SM COURTHOUSE — The woman appeared to be in denial, dismissing assertions that she needed a restraining order, insisting that it’s been a long time since she was struck.
The volunteers at the Domestic Violence Clinic were having little luck with the new client who came at the ultimatum of an employer — get a restraining order or don’t come back.
Minty Siu-Kootnikoff took a seat next to the woman and started talking, asking questions, including what would constitute a “long time.”
“The more I talked to her I discovered her idea of him not hitting her for a long time meant last Thursday,” Siu-Kootnikoff, an attorney at the clinic, said during a recent interview. “I finally was able to get her to maybe understand that it’s not a bad idea to get a restraining order.”
About a year later the two women ran into each other at the market, the one-time client now divorced and free from her abusive ex-husband, playing double role as working single mom and student.
“It’s amazing how a single mom can juggle a budget,” Siu-Kootnikoff said. “If single moms were running the country, things would be completely different.”
Tucked away at the end of a long corridor in the Santa Monica Courthouse is a small closet-sized room where victims of domestic violence have been seeking legal assistance for the past 20 years, whether it’s to obtain a temporary restraining order or counsel for divorce proceedings.
The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles has operated the clinic for 14 of those years, staffing it with a small army of attorneys and volunteers who meet with clients every weekday morning, some who are new, many who are repeat visitors, all hoping to end the abuse that’s been inflicted on them.
Many of the clients come to the clinic tired and traumatized, confused at what can be a difficult navigation of the judicial system, some walking up to the wrong windows at the courthouse, many needing guidance to get through a voluminous application form for temporary restraining orders.
Attorneys at the clinic help clients prepare the forms, taking a statement that includes specifics of the alleged incident, from where the woman was hit to whether there were any witnesses. They also accompany the clients to court hearings.
But many clients don’t go through with the application filing their first, second or third visit to the clinic, some because they can’t return to the courthouse for the hearing after the lunch break, others because they fear the repercussions of filing a detailed statement that the person who is allegedly responsible for the abuse can see, Susan Millmann, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation, said.
About half of the clients don’t file the paperwork after it’s been completed.
“It’s a very difficult emotional thing,” Millmann said. “Not only are they trying to stay safe, but their relationship is falling apart.”
Those who do file for a temporary restraining order, which are good for up to three weeks, will usually receive one that day.
Sometimes, the disputes can get deadly.
In 2002, a client was fatally stabbed by the father of her son outside of City Hall in a murder-suicide. The woman already had obtained a temporary restraining order and was on site for a child visitation matter.
One of their most recent clients is a Westside woman who filed for a restraining order in October after she was attacked by an ex-boyfriend who was inebriated at the time.
“I thought this is going to be an easy thing to get,” the woman, who asked that she remain anonymous, said about obtaining a restraining order.
The process ended up taking five hours.
“To have this situation take place is not something I’m proud of and not something I wanted to talk about,” she said. “It’s very embarrassing to admit that you got yourself in a situation like that and you blame yourself.
“(The clinic) made me feel at ease and there was a sense of comfort there from the ladies in the room.”