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COVID-19: Domestic Violence and the Impact on Attorneys Trying to Provide Legal Assistance

Jaqueline Cuevas and Anne Bautista

Anne S. Bautista ’97, Access SAVE Legal Program Director and Adjunct Professor of Law at California Western writes about the impact of COVID-19 on attorneys representing victims from marginalized communities.

Our Access SAVE (Sexual Assault Victim Empowerment) Legal Network of San Diego County serves culturally isolated victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking, and stalking. This includes recently arrived immigrants and refugees primarily from Latin America, Africa, Philippines, Vietnam, and the Middle East, geographically isolated rural communities, at risk youth- many pregnant and parenting, as well as foster and homeless youth.

Our already vulnerable clients were suffering even more as they faced increased violence from their abusers and were unable to escape because of the need to shelter in place due to COVID-19.

If they did not yet have legal status, they were fearful they would now never receive the protection they applied for under the VAWA, U visa, T visa, already under intense scrutiny by USCIS, before the pandemic. By recording what we were seeing, we could see why we were all experiencing increased stress. We were not only reminded of the dangers by having to wear mask, but we also took measures to only work with our clients and new referrals remotely, with no in person contact.

Our switch to remote work on March 18 to the present resulted in a:

  • 500 percent increase in panic calls from current clients from five a week to now 30 a week putting strain on our staff who are working remotely.
  • 200 percent increase in new victim referrals from five when we held three in-person intake clinics a week, to now 15 a week as we conduct intakes over the phone throughout the week.
  • 100 percent increase in calls by staff from one to two a week to the local police contacts to help clients in danger due to sexual assault/sex trafficking/stalking.

Sgt. Lem Sainsanoy, of the San Diego Police Department’s Multi-Cultural Community Relations Office shared that, “We are seeing a rise in cases with couples who have been together for a very long time with no domestic violence history before suddenly becoming involved in a domestic violence incident.”

To further understand the impact on more vulnerable communities in San Diego County, we faced the following issues.

  • For clients needing restraining orders, they were now having to wait until the courts re-open before they can get a decision on their Temporary Restraining Orders.
  • For clients needing their employment authorization cards or a final adjudication of their legal status after an in-person interview with USCIS, they were also facing cancellations of their biometric appointments and interviews without any real idea of when and if they will be able to secure their legal status.
  • For clients that filed the police report, there was uncertainty as to what will happen even though they wanted to go ahead with prosecution as the criminal courts were closed.
  • For clients that were deaf or hard of hearing, we had to help them through Zoom appointments on Thursdays with pre-scheduled ASL interpreters.

Colleagues of mine both in the public and private sector have also been greatly impacted.

Jan Maiden, Esq. ‘01, Private attorney in family law
Theme: Doing everything from home and needing space:
“I was already working from home, so that was not a major adjustment. It has been very strange not going to court for hearings. Also, there was anxiety (by me, by clients) about when the court would open and how, as the opening was postponed. And now waiting for more direction from the court about how these remote appearances via Microsoft Teams are going to work. Since I usually meet with our refugee clients, many of them not fluent in English, it became even more difficult trying to communicate via phone with a client and an interpreter.”

Aaron Giron, Esq. ‘10, Private attorney in immigration law
Theme: Balance client needs with our own, creative problem solving, and reaching out:
“I have never experienced a time like this in my professional life. I have reached out to my peers to figure out what they are doing and most are just meeting obstacles as they come. This leads to a lot of uncertainty and sleepless nights. I am worried about my clients’ access to the rights and privileges available to them by law, the health and safety of my clients who are “essential workers,” my ability to provide these services while at the same time meeting all of my financial obligations, and on top of that, the health, safety and security of my loved ones. Coping with these stresses requires the one important skill necessary for any practicing attorney: creative problem solving. For me, understanding that I do not exist in a vacuum and can reach out to other attorneys in this time of need helps get through the most difficult times.”

Paula Gonzalez, Esq. Private attorney in immigration law
Theme: Managing increased client anxiety:
“The most difficult part about being an immigration attorney during this time period is calming clients down. There is always a heightened sense of anxiety in most immigration processes. Because people have gotten sick, or have lost their jobs, or their cases have been put on hold, I have found myself calming clients down more than ever. There is also extra misleading and wrong information out there which is causing panic and frustration. Since I do court cases, cases with USCIS and consular processing, I am constantly checking the latest guidelines and schedules for the agencies. Something else that has changed, is not being able to celebrate wins with clients. Normally we get to see many of our clients when they get an approval for a benefit, they come in to thank us, maybe bring some flowers or some food, we get to give them a hug. Now, we don't have that moment of celebration with them which is sad.”

S. Ivette Kuyateh, Esq., Private attorney in estate planning/immigration/family law
Theme: Maintaining Work-Life Balance
“GRACE (Giving Reassurance Amidst Crisis Every day). When studying for law school finals and the bar, acronyms were my go to method. Today, as a busy mom of five, homeschooling a middle schooler, teenager, and juggling my new “work-life” balance with an eight month old in tow, remembering to give myself and my loved ones GRACE has been the key. As a lawyer, strategy and preparation is key in every case. At home, it is no different. I set an hour by hour schedule for everyone in the family so I can keep everyone on task while my husband takes turns working from home. But, I admit, there are days when my schedule goes out the window. A client emergency, a fussy teething baby, or the mundane everyday groundhog day feeling can throw us off cue. Suddenly, I’ll find myself doing none of the things I planned for the day to take care of my family and clients. So, I pull out GRACE and try to win the next day.”

What can we do to alleviate the stress of this moment?

By understanding that we are all in this together and that we will only get through this together, we can help ease the stress of working in isolation. Reaching out to your colleagues is more important than ever to remind yourself that you are not alone and that it is okay not to feel okay. We cannot be okay all the time, nor can we be expected to do more than we are capable of doing under these conditions.

In fact, I recently had a conversation with my 21-year-old legal advocate and aspiring lawyer, Jaqueline Cuevas, about why we continue to do this work, what keeps us coming back, and how do we keep going without burning ourselves out. She says she has been regularly taking walks with her dog Oakley Georgia in between working on client declarations and doing follow-ups by phone. Being outdoors and taking a simple walk with her dog helps her re-center herself and change her perspective. She said it all comes back to how it feels for us when our clients have hope and can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

On that note, I leave you with the text our client survivor sent to me during this pandemic:
Thank you so much for everything. My fear is gone because you gave me hope.

About Access, Inc. Access’ mission is to address the needs of the most vulnerable and underserved populations in San Diego County by promoting self-sufficiency and economic independence through education and employment opportunities.