Debevoise team secures freedom and protection for survivor of abuse and her family in multi-year trial process

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Debevoise attorneys for their brilliant and effective advocacy on behalf of Rebecca. The Debevoise team worked tirelessly to help Rebecca win full custody of her son, an order of protection from her abuser, and a substantial child support award.

Brenna Rabinowitz is an associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP.  She is the Membership Chair of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Debevoise attorneys for their brilliant and effective advocacy on behalf of Rebecca. The Debevoise team worked tirelessly to help Rebecca win full custody of her son, an order of protection from her abuser, and a substantial child support award.

This dedicated team included partner Sean Hecker, associates Anna Domyancic, John Pierpont (now an AUSA at the Connecticut US Attorney’s office), Ashley Fillmore, Marisa Taney (now clerking in Miami), law clerk Rhianna Hoover, and litigation analyst Lesley Douglas.

Deceived by her Abuser

Rebecca moved to the United States in 2011 after waiting seven years to get a visa in her home country of Nigeria. She described the day she got her visa as a “dream come true” and explained that, though it was hard to leave her family, she decided to leave Nigeria in pursuit of a better life for her and her young daughter. Rebecca had to leave her daughter in Nigeria temporarily but vowed to return for her as soon as possible.

Soon after moving to this country without friends or family, Rebecca became involved with her abuser. It was only after Rebecca was several months pregnant with their child that he revealed he was a Level 3 sex offender, and had sexually abused his seven-year-old niece. Around the same time as this shocking revelation, he became aggressive, verbally abusive, jealous, and controlling. After Rebecca’s son was born, her abuser became physically violent, both at home and in public, often in the presence of their infant child. Frightened for her and her son’s safety, Rebecca contacted Sanctuary for Families in November 2014, seeking custody of her son and protection from her abuser.

Willing to go Above and Beyond

When the Debevoise team got Rebecca’s case through Dara Sheinfeld, former Director of Sanctuary’s Legal Project at the Manhattan and Bronx Family Justice Centers, they jumped into action. Initially they had agreed to represent Rebecca only in her family offense petition (FOP) and her custody cases, but when other issues arose the team eagerly stepped up and expanded their representation to address all of Rebecca’s legal needs.

The team appeared in court over 20 times on Rebecca’s FOP case alone, which included multiple hearings to secure the court’s permission for Rebecca to travel with her son to Nigeria to help bring her daughter to America, and another dozen or more times on her other matters. The team collectively spent hundreds of hours preparing for these appearances, including preparing multiple witnesses for cross-examination, practicing opening and closing statements, and gathering impeachment evidence to be used in cross-examining Rebecca’s abuser. The team also successfully represented Rebecca in child support proceedings, which resulted in doubling her support award.

Throughout these extensive preparations, Dara provided support and advice, even on late nights and weekends. Team members described Dara as a “great partner” throughout this process.

Positive Results

The team adeptly navigated Rebecca through a multi-year trial process. At one memorable juncture, they effectively used impeachment evidence against Rebecca’s abuser during a multi-day cross-examination when he attempted to deny the crimes for which he had been previously convicted.

Thanks to the Debevoise team’s hard work and dedication, Rebecca received a final order of protection, gained full custody of her son, received a support award sufficient to sustain her and her son, and, most importantly, achieved freedom and protection from her abuser. Rebecca’s daughter has also joined Rebecca and her son in the US.

The Debevoise team continues to represent Rebecca in her ongoing legal matters. Most recently, the team submitted a brief opposing an appeal filed by Rebecca’s abuser that challenges the five-year order of protection that Rebecca was granted. This dedicated  Debevoise team remains committed to representing Rebecca as long as her fight continues.

The team’s work was life-changing for Rebecca. When Rebecca learned of their nomination for this award, she told Sanctuary that the Debevoise team members were her “heroes.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor the Debevoise team’s outstanding pro bono work. Learn more about the event here.

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

Funding for the Courtroom Advocates Project is Under Threat: Why it Matters

Since its founding in 1997, Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP) has been almost entirely funded by grants under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Today, funding for this critical program is in danger. Take a stand and join the effort to protect VAWA funding.

Brenna is a J.D. at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

Ana’s Story

In July 2016, Ana arrived alone at the Bronx Family Courthouse hoping to obtain an Order of Protection against her husband. Ana’s husband had subjected her to severe physical and emotional violence during their marriage. On that day, she had a bruise on her upper arm from when her husband bit her the week before and a puncture wound from when he stabbed her with a pen. Those physical scars were in addition to the devastating trauma Ana experienced from months of repeated rapes and strangulations by her husband. She was upset, afraid, and like many victims of domestic violence, had no money to hire an attorney to help her.

