Nonprofit Exploits Ex-Wives of Silicon Valley
Editor’s Note: The women interviewed for this story will be referred to as Jane Doe1 to Jane Doe50 as several have ongoing legal matters and are fearful of retribution for speaking out about powerful players in Silicon Valley’s legal system.
By Robert J Hansen and Susan Bassi
Those who have gone through a divorce understand the emotional and financial toll the often-traumatic court process can have on a person’s life. Coupled with domestic violence or child abuse, a family court proceeding can quickly become a nightmare.
Nearly fifty women have spoken out about WomenSV, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide support services for victims of domestic violence going through a divorce. The whistleblowers allege the nonprofit rarely provided any meaningful support and instead referred them to high-priced divorce attorneys who provided poor legal services and charged outrageous fees.
WomenSV purports to serve survivors in Silicon Valley’s affluent communities where there is intense competition among divorce lawyers to land lucrative, high-asset divorce cases, which can easily generate legal fees exceeding $500,000.
Hundreds of hours of interviews with the women indicate that, as far back as 2016, WomenSV’s founder, Ruth Patrick Darlene, manipulated and exploited the survivors to promote the nonprofit.
WomenSV regularly referred their wealthy, high net-worth “clients’ to attorneys James Hoover of the Hoover-Krepelka law firm and Jessica Dayton, a family law attorney and partner in the ADZ law firm. Both attorneys hold positions on the WomenSV Advisory Board.
Before being invited to participate in WomenSV’s “exclusive” program, the women had to clear a vetting process that required them to provide private and financial information.
WomenSV’s program offered no shelters, cash cards or emergency assistance, unlike other local nonprofits serving survivors of domestic violence. None of the staff or volunteers working for WomenSV identified themselves as certified victim advocates or licensed therapists.
In 2021, WomenSV was awarded $250,000 in taxpayer-funded grants from Santa Clara County as Patrick began demanding that the women seeking help sign a non-disclosure agreement. Davis Vanguard acquired a leaked copy of the NDA which prohibited the women from talking about the charity’s “trade secrets,” “proprietary” material, “sales leads, strategic alliances,” and “partners.”
“Ruth was always telling us we were in a war and needed to fight. That meant hiring the attorneys who Ruth referred,” Doe5 said.
Many of the women said that if they complained about the lawyers, therapists or cybersecurity professionals WomenSV referred them to, they would be effectively blacklisted and banned from attending future WomenSV support meetings and events.
The whistleblowers say they complained to Patrick and WomenSV board members about attorneys Jim Hoover, Travis Krepelka, Julia McDowell, Natasha Parrett, and others associated with Hoover-Krepelka, ADZ or Hoge Fenton law firms, but were largely ignored.
Attorneys benefiting from WomenSV referrals include other private law firms linked to the controversial Santa Clara County Superior Court Bench, Bar, Media, and Police committee (BBMP). The Vanguard’s previous reporting introduced former BBMP co-chair and Santa Clara County family court Judge James Towery.
The members-only BBMP is a private, off-the-record social and professional group composed of attorneys, judges, and government officials. Critics charge that attorney BBMP members receive preferential treatment when they appear in court before judge BBMP members and that judges do not make the required conflict of interest disclosures about the relationships to opposing attorneys and parties.
Before becoming a family court judge and chairperson of the BBMP, Towery was a partner in the Hoge Fenton law firm. As an attorney, Towery and his colleagues Jim Hammer and Natasha Parrett, represented WomenSV founder and director Patrick in her high-asset divorce in 2010.
Patrick’s divorce case was taken out of the public court system to JAMS, a private judge business, where the case was heard by private judge Catherine Gallagher, a former Santa Clara County judge who retired from public service to join the more lucrative private judging business.
Ruth referred her WomenSV clients to divorce lawyers who donated to the nonprofit that paid her salary. Records from the BBMP indicate the referrals made through WomenSV may have impacted the legal outcomes in upper-middle-class and high-asset divorce cases in Silicon Valley.
Welcome to WomenSV
WomenSV was founded by Patrick in 2011. The organization claimed to have helped more than 1,000 women, according to a WomenSV 2022 summer newsletter.
Though confirming that number is impossible because Patrick-Darlene has not kept records related to how many people she has helped or which services were provided.
On its website, the charity’s mission statement claims to “work to raise public awareness and educate professional providers in legal, medical, and social services on the issue of domestic violence.”
Several of the women came to WomenSV from the media coverage Ruth obtained. Namely, the Los Altos Crier, whose co-owner, Dennis Young, also sits on the WomenSV advisory board and acts as the nonprofit’s CPA for purposes of filing tax returns.
WomenSV was billed as an exclusive group that required a vetting process known to take months before the women were permitted to take part in the nonprofit’s programs.
