Story by Nick Welsh
Tara Haaland-Ford hasn’t just beaten the odds, she’s pulverized them.
Two years ago last November, the Santa Barbara criminal defense attorney and mother of two young daughters was notified she had stage 4 colon cancer. If she was lucky, the doctor said, she might live six months. Upon emerging from the fog of her first surgery, Haaland-Ford says her first conscious thought was “#!@$ cancer!” And that’s what she’s been doing ever since.
Just as she wrapped up her last chemo treatment, Haaland-Ford became engaged in a high-stakes, high-profile legal showdown with City Hall, the Santa Barbara Police Chief and the District Attorney. She and her team successfully beat back an effort to enact a gang injunction in Santa Barbara. When the gang injunction was first proposed four years prior, Haaland-Ford didn’t think it could be stopped. None had ever been beaten at the trial court level before. But last July—after a six-week trial—Judge Colleen Sterne effectively tossed the injunction out of court, a ruling that constitutes an historic first.
“It’s really weird to say, but the cancer was kind of a blessing,” Haaland-Ford notes. In response to the toll inflicted by her treatment, she was forced to cut back on all cases except one. And she focused on that one, no matter how diminished she was. “The gang injunction gave me something to think about other than cancer,” she says. “It helped keep me going.”
To an exceptional degree, Haaland-Ford made her fight against cancer a team event. She started a blog—named tarasaysfuckcancer.com after her post-surgical Eureka-moment revelation—and deployed social media to enlist friends, relatives and survivors into what became a well-orchestrated support network. She learned how to ask for help. More crucially, she learned how to take it. When Haaland-Ford went in for treatment, she knew she’d be getting texts, music and tips at the tail end. It became almost fun.
As a young girl living in Agoura Hills, ironically, this hard-driving defense attorney wanted to grow up to become a prosecuting attorney. Her mother was a nurse, and her father ran a business providing landscaping for movie sets. An “okay” student, Haaland-Ford swam on the high school swim team. Later, she would play polo at UCSB. While attending UCSB, Haaland-Ford worked as a counselor at St. Vincent’s, then a home for wayward girls. For her, that changed everything. “Everybody had a story about how they got there,” she recalls. “If you’re the DA, you’ve seen 15,000 cases just like theirs. It’s so easy to label. But I found I didn’t want to be a prosecutor any more. I wanted to break down the labels.”
After graduating from University of San Francisco law school in 2000, Haaland-Ford moved back to Santa Barbara to be with her then boyfriend and now husband, Jon Ford, a Santa Barbara County firefighter. Even before passing the bar, she landed a job with Robert Sanger, the attorney who kept Michael Jackson out of jail. Among her cases was that of Ryan Hoyt, now on death row for being Jesse James Hollywood’s itchy-fingered triggerman in the Nicholas Markowitz murder.
In 2003, Haaland-Ford hung out her own shingle. Although she does a whole lot of everything, she’s most drawn to juvenile cases. “With juveniles, you can have the biggest impact. You can help get them back on track.” Most of Haaland-Ford’s cases settle before getting to trial. Her reputation with prosecutors as a straight shooter helps her clients immensely. “She doesn’t hide the ball. When she says something, she believes it,” says prosecutor Hilary Dozer, the lead attorney on the gang injunction trial. “If she says something, you can pretty much take it to the bank.”
Behind the scenes, Haaland-Ford has been an over-achieving whirlwind promoting restorative justice for juvenile offenders. She was instrumental in starting the Santa Barbara Teen Legal Clinic, and recently was appointed to Santa Barbara School District’s Disciplinary Committee.
Likewise, with cancer issues, she remains perpetually engaged, keeping an aggressive eye out for remission while reaching out to others in need. Haaland-Ford says her experience opened her eyes to how amazing Santa Barbara can be, and she’s doing her utmost to pay it forward. “I learned so much,” she says. “And I have so much to give.”
Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine, Spring 2015.