Unsure of where to go or who to turn to, she eventually found a free consultant at the courthouse who introduced her to two attorneys in Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP). Ana’s fortunes were about to change.

Finding Sanctuary

Ana was assigned to a team of law student advocates who had been trained by CAP to help Ana file for and obtain a temporary Order of Protection in Family Court. Sanctuary’s CAP attorneys then took Ana’s case on for direct legal representation.

Over the course of two years, they not only helped her obtain a final Order of Protection against her husband, but also referred Ana to Sanctuary’s social workers from whom she received counseling. Today, Sanctuary continues to help Ana with her housing and immigration issues, all at no cost to her.

Since connecting with CAP and accessing Sanctuary’s holistic services, Ana has flourished. She has become more confident and is in charge of her own life, happiness, and safety. In Ana’s words,

“Had it not been for [Sanctuary], I don’t know what I would have done.”

Currently, Ana is on the path to fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a nurse, and has completed a nursing education and training program. She is now able to leave her past behind and move forward.

The Courtroom Advocates Project(CAP)

CAP trains and supervises advocates, mostly law students, who provide in-court assistance to domestic violence victims seeking orders of protection in Family Court. Since 1997, CAP has trained nearly 12,000 advocates and has helped nearly 10,000 litigants in Family Court. Victims of domestic violence often come to court alone and intimidated. CAP advocates help them tell their stories more effectively, and provide needed reassurance.

CAP advocates can also direct victims to additional resources that may help them reach safety. Like Ana, many clients first connect with Sanctuary through CAP, and then receive help from Sanctuary with additional issues such as divorce, custody, spousal and child support, housing, public benefits, counseling, job training and immigration. For these clients, CAP serves as a crucial first stepping stone in their journey from an abusive relationship to freedom.

Not only does CAP provide vital assistance to victims of domestic violence, it also trains the pro bono attorneys of the future. CAP provides law students with an introduction to family law, a chance to meet with clients, and an opportunity to learn how to be litigators. Often, CAP may be a law student’s first experience working one-on-one with a client or appearing on the record in a courtroom, which can be invaluable lessons in their development as lawyers.  It also solidifies their passion for pro bono work, and sets them on a lifetime course of helping low-income clients.

How CAP Changed Me

I participated in CAP during the summer after my second year of law school. Paired with another law student, and under the supervision of a Sanctuary CAP staff attorney, I helped a high school student obtain an Order of Protection against her ex-boyfriend, who had attacked her in school several times.

I learned valuable skills in legal writing and courtroom advocacy and, more importantly, I was able to successfully advocate for a client. The experience and her gratitude for my help left a lasting impression. I returned to Sanctuary for an externship the following spring, and I have continued my involvement while working at a law firm by serving on Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and representing another Sanctuary client pro bono.

Protect the Violence Against Women Act

Today, funding for this critical program is in danger due to potential budget cuts recommended by the current federal administration. Since its founding in 1997, CAP has been almost entirely funded by grants under The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

VAWA classifies domestic violence and sexual assault as federal crimes and funds programs that provide life-saving services for victims, including legal and criminal justice services, counseling, housing, prevention programs, and much more. The current administration is intent on cutting the budget for the Department of Justice (among many other agencies), which could very well include cutting or eliminating VAWA grants that are funded through the Department of Justice budget—something that President Trump has indicated a willingness to do. Such action would jeopardize the future of CAP.

Without CAP, thousands of clients like Ana would be less safe, and thousands of law students would be denied the invaluable experience of advocating for vulnerable clients. In Ana’s words, “[CAP] gave me a reason to stand up and fight.”

Now, it is time to stand up and fight for the program that has helped Ana and thousands of others take their first steps toward freedom.

What You Can Do

Tell your Representatives that you want them to make a strong public statement now that they will never approve a budget that reduces VAWA funding.

  • Schedule a meeting with your Representative to discuss the importance of VAWA, or see if there are any town halls you can attend and ask them to fight for VAWA funding now.
  • Call, write/e-mail, and tweet.

Ask your networks to advocate – spread the word to your contacts and ask them to advocate on behalf of VAWA.

Organize an informal “30 minutes of activism” breakfast or lunch.

  • Use these talking points to educate attendees on the issue, explain its importance to you, and ask them all to call, tweet, email, etc. together during the 30 minutes.

Post this article on social media and send it to your contacts.

Draft Op-eds. Use your connections to get op-eds published and get the issue out there!

Together we can make sure victims like Ana have access to the lifeline that she had. Take a stand today to preserve VAWA and its critical life-saving funding.