Weil, Gotshal, and Freshfields Team Secures Multiple Victories for Survivor of Religious Sect and Her Children

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is pleased to honor Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s Timothy Howard, Xiaoxi Tu, and Nate Montalto, and Weil Gotshal & Manges’ Steven A. Reiss, Adam C. Hemlock, Rachel Crosswell, Selma Haveric, and Liz Klinger for their team’s work representing a mother in federal court for several years, in the face of repeated threats by her ex-husband and his associates and the kidnappings of her children. 

Rachel[1] is the daughter of the founder of an extremist religious sect and the mother of six beautiful children. The group exerts severe psychological and physical control over its members, practices child marriage, engages in an atypical form of dress for women, and has adopted unusually restrictive religious practices in diet and religious study. Women are confined entirely to the domestic sphere and excluded entirely from decision-making. Members, including children, are punished harshly for the slightest infraction by sleep deprivation, false imprisonment, and many forms of psychological and physical abuse. These practices have led to repeated run-ins with child welfare authorities, prompting the group to flee the United States to reside in Canada, Mexico, and Guatemala. When sect leaders ordered the marriage of Rachel’s 13-year-old daughter and retaliated against Rachel when she opposed it, she made a daring and dangerous escape with her children and fled to the United States.

Rachel obtained a temporary custody order and order of protection in Brooklyn Family Court, but it was far from over; the children’s father filed a petition under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (the “Hague Convention”) and claimed jurisdiction should be Guatemala, where the sect had previously settled. With this set of very difficult circumstances, the Weil Gotshal team jumped in to help.  After extensive trial preparation and many court appearances, and strategic motion practice, the Hague Convention case was dismissed with prejudice.  But before that happened, just as Rachel and her children were beginning to enjoy a settled life in Brooklyn, they experienced a new traumatic event:  the sect lured away her eldest two children from a location in northern New York where they were on a sleep away trip, and spirited them across the border and later into Mexico.  Rachel was devastated.  Fortunately, the FBI, working closely with Mexican law enforcement, was able to locate the children and return them to New York, where it charged seven individual members of the sect with kidnapping.  The team then represented Rachel as a witness in the criminal federal cases that stemmed from the kidnapping.

It was a complex task because of the multiple aspects of the Hague Convention case and the federal criminal case along with the custody case in family court.  The team worked diligently to ensure that one piece of testimony would not contradict or harm one of the other proceedings while supporting their traumatized client.  This presented a very big learning curve for everyone on the case, but the team was up to the challenge, forging a strong relationship of trust with Rachel.  During the intensive fact gathering and witness preparation, many meetings were had with the legal team at Rachel’s dining room table.  The team also helped Rachel with important safety planning and safety measures for her and her children, including getting Rachel a new cellphone and helping her move several times to avoid detection. The team worked especially hard to ensure that Rachel was comfortable with her testimony and that she was able to tell her story in her own voice, as she actually experienced it.  The legal team strove to hear what Rachel wanted and do what she wished for, empowering this extraordinarily resilient woman who had been in situations of extreme control her entire life.

All of Rachel’s children’s kidnappers were convicted of child abduction and other federal crimes and are serving significant sentences in prison.  The dismissal of the Hague Convention case secured by the Weil team enabled the Brooklyn Family Court judge to move forward with the custody and order of protection cases, eventually granting Rachel the longest order of protection possible (5 years) and sole custody of all of her children.  Today, Rachel and her children are happily ensconced in their supportive Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, where therapeutic support and local generosity has helped them recover from their ordeal and flourish in their new lives.

[1]           Names have been changed.

Join us at our Above & Beyond Awards Ceremony on October 25, 2023, as we honor Weil, Gotshal, and Freshfields’ outstanding pro bono work.



Francesca L. Fulchignoni is a practice area associate in Sullivan & Cromwell’s Criminal Defense and Investigations Group.