Low cost or pro bono legal aid for domestic violence / abuse victims in California?
June 28, 2009 10:00 PM   Subscribe

My friend and her ex-boyfriend got in a fight, he got violent and beat her up pretty bad. She got in the car with their baby and fled cross-country to stay with her parents. There is a hearing next month to determine custody of the child, and she doesn't want to lose the kid to what is likely going to be an abusive father. Lawyer up, right? Problem is, not a lot of money. Can you point me to any organizations in California that provide pro-bono / sliding-scale / low-cost legal aid services for abused women?

So, my friend and her (now-ex) boyfriend had a child together and were living together in Fairfield, CA. In April of this year, they got in a fight over something (I don't know what), he snapped and beat the shit out of her. She took the kid and the clothes on her back and drove to her parents' house in the midwest, where she's been staying since.

There's a hearing in Fairfield at the end of July to determine the custody of the child, and she's scared that without a lawyer she's gonna lose her son and/or be forced to regularly see Mr. Violent if there's some kind of joint custody agreement.

As you can probably imagine, having to leave all your belongings and job behind on a moment's notice with toddler in tow has put her in a financial pickle, and she's having a hard time finding the $3k it will cost her to hire the cheapest lawyer she can find, and on top of that there's tickets for the flight back out to the hearing, etc. I and other friends have lent some money to help, but none of us can pony up that kind of cash on short notice.

I imagine there must be some organizations and/or social service groups which provide legal aid or representation for women who are victims of domestic violence. I've done some googling and found a few in California, but I suspect there are some knowledgeable people on AskMe who can set us on the right direction as far as finding help.

I'm not personally involved in the situation in any way, just trying to lend a hand after the fact. Any assistance anyone can provide would be appreciated in a big way.
posted by sergeant sandwich to Law & Government (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Safequest Solano might be able to help. They're located in Fairfield and I know they have contacts with local lawyers who might assist. She should also seek out the local battered women's shelter at her current location and see if they can assist her as well. They may be able to secure legal representation for her in CA too. Try those two resources, and if neither works out, please e-mail me at my gmail acct - I have a few personal contacts and we could come up with some more creative solutions.
posted by incessant at 10:30 PM on June 28, 2009

This document from the AG's office has a number of resources, including the Solano Women's Crisis Center and The Legal Services Corporation, both of whom may be able to make a referral. Solano County also has a number of resources and another list of agencies. In particular, the Fairfield Domestic Violence Response Team, which works with the Fairfield PD, looks promising. These folks will know the local lawyers in the area who do this type of work and should be able to help.

She may also want to pursue some form of free/low-cost counseling through a Domestic Violence program in the midwest.

Best of luck to your friend in this difficult time.
posted by zachlipton at 10:36 PM on June 28, 2009

If she's poor, what about the local legal aid society?
posted by johngoren at 11:04 PM on June 28, 2009

From my experience trying to help a woman I knew with an abusive husband, it is easy to find legal help for things like restraining orders but very difficult to find free/low cost legal help for custody and divorce proceeding. I am not a lawyer, but I believe that she may find that the court will insist that she return the child to California so that the father can have access/visitation at least until there is a formal custody agreement. If she does not have a safe place to live in California, the court might even decide the child is better off with her father than in a shelter. (Seems totally wrong but this was the advice that one woman received from a lawyer.) So, there is a lot at stake here - it is really worthwhile for her to do whatever she can to get a competent lawyer.

Another thing that will be an issue is if there is any third party confirmation of his violent behavior. Did she go see a doctor? Did she file a police report? Does he have a history of anger/violence towards others? Has he made threats in front or others or via email? If he says that she fell down the stairs and then stole their child away from him, does she have any counter-evidence beyond the ""he said, she said".

She entering a system that often seems kafka-esque. I know one man who was unemployed and was told that he would be put in jail if he didn't make his child support payments (ex-wife was working but still insisting on full payment of money he didn't have and wouldn't be able to earn if he was in jail.) Your friend is really going to need all the support (moral, emotional and practical) that she can get. (Counseling from a local service for battered women can be very important to help her stay strong while she deals with this.) She is lucky to have friends as well as family - many abused women are so isolated that have even that much. Stand by her!
posted by metahawk at 11:17 PM on June 28, 2009

Any local domestic violence shelter should be able to direct her to a domestic violence legal advocate, who will attend hearings with her, support her through the process, and certainly have contacts in low-cost legal representation.
posted by emilyd22222 at 5:19 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have had to deal with this exact scenario twice and was told both times by legal aid attorneys in Philly that custody just isn't an issue legal aid handles. The demand for custody representation by poor single mothers is so great that if legal aid started handling those cases, they would be the only cases the agency could handle (direct quote from legal aid attorney). I was able to retain pro bono representation for my two clients through a non profit homeless advocacy agency that had a roster of super high profile lawyers that would occasionally pick up cases for them. That's definitely the direction you want to go in, finding a non profit agency that can put her on a list for pro bono representation. However, just because she can't afford the $3,000 for a private attorney doesn't necessarily mean she's going to get pro bono representation. Does she have a place to live? Is she employed? Does she have assets? Because she's going to be on a list with a lot of other women who don't and are not and as a result will be better candidates for representation, as pro bono attorneys can pick and choose their cases and tend to like working with the neediest clients.

