Story by Nancy Bronstein
Photo by Sylvia Vizcaino
The Great Hall of the landmark Bancroft Hotel bustled last week with Bay Area attorneys, Berkeley Law students, faculty and alumni who came to celebrate the launch of a new nonprofit: the Family Violence Appellate Project (FVAP).
The legal advocacy group is the godchild of second-year law students Sonya Passi and Alexandrea Scott. Conceived in a law school classroom last November and nourished during a three-month gestation period over breakfasts at the Sconehenge Bakery & Café, the 501c(3) was incorporated in California on February 10, 2012.
“Since November, we’ve basically been in one ongoing meeting with 40 emails a day. We drafted the articles of incorporation over winter break. It all happened so quickly, but also so naturally,” said Scott, who, for the past few years, has been researching domestic violence services and is passionately committed to ending domestic violence.
FVAP’s federal tax-exempt status should be finalized by the IRS in August. By then, the team will be long installed and taking cases in their new offices on Telegraph Ave. Although the nonprofit exists separately from the law school, Berkeley Law Dean Christopher Edley donated the office space and hosted the hotel reception.
Edley called the ambitious project a “singular contribution” to our community. “The niche in social justice advocacy that we can build upon here is huge,” he said.
This family violence nonprofit is the first of its kind in California. Its core mission is to mobilize pro bono appellate representation for the state’s survivors of domestic violence.
“We have good family law statutes in California, designed to protect victims and their children in cases of domestic violence,” said Passi, FVAP’s vice president. “Yet, custody decisions reached by trial courts in these cases are leaving survivors and their children in danger of ongoing abuse. We have data showing that judges award custody to batterers in 54 percent of custody cases, even in cases involving documented domestic violence.”
Family court judges have little guidance in interpreting the statutes, according to Passi, due to insufficient appellate precedent. As much as 80 percent of all family law litigants represent themselves. Many aren’t aware that they can appeal; most simply can’t afford the legal fees.
This was the scenario laid out last fall in a seminar led by Professor Nancy Lemon, a nationally recognized expert in domestic violence issues and director of Berkeley Law’s Domestic Violence Practicum. Passi remembers the moment in class, in which she and Scott were enrolled, when Lemon asked, “How could victims of domestic violence be left without legal recourse?” She said, “What we really need is someone to appeal these cases.”
Passi answered in a heartbeat. “Let’s do it.” Scott overheard, and in nanoseconds was on board.
A survivor’s story
At last week’s reception, a Berkeley undergraduate who had been abused as a child told her story. To protect her anonymity, we’ll call her V.
V’s father began hitting her mother the day her brother was born. Her father’s violence began to escalate, until one day he punched her mother and pushed her down the stairs. Her mother finally found a way to escape with the children and soon filed for divorce. The judge ordered a joint custody arrangement where the children had to spend two weeks a month with each parent. When V was five, her father started molesting her and her youngest brother, and beating her older brother for trying to protect them. Soon after, her older brother took on the role of abuser, badly beating his mother and locking the family out of their house.
“One wrong court decision like ours where we didn’t have the ability to appeal caused tremendous damage.” she said, describing a situation family law experts are calling a pervasive problem and a huge unmet need.
Cases like this will be at the heart of the work FVAP undertakes.
Passi, who has now heard many such stories, says this is why the work is so important. “Every time another person comes forward to tell us their story, it gives us more of a sense of urgency to make sure this doesn’t happen to other families.”
Working closely with faculty members, and with Dean Edley’s support, Passi and Scott have assembled a staff of experts in the field of domestic violence, many associated with Berkeley Law. They’ve tapped Erin Smith ’04 as executive director, and Nancy Lemon as their part-time legal director. They’ve assembled a 13-member board of directors that includes former Dean Herma Hill Kay, Professor William Fernholz, and Google Legal Director Stacey Wexler; and an advisory board of 15 attorneys who are local luminaries in family, appellate, and domestic violence law.
“There’s an urgent need for court decisions to keep victims of domestic violence safe,” said Erin Smith. “Bad court cases do happen, and there are no organizations dedicated to representing survivors on appeal. We will fill that gap.”
The group’s collaborative model, to pair domestic violence experts with private sector pro bono attorneys, is already attracting significant attention among San Francisco law firms. Jones Day held a fundraiser for the group just a few weeks ago, and more are on the horizon.
Outreach efforts will target nonprofits that provide trial court services, pro se litigants at women’s shelters, and self-help centers in rural areas and elsewhere. Cases will be carefully screened so that people who are in the greatest danger will be represented first.
Cases that will advance the interests of domestic violence victims throughout the state — and ones that will have the greatest impact in moving family law in the right direction —will also be given top priority.
“We hope to build a strong body of appellate case law to guide trial courts across the state,” said Passi, who calls FVAP her full time job and life-long passion, one she’s artfully wedged into her other full-time job as a law student. “We’ve put our blood, sweat and tears into this project, and we’re totally committed to it.”
Raising funds for the newly minted nonprofit was front and center on last week’s celebration agenda. To date, $70,000 has been raised, including an impressive $3,600 in small donations from 125 Berkeley Law students. Elizabeth Cabraser ’78, founding partner of Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein, has offered to match the next $50,000 donated.
“To have Elizabeth Cabraser invest in our organization at this early stage is huge,” said Passi. “When she made this offer to us, we knew we were going to succeed. We are thrilled over her generosity.”
These legal eagles are on their way, but the fundraising challenge is still a daunting one. They need to raise a total of $200,000 this year to be fully staffed and operating at full capacity. Always optimistic, Scott says she’s confident that Boalt alumns and the Bay Area legal community will “come together to help launch this much needed project.”
To learn more about FVAP – and donate online – go to www.fvaplaw.org. Supporters will be listed on the website (unless anonymity is requested). Donations will be tax deductible, retroactive to the February 2012 founding date.