Tia Katrina Taruc Canlas Holds Domestic Abusers Accountable 

But a Silicon Valley tycoon nearly put her Berkeley nonprofit out of business.

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click to enlarge The Berg case made international headlines when photos of Ellena Bondesson became public.
  • The Berg case made international headlines when photos of Ellena Bondesson became public.
So when Taruc Canlas started her legal aid clinic in Berkeley to help victims of domestic violence sue their abusers, she named it after her great-grandfather's war name: Alipato.

Taruc Canlas runs the organization from a single desk, upstairs from a cooperative coffee shop. Rent is cheap, and there's plenty of room for an organization with only one employee. She pays herself $16 an hour for the 30 hours of work she puts in each week and does contract work on the side to make ends meet.

So far, she's had a good success rate, winning settlements or judgments for four of her first five clients. Since finishing up her first five cases, Taruc Canlas has taken on three more, including Scott's. She has several more clients on a waiting list and is trying to recruit more volunteer lawyers to help carry the workload.

The organization receives a commission from the settlements and judgments it obtains and does some fundraising, particularly through a radical feminist coloring book that Taruc Canlas sells at street fairs and in the downstairs coffee shop. Because of her organization's shoestring budget, she still asks her clients to save up money for litigation expenses, like filing fees, a cost most law firms cover.

In addition to helping women escape, Taruc Canlas views lawsuits against abusers as an alternative to a criminal justice system that she says has failed many victims of domestic violence. Neither Berg nor McDonald has been convicted of a crime. Taruc Canlas says about half of her clients are suing people who for various reasons have escaped prosecution. "We've tried using the criminal justice system for many years now to end domestic violence, and I'm just trying to figure out another way to help end it," Taruc Canlas said.

According to the most recent detailed data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were nearly 2.2 million cases of violence involving a spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend reported to police between 1998 and 2002. Additionally, over the same time period, there were an estimated 1.5 million incidents that weren't reported to police.

In 42.7 percent of the unreported incidents involving a spouse, the victims said they didn't report it because it was a personal matter, they were protecting the offender, or they were afraid of reprisal. For incidents involving a boyfriend or girlfriend, it was 61.3 percent. Among family violence crimes reported to police, 35.9 percent resulted in arrest, fewer are prosecuted, and even fewer still ended in conviction.

Domestic violence can be difficult to prosecute, as there are often few if any eyewitnesses and victims may be reluctant to testify, fearing retaliation or because they're still invested in the relationship. When victims do testify, psychological trauma may have affected their memory.

The abuse can be deeply psychological. Abusers often control their victims for years and techniques like gaslighting can leave victims questioning their perception of reality.

"It's not only under-prosecuted, it's also a false solution," Taruc Canlas said. "One reason I started the Alipato Project is I think that prisons are not helpful in rehabilitating violent people. Sometimes violent people go into prison and when they get out they're even more violent, because they have been treated like animals with a bunch of other violent people."

Originally from Sweden, Ellena Bondesson met Clyde Berg in 1995, when she was working as an au pair. She came to live with him two years later on a student visa; at the time, Bondesson was in her early 20s and Berg was nearly 60. They married in 2002 when Bondesson's student visa ran out, and they signed a strict prenuptial agreement stipulating that they would have no children and Bondesson would get nothing in a divorce.

According to court documents, Bondesson later testified that Berg ultimately agreed to have children with her and signed off on fertility treatments. She became pregnant via a sperm donor, she said, and produced a disputed photocopied document that said Berg had agreed to pay for childcare and to pay her $2 million if they divorced.

Bondesson was the sole witness in the 2013 preliminary hearing and had a very difficult time getting through the five days of testimony. She testified through tears and left the witness stand twice, at one point spending the weekend in the hospital for anxiety. According to court transcripts of the hearing, Bondesson had difficulty remembering key details and shut down entirely the first time she was asked to recall aspects of her alleged abuse.

After hearing Bondesson's testimony, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Ron Del Pozzo agreed with Berg's defense attorneys, concluding that she was severely mentally ill and had fabricated the entire ordeal. The judge implied in his remarks that she created the entire gruesome scene mainly in the few minutes after she called 911 while she was waiting for deputies to arrive. Del Pozzo appeared to believe she was out for money, and it had all been part of a complicated plot in which Bondesson had attempted to swindle her husband out of millions of dollars.

A large part of the reason Del Pozzo concluded that she was unworthy of belief was because he found the idea that she could dial a cellphone using her nose or tongue while her hands were cuffed behind her back "ridiculous."



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