Veronica’s* Story

Veronica is a mother and a survivor.

Veronica is a brave woman.

Veronica* thought everything would get better when she saw the police take her husband away in handcuffs. She had endured over five years of abuse at his hands, including twice weekly beatings, but for the first time in a long time she had a measure of hope.

Veronica was born in Guatemala but moved to San Francisco 20 years ago as a teenager. Adjusting to life in America wasn’t easy. Even so, she worked hard, learned English in two months, and excelled in school. But when she met her future husband, James*, at the junior prom, she was swept off her feet. Their relationship developed quickly. When her parents learned that she had slept with him, they were furious and pressured her into marrying him.
 
It was not a happy marriage. In one incident in September 2008, she confronted James about adult movies she found in his car. In response, he grabbed her by the neck and threw her against the wall. The fall left a bruise on her pregnant belly. She was forced into the hospital for two weeks dealing with pregnancy-related complications. Not long after, a passerby witnessed James punching her in the face on the sidewalk next to her car. The neighbor called the police, and they arrested him on the spot.

Unfortunately, Veronica’s nightmare was just beginning. Her husband’s family was incensed that James had been arrested and decided to retaliate. They called Veronica and threatened to molest her sister, burn her father’s car, and report certain relatives to ICE if she didn’t drop the charges. Desperate, Veronica complied and her husband was set free.
 
James returned emboldened and angry. Before his arrest, James attacked Veronica when they were alone. Now he beat her in front of her family and children. One evening, he even attacked her sisted and lacerated her face in the process. Everyone in the family was terrified.
 
Then, on February 18th, 2016, James changed tactics. Rather than striking out, he called the police and claimed that Veronica had assaulted him. The police arrived to find Veronica reading quietly in bed and completely confused. They arrested her and took her to jail. Five days later, Veronica was released with no charges. Nevertheless, she wasn’t allowed to go home – even to get her clothes – because James had secured a restraining order against her.

That night, Veronica became one of the thousands of homeless people in San Francisco. She didn’t have a dime to her name. She wasn’t allowed to see her children. For two months, she went from one agency to another trying to get help. Each time, they told her it wasn’t the kind of issue they handled, she wasn’t the right kind of client, or they were already at capacity.

Everyone turned me away. I felt like my only option was to go back to my husband and ask for his forgiveness.

“I looked at so many places that wouldn’t help. I spent hours filling out intake forms. Everyone turned me away. I felt like my only option was to go back to my husband and ask for his forgiveness.”

With the trial coming up on her restraining order, Veronica considered her options. Her husband had an attorney and she didn’t. She had no idea how the court system worked but had a strong suspicion she would be railroaded by the process. She felt a palpable despair.

Finally, Veronica found our Open Door Legal. “Everyone treated me with so much respect. I call them my angels.” We took on Veronica’s case four days before her hearing. With a team of family lawyers, including Anna Rudman Santos, Kevin Cunningham, and Trina Clayton, our attorneys won her three-day trial. As a result, Veronica is back her back in her home and has secured sole custody of her children. Veronica cried when the judge read the verdict. She was safe. Her children were safe.

I can be me again. I feel like I’m capable of achieving anything now.

With the trial out of the way, her housing secure, and her children safe, Veronica was finally able to move on with her life. She’s now an American citizen and has a job that she loves. Just this month, Veronica told our attorneys that she’s hoping to become a social worker.

“After all those trials, I was able to look at myself in the mirror, love me, and value myself. I then straightened up my life and started walking like my own boss. I can be ME again. I feel like I’m capable of achieving anything now.”

*The names and photos have been changed to protect the client’s identity

Ever since childhood, our co-founder Adrian has been dedicated to reducing poverty.

He studied systemic poverty in college and went to work in the field for a few years. Eventually, he had a thesis that legal aid was the most cost-effective way to address poverty in America. He wrote up a business plan and used it to apply to law school. 

The idea was to create the country’s first system of universal access to civil legal representation that ensures everyone can obtain timely, competent legal help for any legal issue, regardless of ability to pay. That had never been done before in the history of the United States.

In law school, he met Virginia, our Programs Director. Together, they co-founded the organization, two weeks after Adrian passed the bar.

When we opened we put a sign in the window, and with just that marketing and almost no other outreach we were overwhelmed with requests for help from people with good cases who had been turned away everywhere else.

Our first year we had revenue of $35,000. We would hand shred documents because a shredder was too expensive. Despite the financial challenges, we were able to work on over 280 cases in everything from housing law to family law to consumer law in the first year alone.

The hours were extreme, the pay was low, and the learning curve was steep. Still, we persisted. We knew that almost everyone we helped was not able to receive services anywhere else. Eventually, we attracted the interest of funders. We tripled our revenue for several years in a row. In 2015, we won the Bay Area Google Impact Challenge, which enabled us to expand even more. In 2019, we secured additional funding from the city that allowed us to open two new centers in the Excelsior and Western Addition.

As of 2020, our staff has grown to 27 full-time employees. We’ve shown that universal access is possible. Now, we plan to scale city-wide, make San Francisco the first city in the country’s history to have universal access to legal help, and become a model for national replication.