A recent email from WomenSV stated that it is currently at capacity for new clients.
“Dear survivors, we want to be able to serve you and give you all the attention, care, and support you deserve. Unfortunately, since we are currently at capacity in our program, it will be a little while before we will be able to take on new clients,” said WomenSV’s email.
The women said that during the vetting intake sessions, they were questioned for up to two hours about issues mostly related to their finances and other private information.
Several of the women provided recordings of the vetting process to validate their statements.
Jane Doe1 was accepted into the WomenSV program in 2016. At that time, the program consisted of a group of about five to eight women who met weekly in a small conference room at the Masonic lodge in downtown Los Altos.
During these support group sessions, the survivors read news articles and shared their stories. Some survivors described a sense of relief knowing they were not alone in their experiences with intimate partner violence and coercive control. Other women said the group sessions made them uncomfortable.
“Group talks are the worst thing for survivors,” Doe 42 said. “WomanSV was not helpful and nothing was solved.”
Although some survivors found a sense of relief, WomenSV’s offerings and services were unclear.
“At first I enjoyed going even though I still wasn’t very clear on what services WomenSV provided,” Doe18 said.
Jane Doe7 said the meetings were relocated to a larger room able to accommodate more women in 2017. When support meetings moved into the larger room, roughly 20 to 30 “clients” attended. That same year, attorneys, therapists and a cybersecurity business began giving presentations to WomenSV clients.
This oversized room was surrounded by ornate walls decorated with symbols and gargoyles leering over red velvet chairs arranged in a manner appropriate for a séance, not a support group for women going through emotional and financially exhausting divorces with allegedly abusive husbands.
“We always felt as if we were being watched in that room. It was anything but comfortable. When Ruth told us to leave our phones at the back of the room, it was the beginning of a fear-mongering campaign designed to get us to pay more in attorneys fees,” Doe44 said.
WomenSV referred clients to the cybersecurity business, Counter Threat Institute (CTI), ostensibly to check their electronic devices for tracking devices and to forensically image their phones. The women were told to bring their devices to CTI and pay for their services. CTI agents were reportedly former FBI and CIA agents.
Jane Doe48 was billed $10,000 by CTI to collect data from her electronic devices but was uncertain as to what happened once the data was collected as it was never returned to her.
“I am creeped out that WomenSV wanted me to bring in all the computers, my iPads and phones for CTI to copy,” Jane Doe43 said. “I am glad that never worked out.”
Doe38, a Silicon Valley engineer by profession, told Ruth that CTI wanted to collect and store data from her electronic devices, which made her uncomfortable. When she refused to use CTI’s services, she was blocked from support meetings she had attended for three years.
Cell phones were not allowed in WomenSV meetings as speakers were regularly brought in to teach the women how their wealthy Silicon Valley spouses might be stalking and surveilling them.
The whistleblowers said WomenSV support meetings felt like a spy class intended to keep them safe. Later they wondered if they were being spied on for the benefit of their abusive husbands and the lawyers who represented them.
Dragged Out Divorces
WomenSV attendees reported wanting their divorce cases to end as quickly as possible, yet Ruth would encourage them to continue fighting their divorce cases by referring attorneys and telling them they had to hire the best because they were in a war and had to fight.
“We never questioned what Ruth told us to do. It wasn’t until we all started talking in violation of WomenSV policies that we finally put it all together and realized the charity was not functioning as it had represented to donors and us, whom they referred to as clients,” Jane Doe1 said.
Jane Doe1 began going to group sessions in 2016 when she was represented by Bradford Baugh and her husband was represented by the Hoover-Krepelka law firm, where Jim Hoover is a managing partner.
When Doe1 requested a restraining order, her attorney Brad Baugh discouraged it, telling her it would draw out the case and increase his fee. Doe3 found herself in the same situation with Baugh as her attorney, and Hoover-Krepelka representing her husband.
Ruth was present at Doe1’s attorney-client meetings with Baugh, as well as court proceedings where Jim Hoover represented her allegedly abusive husbands. By 2020, Ruth invited Hoover to speak at support meetings where Doe1 was present.
“I had to go to court and see attorneys from his law firm then see him as a regular guest speaker at my support group sessions,” Doe1 said. “How is that support?”
Hoover was appointed to the WomenSV advisory board in 2020 when Patrick uninvited Doe1 and Doe3 from the nonprofit’s support groups. Doe1 had attended WomenSV for nearly five years when Ruth told her she was no longer welcome to participate in the program.
During her divorce case, Doe1 had six different divorce attorneys while her ex-husband only used attorneys from the Hoover-Krepelka law firm—a pattern seen when one spouse’s attorney appears to be working harder for the opposing party, rather than the party paying their fees.
