteers into BayLegal’s practice areas, including domestic violence prevention. The Collaborative is a partnership between BayLegal, Legal Aid of San Mateo, and Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse that places domestic violence survivors with pro bono attorneys for representation at restraining order hearings. Through this program, Anna was connected with Eileen Sherman and Kelsey Merrick, two attorneys from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom—an internationally renowned law firm and long-standing BayLegal pro bono partner. They agreed to take on the case.

As is typical in this project, Eileen and Kelsey were provided one-on-one mentorship by a BayLegal family law specialist and domestic violence legal expert—in this case, Staff Attorney Nicole Reyes—who helped them to structure their arguments for the court. They also had access to an attorney-of-the day system, whereby domestic violence attorneys from the Collaborative were on standby to provide support on hearing days.

Anna said that working with her pro bono attorneys “was the most reassuring process ever”: “They made me feel safe and secure. I was worried that my situation wasn’t ‘good enough’ because I didn’t show up with a black eye…. I thought I wouldn’t succeed [in court] because it wasn’t serious enough. But they gave me the power to think that I could actually win. They were two unfazed lawyers! I still feel like I can reach out to them for emotional help. They are the sweetest girls! I always looked forward to seeing them. And the fact that these lawyers were free, and that I won my [hearing]… it was a dream!”

She described an evolution in her confidence in her case, thanks to her attorneys’ steadfast support.  She vividly recalled the many ways they worked to put her at ease: “They constantly…validat[ed] my experiences with my daughter’s dad. They reassured me that what he did is actually very serious. They took the time to run down how the court hearing would go before it happened. They had a rebuttal for anything the judge would say that I might not be happy with. They took the words out of my mouth! I was too shy to speak up in court, so they would respond for me and say everything that I wanted to say but was too scared to. They were helpful in ways I couldn’t even imagine!”

Although she went into her first hearing “crying, scared, and shaking,” by the fourth hearing, she entered the proceedings with confidence in her rights, and in the support of her advocates. “I walked in laughing!” she said. “We were so casual.” And she had good reason to feel optimistic. At that hearing, she was granted a fully favorable ruling: a three-year restraining order against her former partner, and full physical and legal custody of her daughter.

Anna explained that, before filing for legal protections, she had to “start from the bottom” whenever an incident of abuse occurred: she’d have to go to the police, file a report, and try looking for a lawyer.  “Now, if an incident happens again,” she said, “it’s like a website remembering your password and logging you in. Your… information is already there so that if you report an incident, everything is already in place to help you. I don’t have to go back to the beginning, explain everything, find photos and evidence of bruises, or remember everything he did on every date. I just have to call one phone number—my lawyer’s—and we’re in court next week.”

When asked what she wishes the world would understand about survivors, Anna explained that the mysteriousness and inaccessibility of the legal process can make the adage “don’t be scared to speak up” seem like a meaningless cliché. For Anna, “speaking up” meant that she risked getting entangled in a bureaucratic nightmare of court and law enforcement processes—all while having to relive the history of abuse. But, with the right advocates, “it was not that bad!” she recalled. “All I needed to do was tell my story. All these people are on your side doing the work for you! If I’d have known that, I would have done this years ago. Between BayLegal, my lawyers, and the police station, there were all of these people on my side…. You don’t feel overwhelmed at all. You feel like you’re on top, and like you’re being protected.” ◊