However, even if she can't get a lawyer, many domestic violence agencies also have legal clinics where she can get coached on the process by a lawyer who won't represent her but will make sure she is capable of handling the situation herself. If this is the route she winds up taking, maybe you and her other friends can help her sort through all the paperwork and maybe accompany her to court for support.
posted by The Straightener at 6:53 AM on June 29, 2009

I've tried to post this repeatedly, but it isn't being accepted and I don't know why. The references to how to go about filing a DV TRO link to all the forms needed and explain what each one is about. It also talks about how judges may perceive DV TRO filings in contested child custody cases and that it is really important to have evidence and stick to the truth.

If she can document the abuse with evidence, she may want to file for a DV TRO. This can be done for free.

Judges know that a lot of DV TRO requests are made for false reasons for the purposes of gaining the upper hand in a child custody battle. That's why it is important to make it clear to the judge that she's not making false accusations, that there really has been violence and she's asking for help to ensure that it doesn't continue.

Also, you may not really know what she's like. Many supposed victims are abusers themselves. Maybe he needs a DV TRO against her, too.

With that said, here's an article that goes through the forms used in California family law courts for DV TROs including child custody matters related to them:

How to File For a DV TRO (Domestic Violence Temporary Restraining Order) in California

And here's an article about how DV TROs are used to inflict abuse upon falsely accused people:

Many Domestic Violence Temporary Restraining Orders (DV TRO) in the US are Falsely Obtained

If you know a lot about your friend's family background, you might be able to get some sense as to what the truth about all of this is. If she was an abused child on a long-term basis, there is then reason to believe that she has an "addiction to violence" and she may be a significant part of the problem and not just a victim.

The concept of "addiction to violence" has been talked about by Erin Pizzey, one of the founders of the first women's DV shelters in UK. She came to realize over time that many of the battered women are batterers themselves.

Erin Pizzey, Domestic Violence Pioneer

It's important to figure out what the cause of violence in this family is because you should try to help ensure that whatever abuse/violence problems exist in the mother and father are not spread to the child. Also, the child deserves to have both parents in his/her life to a significant degree, so long as they are not abusive towards the child.

Partner domestic violence does not always translate into child abuse. It could be the dynamics of the relationship drive the violence, but a child who is spared participating in that violence would not drive the violence in the same way.

Maybe the court will order a section 730 child custody and psychological evaluation of both of the parents. This often happens in contested child custody cases in California. Usually the parents have to pay for it, however I think there is precedent for the state to pay for it when the parents cannot afford it and the custody determination is unclear because of abuse and violence allegations.
posted by June at 5:59 PM on June 30, 2009

OK, looks like it was accepted (finally!).

A few other things I wanted to mention is that if she decides to go for a DV TRO, she may be well-served by then backing down and allowing the court to order similar restrictions regarding communications on each of them. Part of the reason is that causing the orders to be turned into a permanent restraining order could adversely affect her ex's employment (or her employment, if she ends up with an RO on her) and that will adversely affect the child.

So I think she could apply for the DV TRO, then stipulate to judicially-enforced contact orders something like this:

1) All non-critical communications should be done via e-mail.

2) In an emergency (defined as something that reasonably requires a response of less than 24 hours), both parties have the right to telephone each other and record their phone calls with each other.

3) In-person contact is not allowed. Both parties should stay 100 yards away from each other except as may be required for child custody exchanges.

4) Child custody exchanges should be done either in a public location with at least three 3rd party witnesses who are not friends or family of either mother or father or via professional child custody exchangers who are trained and licensed for the job.

5) During child custody exchanges, both parties have the right to use all manners of concealed and unconcealed evidence collection including professional monitors, audio recording, video recording, photography, and other means.

Custody exchanges are very dangerous for the children and one or both parents. They often result in allegations of refusal to access to the child, physical violence, and other claims that are problematic whether they are true or not.

How old is the child?

If the child can't reasonably walk from one side of a park or playground to another, then it's probably going to be necessary to have professional exchangers involved to minimize contact between the parents.
posted by June at 7:11 PM on June 30, 2009

Response by poster: update:

after doing a lot of calling around, most of the advice in this thread was pretty spot on. thanks for the pointer to Solano Safequest, they helped a lot.

the good news is that a contact at the DA's office was able to connect my friend with an awesome lawyer in Fairfield, David Hughes, who not only decided to take the case pro bono, but who has really gone above and beyond the call of duty to help her out in ways besides legal representation as well. so i'd like to give him a plug here for being a good guy all around.

unfortunately the proceedings are still ongoing and will probably drag out for at least another month, so it's a little early to say how things are going to break, but everyone's contributions have been very helpful. thanks to all!
posted by sergeant sandwich at 7:30 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: also, re: june, my friend did get a temporary restraining order after the incident. also the lawyer was able to dig up another DV restraining order filed against the ex-boyfriend back in 1997 by another woman he dated, who actually came to court to testify last week. so it's fairly clear the guy has a pattern of behavior here. at any rate the judge has ordered shared custody pending the psychological evaluations that you've described, so we'll see how it plays out. thanks for your advice!
posted by sergeant sandwich at 7:36 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

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