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Victims Get Aid From Lawyers in Training

At USC's Domestic Violence Clinic, women find legal help while students gain trial skills.

October 20, 2002|Jose Cardenas | Times Staff Writer

For more than 20 years, a Los Angeles woman says, she endured physical, verbal and sexual abuse by her husband.

When she finally went to the police last year, she embarked on the legal trek, often an expensive one, that victims of domestic violence must take to escape their batterers.

The woman, supporting several children, couldn't afford private lawyers. But one attorney led her to USC Law School's Domestic Violence Clinic, which offers free legal services to desperate victims.

Now, two law students supervised by their professor are representing her. First, they're trying to get a civil restraining order and child support.

The students, Amanda Airo and Jocelyn Riedl, and student social worker Cynthia Armstrong are playing a crucial role in helping the woman (whom The Times is not identifying to protect her safety) rebuild her life.

"Their initial response was that they were concerned for my safety and my family," the woman said. "That was really important to me -- that they took notice of that."

The Domestic Violence Clinic aims to provide the community with a badly needed service, said director Kathryn Vaclavik, a USC assistant clinical professor of law who supervises the students in court.

Free legal service is important, Vaclavik said, because batterers often initiate costly legal proceedings to frighten women with the possibility of losing custody of their children.

The cases also give the law students their first crack at presenting arguments in court and citing case law to a judge.

"Most of law school is very theoretical, and the clinic allows me to get practical experience in trying cases," said Paul Levin, 27, a third-year law student. "At the same time, I'm able to [make] a huge difference in our clients' lives."

Law students, under the supervision of a professor, are legally allowed to represent clients in court. Several schools around the country have similar clinics, said Vaclavik, who worked at one at Georgetown University.

USC's clinic, just out of its pilot stage, already has helped dozens of women from the L.A. area, according to the university. It's unusual, Vaclavik said, in its multi-disciplinary approach.

While law students handle the legal work, students from USC's school of social work help the women obtain social services.

Many of the women have been referred by the Violence Intervention Program at County-USC hospital in Boyle Heights.

This approach tries to deal with a victim's full situation.

"We may be representing her in a child custody case or a restraining order," said Vaclavik. But "she has to deal with, where is she going to go in the immediate future? She may need therapy. Her children may need therapy with having been exposed to violence."

The clinic specializes in representing women both in family and dependency court, Vaclavik said. In the first, the domestic violence victims are battling their spouses for custody of children. In the second, they are battling the state.

Vaclavik said the clinic takes the most complicated cases because other over-burdened legal service agencies in the community won't. But for the law students, the cases make perfect learning challenges.

"They involve more litigation, court time and counsel on the other side of the case," Vaclavik said. "That gives the student lawyers the opportunity to really practice."

The cases also offer the law students -- who don't necessarily want to practice this sort of law after graduation -- the satisfaction of helping women in desperate situations.

"It's very satisfying," said Riedl, 24, a second-year law student. "It's a group of people that often have a hard time finding legal representation. It's very expensive."

Working with the woman battered for 20 years has been rewarding, she said.

"She is very intelligent," Riedl said. "Sometimes it's hard to reconcile a story that is so horrible with a person that is strong and capable.... When people get into a situation like that, it could happen to anyone."

The woman, who like her children is in therapy, said she wonders how she survived.

"I never filed a police report because I was very much afraid to do so," she said. "I felt like I was in prison all those years."

Though she's still seeking child custody, a restraining order and eventually divorce, her life and her children's lives are brighter, she said.

During her marriage, she said, her husband sometimes prohibited the children from speaking to her. Now, she and the children go to movies or the museum or play miniature golf.

"I feel liberated," she said. "I'm doing things I never did before."

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