On the first floor of the Lamoreaux Justice Center in Orange, California, crowds of attorneys rushed to and fro with strained looks on their faces. One man, however, was only watching two women: both of whom could change his life forever. One, the mother of his newborn child, was crying as she waited outside the courtroom to obtain a permanent restraining order against him. The other he didn’t recognize, but in the waves of chaos around her, she stood out, calm and imperturbable.
“Who are you?” He shouted at the petite woman. “Who are you?”
She calmly looked him in the eye.
“Sir, I don’t need to tell you who I am.”
“No, it’s exactly my right to know who you are!” the man shouted.
“You don’t have that right to know who I am, or who I work for,” she responded firmly. “But I am a legal advocate.”
Few would guess that a 4‑foot-11-inch 18 year old would be advocating for the victims of domestic abuse in California’s courtrooms, yet Hillsdale College sophomore Rachel Umaña did. For three months this summer, Umaña interned with the legal services branch of Laura’s House, a domestic abuse shelter and support organization in Orange County, California.
“You are put into this situation where most of the people that you’re helping often have never felt support from law enforcement, or even their own families, to follow through with this intimidating legal process,” Umaña said. “But for a moment, you’re there to guide them and be their advocate.”
Umaña said her interest in helping victims of abuse began in high school, when a Laura’s House representative gave a lecture on teen dating abuse prevention. With help from Laura’s House, Umaña started a teen dating abuse prevention club and wrote a play about the effects of teen dating abuse that was performed for her school.
Through her work with the domestic abuse prevention club, Umaña also completed a 40-hour training in crisis prevention and speaking on behalf of domestic violence victims.
Umaña said her interest in the legal side of domestic abuse support began when Laura’s House Legal Director Adam Dodge spoke about how legal advocates help victims of domestic abuse through the process of obtaining restraining orders against their abusers.
Maggie Diaz, legal department manager at Laura’s House, said that after Umaña’s extensive experience with the organization and with domestic violence abuse prevention, she was a natural fit for the legal advocacy internship.
“She’s young, our youngest intern, but you would never guess that,” Diaz said. “She was able to work so well with her older peers and with the clients.”
Those unfamiliar with domestic abuse tend to have a more difficult time understanding abuse victims and their decisions, Diaz said. Victims of domestic abuse typically consider leaving an abusive home seven to 10 times before they succeed, Diaz said, and that can be very hard for legal advocates to watch.
Umaña, however, handled the emotions well, Diaz said. Umaña worked with her first client, the mother of a little girl, to create a declaration detailing her abuse in order to obtain a restraining order against the father. A couple days before her hearing, Diaz said, the client decided not to seek an order.
Though deeply disappointed, Diaz said she was ultimately thankful because the woman later reported how much she appreciated all the help Diaz and Umaña had given her.
“When we see people learning, when we see people educating themselves, and when you see them go back to get help, that’s when you know you’ve been successful,” Diaz said. “And that’s what Rachel did with this client.”
Though some clients chose not to move forward with obtaining a restraining order, Diaz and Umaña agreed that the most rewarding part of their work was watching victims succeed.
One domestic abuse victim came to Laura’s House completely destroyed, Umaña said. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying and she shook uncontrollably.
The man she sought a restraining order against had open cases for road rage, including one incident where he got out of his car with a baseball bat and destroyed another driver’s windshield.
The woman had sought a restraining order against the man several times, Umaña said, but every time, he persuaded her to give up.
Not this time. After the hearing that she won a restraining order, the woman said she never would have gone through with it if she hadn’t had Umaña by her side.
“A good legal advocate is a source of strength and support when a client must face his or her abuser in court, and maybe for the first time, stand up for themselves and their children,” Dodge said. “Rachel was a natural. She was immediately comfortable and calm in the chaotic environment of the courthouse, which rubbed off on her clients and empowered them.”
Umaña said she appreciated being a support for those who needed it.
“Several clients told me that if I wasn’t there to support them, then they wouldn’t have gone through with the restraining order, and would never have gotten it to begin with,” Umaña said. “I was part of the reason that they were safe.”