Domestic violence prevention has been a fundamental part of BayLegal’s service model since the organization’s inception in 2000 through the merger of several smaller legal services firms. In BayLegal’s first year, advocates operated a Domestic Violence Legal Clinic that served over 1,000 people. Today, BayLegal operates six Domestic Violence Restraining Order (DVRO) Clinics five days a week at locations that span the Bay Area, and provides comprehensive legal representation of low-income survivors through our Domestic Violence Prevention Project.
In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, three attorneys from our intrepid family law team—Erin Orum, Managing Attorney for San Mateo County and Regional Counsel for Family Law; Taline Minassian, Senior Staff Attorney, Santa Clara Office; and Roxanne Alejandre, Senior Staff Attorney, San Francisco Office—agreed to share their perspectives on advocacy for survivors of domestic abuse and interpersonal violence.
What drew you to BayLegal’s Domestic Violence Prevention Project?
Erin: I had done some work with survivors as an undergraduate and found it rewarding. But, when I began working as a volunteer attorney for BayLegal’s [Domestic Violence] Prevention unit, I realized how much I truly loved the work. The clients I got to work with were impressive, strong, resilient and inspiring. My colleagues were dedicated and fought hard to help every survivor who walked in our door find safety and a better life for their family. I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend my career.
Taline: I wanted to serve a marginalized group with direct services and liked that this role was a marriage of family and immigration law (pun intended). I have always chosen to work for organizations which focus on serving clients that would otherwise not have access to resources/justice and I think BayLegal serves the most marginalized in our community. The idea that I could work with the most marginalized members of our community (survivors) during what could be some of their most vulnerable of moments is/was appealing to me because that fits into why I chose to be a lawyer in the first place.
Roxanne: When I was an 18-year-old undergraduate social work student and working in the domestic violence field, I kept seeing BayLegal’s name and hearing about BayLegal’s domestic violence prevention project. [Current Director of Program & Advocacy] Ariella [Hyman], Minouche [Kandel, former staff attorney], and Jerel’s [Jerel McCrary, Managing Attorney, San Francisco Office] names frequently appeared on community meeting agendas. I noticed that everyone in the community respected and valued BayLegal’s contribution to the anti-domestic violence and legal social justice movements. Their examples inspired me to go to law school and become a social justice attorney.
What role does BayLegal play in protecting survivors, and how does it differ from legal aid services provided elsewhere?
Erin: BayLegal is unique in that we provide true full-scope legal services to survivors. While other agencies can do a great job at helping clients fill out paperwork or providing emotional support at court, BayLegal is the only agency I know of that provides free, full scope legal representation. We will take on extremely difficult, complex, and protracted cases for survivors whom no one else will help. We are not afraid of messy cases or difficult issues and we truly do everything in our power to get survivors the justice they deserve.
Roxanne: BayLegal’s services for domestic violence survivors are unique in that we provide full-scope representation on complex family law matters. Most pro and low bono legal services provide more limited counsel and advice or only assist survivors with preparing pleadings in pro per. We jump head-first into multi-day trials and represent clients through the judgment phase. BayLegal is also uniquely situated to provide wrap-around legal services. Firm-wide we have several practice areas including public benefits, health access, housing, youth justice, re-entry, immigration, and veteran’s units. Often domestic violence victims have overlapping legal issues and we can provide in-house assistance in multiple legal areas. We also have social workers that can also assist our clients. For example, we were able to represent one domestic violence survivor in her family law matter, CalWORKs welfare-to-work case, dependency case, eviction defense case, and a Community College grievance process. All the legal issues were directly related to her domestic violence victimization. In addition to all this legal support, she received crucial case management services from our staff social worker. Another advantage to our services is that we are regional and have offices in 6 Bay Area counties [and provide services in 7]. Many domestic violence survivors move across county lines to escape abuse and we can accommodate this need.
What have you learned from working directly with survivors?
Erin: I’ve learned that, while people are capable of doing terrible things to one another, our capacity for love, kindness, and resilience is immense. My clients never cease to amaze me though the selfless way they care for their children or the kindness they show to me and others.
Taline: They are some of the most resilient people I have ever met and their strength and ability to oftentimes stay positive and keep on pushing themselves against all odds is really admirable. This work, in general, has taught me to be more grateful and to understand that life is fickle and really people can have very different backgrounds and circumstances but a lot of the problems faced and sentiments while facing those problems are quite universal.
Roxane: Survivors are strong, resilient, and brave. When I hear about the incredible hardships and obstacles that my clients have gone through, I am in awe. Many of them are able to overcome violent trauma, poverty, racism, sexism, and language barriers. They are thriving and providing for their children. I have one client who is a single mom of three children. She takes English classes at night and works seven days a week to make ends meet in San Francisco. After being in an abusive marriage for 15 years, she is happy to be free of her abuser and be independent.
Are there any misconceptions about survivors that you’d like to dispel?
Erin: There is not one way that a survivor should look, think or feel. Just because a survivor doesn’t fit your expectation of them does not mean they have not experienced abuse.
Taline: That they are weak, that they are victims that need saving. They don’t. I actually get really annoyed by the mindset I have sometimes encountered in non-profit work where there is the sense of doing God’s work and saving the people… I think it falsely boasts our own self-esteem and is unfairly condescending to the communities we serve. I’ll jump off my soap box now….
Roxanne: There is a saying that is often repeated by professionals in the family court system, “Snow White did not marry Attila the Hun.” At BayLegal, our interpersonal violence prevention unit prefers to examine domestic violence through a power and control paradigm. Domestic violence is not mutual combat, does not exclusively occur in heterosexual relationships, and is not an isolated event. Domestic violence is a pattern of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse in interpersonal relationships to systematically control someone.
What do you think people should know about the role of legal aid in the prevention of domestic abuse?
Erin: I think people feel good about giving to domestic violence shelters (and they should!) because they are a very easy way to view the problem of domestic violence. People picture frightened women and children fleeing their homes and needing a room to stay in—which they do. But they need so much more. They need help with the legal mess that comes after that first night in the shelter. They need help getting custody orders and child support and their fair share of their marital property so that they’re not relegated to stay in a shelter but can rebuild their own lives and thrive. That’s what legal aid does that no one else can.
Taline: I think money is often used to control and abusers are no different. Many domestic violence survivors stay in their relationships because they feel they have no resources to get out of the situation they are in. I think the fact that BayLegal provides free representation to the most economically disenfranchised communities gives them an increased access to resources and hopefully a more fair shake in getting out of their abusive relationships.
Roxanne: When people hear about domestic violence work, they frequently think about law enforcement and that domestic violence is a crime. However, survivors also have a multitude of civil legal needs including family law, immigration, housing, and economic security.
Learn more about BayLegal’s holistic services for survivors, and about our approach to serving immigrant survivors of domestic abuse. For the perspective of a survivor and former client, read our latest annual report.