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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on March 3rd, 2009, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 9, Issue 51 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 9, Issue 51

Justice for all

Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County celebrates 50 years of providing justice to local residents

By AMY ASMAN


Law and order
Yvonne Cudney, Legal Aid’s director of litigation, represents clients during a hearing at the Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Maria.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
In 2005, Santa Maria resident Melissa’s* daughter, Stephanie*, was a happy and healthy 16-year-old. She went to school, hung out with friends, and spent time with her family.

“She was always a happy-go-lucky child. She was always very spirited,” Melissa said of her daughter.

All of that began to change when a relative moved in, bringing with him a friend: 24-year-old Robert*.

“When I first met him, I told Stephanie, ‘I don’t like him,’” Melissa recalled. “She’d tell me, ‘Give him a chance, mom. He’s trying.’ But something just didn’t feel right.”

Gut feelings aside, the family welcomed the young man into their home. Life went along normally for a few months as they all adjusted. But in February 2006, unbeknownst to her, Melissa’s worst fears about her guest began to come true.

In recounting the events, Stephanie told of increasing attention from Robert, attention that escalated from gift buying and sometimes confusing conversations to threatening behavior and abuse that lasted for months.

She kept silent out of fear. Finally, her sister witnessed a disturbing event—Robert grabbed Stephanie’s arm and forced her against a wall—and told their father.

The next day, Stephanie and her dad went for a drive.

“He kept asking me what was going on and I couldn’t say anything,” Stephanie recalled. “Then he asked me, ‘Do you want me to kick him out?’ And I said yes.”


Getting answers
Rick Corbo, a senior attorney with Legal Aid, spends dozens of hours each week talking to clients in person and on the phone. “We get calls all day from people in crisis,” Corbo said. “There’s no way we could help everyone because of our limited resources, so we have to determine which cases are the most urgent.”
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
A few days after Robert had been kicked out, Stephanie was rushed to the hospital suffering from physical complaints. While running tests, they also learned the 17-year-old was pregnant.

Getting help

Consumed with grief and anger, Melissa went to the District Attorney’s office to press charges.

“After I found out what happened, I kept thinking, ‘We can’t afford a restraining order. I don’t know what we’re going to do,’” Melissa said.

To get a restraining order, the family would have to file a civil suit. In Santa Barbara County, temporary restraining orders are filed and processed free of charge. Serving someone with a long-term restraining order, however, can be much more time consuming and expensive.

A staff member at the District Attorney’s Victim-Witness Assistance Program suggested they go to the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County for help. The nonprofit organization provides legal assistance and representation to low-income residents throughout the county.

At the North County Legal Aid office in Santa Maria, the family met senior staff attorney Rick Corbo.

“It was actually really nice and comforting going in there,” Stephanie said of her first visit to Legal Aid. “I was really jumpy around guys at that time, but not with him.”

Following Legal Aid’s principles, Corbo took on Stephanie’s case for a practically pro-bono price. For several months, the attorney guided the family through the court system, his legal expertise and constant support helping the family through one of its most trying times.

“He showed up to every court hearing,” she said. “It meant everything knowing that he was there but he didn’t have to be.”


Right-hand woman
Legal Aid’s Intake Coordinator Biannet Garcia is the first person people meet when seeking the foundation’s services. She records clients’ information and passes them on to the other attorneys. “She has to listen to what they’re saying and what they’re not saying,” co-worker Eileen Mackin-Getzoff said of Garcia’s role at the foundation.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Within 24 hours of filing with the court, Stephanie was granted a temporary restraining order. Receiving a restraining order, Corbo later explained to the Sun, is an essential component of the legal process.

“The restraining order gives her the breathing space to change her life for the better,” Corbo said.

Once a long-term restraining order was in place, Stephanie was able to focus on healing and, with the help of her family, taking care of her newborn son.

Going to Legal Aid and getting the restraining order, Melissa said, had a transformational effect on her daughter.

“I told Rick, ‘You gave my daughter back to me. When she first came here she was just a shell of a girl. Now she’s alive; She vibrant; she’s glowing,’” Melissa said.

Robert eventually pleaded no contest to a count of sex with a minor and one of criminal threats.

To serve and protect

For the past 50 years, Legal Aid has helped thousands of Santa Barbara County residents obtain justice. Ellen Goodstein, Legal Aid’s executive director, said the foundation’s two offices served approximately 5,000 people in fiscal year 2007-2008 alone.


Survivors
Santa Maria resident Melissa* and her daughter, Stephanie*, turned to Legal Aid for help when they needed to file a restraining order against a family acquaintance.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
“Without Legal Aid, our most vulnerable community members wouldn’t have anywhere to go,” Goodstein said.

In the North County, the nonprofit is the only organization offering representation to low-income families living in the area from Santa Maria to Solvang. Cases are accepted on a walk-in basis; however, many of the foundation’s clients are referred by the District Attorney’s office, and local attorneys, law enforcement, and social service organizations.

“There’s no one we don’t get private referrals from,” said Yvonne Cudney, director of litigation for the Santa Maria office.

Obtaining restraining orders for domestic violence and elder abuse victims, she said, is the most crucial service Legal Aid provides.
 
“Those cases always take priority because the client’s physical and emotional well-being is in danger,” she added.

Many of Legal Aid’s other cases revolve around personal property, including small claims, eviction and collection notices, and foreclosures.