Ruth gained the women’s trust by claiming to be a victim of domestic violence who didn’t get a fair shake in her divorce. In reality, Ruth was represented by Jim Towery and Natasha Parrett who regularly attended BBMP meetings.
Towery would eventually be appointed as a Santa Clara County family court judge and then became co-chair of BBMP meetings as he continued to receive as much as $100,000 a year in income from the Hoge Fenton law firm where Patrick continued to refer business.
“To think a charity was referring attorneys from Hoge Fenton, who represented Ruth and were destroying my life in court for years, was an outrage,” Doe43 said after she was told about Ruth’s divorce. “She tried to get our empathy and trust, but was cheating us the entire time.”
Patrick told the survivors that she couch-surfed and got an unfair deal in her divorce case. That “unfair” deal awarded her $3 million, according to her 2010 marital settlement agreement which also included compensation for her attorney fees and a grand piano.
In total, Patrick was awarded $4.5 million in her divorce. Court files show Ruth Patrick’s attorneys were also awarded nearly $1 million in fees from Patrick’s former husband.
Before he was appointed to the WomenSV advisory board, James Hoover and other attorneys including BJ Fadem and Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen were invited to speak to affluent women at the support meetings.
Ten of the women complained specifically about Hoover and the attorneys associated with the law firm Hoover-Krepelka. Those who were referred to Hoover by Ruth paid up to $400,000 a year in legal fees which reportedly led to WomenSV clients losing custody of their children, their family home and their life savings.
Women complained to Ruth about Hoover and his partner Julia McDowell being invited to speak to the group, as they represented their former spouses.
Allegations about Hoover are supported by a recent malpractice lawsuit filed on February 21, 2023, against Hoover and the Hoover-Krepelka law firm. In the complaint, the mother alleges that she retained Hoover to assist in obtaining protection from an abusive spouse who was represented by Michael Benetto of the Hoge Fenton law firm.
The lawsuit alleges that Hoover’s client was required to spend her savings, max out her credit cards, be encouraged to borrow money from family and friends and call in favors to pull together the $350,000 she owed for legal services over 14 months.
This lawsuit mirrors allegations from ten women who claimed after they were referred to the Hoover-Krepelka law firm they paid excessive fees and experienced negative legal outcomes.
Other private attorneys the ex-wives have said that Patrick referred them to include Nicole Ford, BJ Fadem and John Conway.
Ford said in an email that at least one paying client was referred by WomenSV.
“I got one case that paid me from them. Any other case I got concerning any referrals made were either free consults or pro bono cases,” Ford said.
Ford said the last time she volunteered with WomenSV was either in 2019 or 2020.
“I volunteered to be on a panel and discuss Domestic Violence and offer resources. I don’t think I’ve worked with that agency since about 2019, though I could be wrong, but certainly not since 2020,” Ford said.
Nicole Ford was appointed to the Santa Clara County Domestic Violence Council in 2019 where she has influence on how the county addresses issues related to domestic violence and how state and federal money is spent to support survivors of domestic violence.
Ford sits on the council with Santa Clara County Superior family court Judge Cindy Hendrickson and Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney James Gibbons-Shapiro.
Hendrickson and Gibbons-Shapiro are both BBMP members.
Attorneys referred by WomenSV seemingly do not formally request attorneys fees, as the law permits, from opposing parties, instead requiring the clients from WomenSV to use their limited cash and credit to pay the fees.
Oftentimes, this renders the once-affluent women indigent by the time they are divorced.
WomenSV and the Media: Following the Money
WomenSV relied on media coverage to promote its program to attract more clients and donations.
Several women found WomenSV after reading articles published in the Los Altos Crier.
The articles featured composites of victim stories created by Patrick to attract the attention of vulnerable women struggling with domestic violence and divorce in the affluent communities of Silicon Valley.
In a 2018 interview, WomenSV was profiled alongside the ex-fiance of former NFL football players Ray McDonald. Patrick told NBC Bay Area that she was concerned women who were involved in similar cases could fall “between the cracks.”
After WomenSV was featured on NBC Bay Area, more media coverage followed which eventually landed Ruth and WomenSV on the Megyn Kelly Show.
After the appearance on the Megyn Kelly Show, Ruth continued to pitch her story to potential donors at an annual fundraiser hosted at the Los Altos Country Club.
The San Jose Mercury News featured Patrick-Darlene and WomenSV in 2020 in its Wish Book series which helped WomenSV in receiving $13,500.
Between 2018 and 2021, WomanSV received $1.6 million in grant funding yet has spent less than $40,000 on services for the women who come to her for support, according to WomenSV tax records.
This includes part of Santa Clara County’s $250,000 grant to WomenSV at the recommendation of Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian which was awarded in 2021.