Valuable resources
Eileen Mackin-Getzoff (upper left), a senior attorney with Legal Aid who runs the Legal Resource Center in Santa Maria, attended a past Taste for Justice event with Victim-Witness employee Yvonne Cortez, and Legal Resource Center volunteers Khamla Chanthala and Maribel Aguilera.
PHOTO COURTESY LEGAL AID FOUNDATION OF SANTA BARBARA COUNTY
The foundation also works on public benefits cases, securing MediCal and Social Security benefits for elderly and disabled clients, and handles regulation code enforcements for the county.
 
When legal representation is required, one of the office’s attorneys is assigned the case. Such an uneven ratio between lawyers and clients, however, makes providing legal assistance an ongoing challenge.

“A private attorney might spend all day making calls for those Golden Egg cases—the moneymaking cases. We get calls all day from people in crisis,” senior attorney Corbo said. “There’s  no way we could help everyone because of our limited resources, so we have to determine which cases are the 
most urgent.”

If professional representation isn’t required, clients are referred to the Legal Resource Center, which is run in the North County by a Legal Aid staff member.

Located in the Santa Maria Law Library, the Legal Resource Center provides information about legal documents and procedures. Staff members and volunteers working at the Legal Resource Center refrain from giving clients any legal advice, but they offer the tools necessary to help them through the court system.

 “I act as an educator,” said Eileen Mackin-Getzoff, the Legal Aid staff attorney who runs the Legal Resource Center.


Happy Birthday, Legal Aid!
Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County turns 50 this year. To celebrate the big 5-0, the foundation is holding two fundraisers. On March 7, the North County office will hold its “Fifth Annual Taste for Justice” from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum, 705 McClelland St., in Santa Maria. Legal Aid staffers invite community members to “challenge their senses” by judging the first-ever Gourmet Gavel Chef’s Competition, featuring culinary creations from the students of Allan Hancock College’s Culinary Arts Program. The event will also feature a live and silent auction, and a sampling of food, wine, and beer from local businesses. The majority of proceeds from the event will go toward providing legal services to Santa Barbara County residents. Advance tickets for the “Fifth Annual Taste for Justice” cost $45 for adults and $25 for students with a valid student ID. Tickets cost $50 at the door (students included). Proof-of-age wristbands are required for alcohol consumption. On May 16, both offices will come together to hold the foundation’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Event at 5:30 p.m. the Sunken Gardens of the Santa Barbara Superior Court in Santa Barbara. To buy tickets to the “Fifth Annual Taste For Justice” online, visit localwineevents.com/Central-Coast-Wine. For more information about Legal Aid and upcoming events, call 963-6754 or visit lafsbc.org.
Mackin-Getzoff and a handful of volunteers help clients fill out legal paperwork and research their legal options. Often, some of the volunteers have to interpret legal information to clients in other languages, from Spanish to Vietnamese to Thai.

“The goal is to make sure they’ll learn something other than just putting their name on a piece of paper,” she said. “The more we can teach them and the more we can get them to do things on their own, the better they’ll fare in the courtroom.”

The services provided by Legal Aid and the Legal Resource Center, Mackin-Getzoff said, help provide equal access to 
justice.

“Justice is not accessible to everyone,” she said.

There are many barriers stopping people from receiving equal access to the justice system, the biggest of which is a lack of resources.

According to a 2005 report from the California Commission on Access to Justice, out of the roughly 166,000 attorneys practicing in California, only 750 are Legal Aid attorneys. For each of those 750 attorneys, there are approximately 8,360 low-income clients in need of representation. That number has increased dramatically in the last four years.

Many of the attorneys work for nonprofit organizations, which get funding through the federal Legal Services Corporation or the State Bar’s Legal Services Trust Fund Program. More funding comes from the Justice Gap Fund, a state bill signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006. The law authorizes the State Bar to collect voluntary donations from its members. The Access to Justice report, however, found that current funding addresses less than 28 percent of the legal needs of the state’s poor and lower-income residents.

To continue providing services to Santa Barbara County’s residents, Legal Aid holds annual public fundraisers. But even fundraising can be difficult, director of litigation Cudney said.

“[Legal Aid] is not sexy. Sometimes I think we would get more funding if we put a cute face on it,” she said, adding that people might choose to contribute to other nonprofits because “there’s no downside.”

“A lot of people could view us as agitators,” she said. “Really, we’re trying to improve access to legal aid and quality of life for all people.”

Their work might not be glamorous, but all of the North County Legal Aid employees said what they do is essential to upholding democracy.

“When we empower people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they can change their lives forever through the skills they’ve learned,” senior attorney Corbo said. “We’ve given them resources that they can use for any future problems they might have.”

The satisfaction of watching people transform themselves from victims to victors, Corbo said, far outweighs the stress and the relatively small paycheck that comes with it.

“It’s those little tidbits of the end of the rainbow that makes what we do worth doing,” he said.


Culinary creations
Students enrolled in the Allan Hancock College Culinary Arts program will prepare food for the Taste For Justice’s Gourmet Gavel Chef’s Competition.
PHOTO COURTESY ALLAN HANCOCK COLLEGE
Healing from the past

Today, Stephanie is a happy and healthy wife and mother. Robert is completely out of the picture—in another state.

The last few years for Stephanie and her family have been difficult. Still, her mom, Melissa, said obtaining justice for her daughter has been worth every struggle.

“I got to watch her blossom into a confident young woman again,” she said.

That transformation, she said, is one she hopes every victim is able to experience.

“We just want other girls to know ... There are people out there who can help you get justice,” she said. m

* These names have been changed.

Contact Staff Writer Amy Asman at aasman@santamariasun.com.




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