“The support being championed by Supervisor Simitian will allow WomenSV to continue to provide vital services to domestic abuse survivors and meet the increased demand by hiring additional staff,” Patrick said.
WomanSV began receiving $65,200 installments of the $250,000 grant in FY 2021-2022 and is expected to receive the last installment in FY 2024-2025.
The funding was earmarked to allow WomenSV to serve more clients by hiring staff advocates to handle increasing client volume by strengthening its organizational infrastructure. This included using outside consulting services to identify best practices in serving domestic violence survivors, leadership practices and long-term organizational sustainability, according to a 2021 press release. issued by Santa Clara County.
“By bolstering this program, women and families will have improved access to these critical services. WomenSV has the expertise to help women who are facing dangerous and restrictive/oppressive circumstances,” said Joe Simitian, Santa Clara County Supervisor.
According to the grant agreement, the funds may only be used by the grantee for expenses relating to domestic abuse services, response and advocacy, and organizational development.
WomenSV received about $84,000 in federal economic injury disaster and PPP loans and a Los Altos COVID-19 grant in 2020. WomenSV was still operating remotely during the pandemic.
Many women have said they never received any support from WomenSV beyond a bracelet, attorney referral or composition notebook to take notes during meetings with guest speakers.
In 2016 Ruth asked taxpayers in Los Altos to help fund a charity where she claimed to have helped over 480 women. A claim that resulted in a payment of $15,000 to the charity.
In addition to pressure to hire select attorneys, WomenSV clients report being pressured to attend the charity’s events where they were displayed for donors in a manner designed to raise more money.
Other local charities, the YWCA for example, refers women and men to pro-bono attorneys and not expensive private attorneys charging fees as the charity serves indigent clients seeking to deal with intimate partner violence at home, and in the courts.
“Last year we worked with over 4,000 survivors and responded to over 6,000 calls on our crisis support line,” YWCA Chief Program Officer Melissa Luke said via email. She said the YWCA worked with over 3,000 survivors and responded to over 5,600 calls the year before that.
JaneDoe 41 reported the YWCA provided her $2000 to assist with attorney’s fees. Unlike WomenSV, the YWCA did not tell her which private attorneys to use.
When Doe41 reached out to WomenSV for support, she was provided with referrals to lawyers who charged as much as $450 per hour.
“I left because they weren’t providing any legitimate help. They were traumatizing me more. They failed to attend court with me claiming the Covid19 lockdowns. I had to represent myself when I ran out of money,” Doe 42 said.
Every year WomenSV held an annual fundraiser at the Los Altos Country Club where Hoover and other charity-referred attorneys attended and donated in the name of providing support to women from affluent areas dealing with allegations of domestic violence.
At these fundraisers, donations for extravagant vacations, wine and gifts were used to raise money for the charity. Charity auction dinners were $150 a plate. Survivors seeking help from WomenSV were continually pressured to attend and donate at support meetings, and fundraising events.
The cornerstone of support WomenSV claimed to provide included charm bracelets that the women were to wear to the court during their divorce proceedings.
Jane Doe48 said that Ruth told her to wear the charm bracelet to court so that the judges and attorneys would know that she was a “real domestic violence victim.”
“Ruth said that judges and attorneys support ‘real’ domestic violence victims and if I belong to her group they will believe me,” Doe48 said.
Ultimately Doe48 realized the charm bracelet was nothing more than a curse.
She explained that each time she went to court wearing the bracelet, she consistently faced negative rulings and was not believed when it came to the abuse she endured from her former spouse.
“The divorce cost me more than $750,000 in fees for lawyers, CTI and other experts I was pressured to hire. I didn’t have food at home because of them,” Doe48 said.
According to recently discovered records, WomenSV also referred attorneys who were members of the BBMP.
Women who had once hoped to find support during a vulnerable time of their lives found attorneys charging unconscionable fees that left them indigent, facing tax liabilities and in need of public assistance, a far cry from the affluent lifestyles they had enjoyed when they first were directed to WomenSV.
Jane Doe37 was married to an Apple executive for over twenty years. She went to WomenSV in 2017 as she struggled with a physically and financially abusive spouse.
After five years of paying the attorneys WomenSV referred, she was forced to leave the state without her children. She is now on public assistance and living a very different life than the one she was afforded in the affluent community WomenSV purports to serve.
Stephen James contributed to this report.
Part Four of the Tainted Trials.Tarnished Headlines. Stolen Justice. series takes a look at the lawyers and how the BBMP and WomenSV referrals impacted their income and legal outcomes in Silicon Valley’s family and criminal courts.
March 2, 2023: Photo caption of Ruth Patrick and Supervisor Joe Simitian edited for clarity.