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

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary will honor a Weil, Gotshal, and Freshfields team for their 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. 

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.

Latham & Watkins Attorneys Honored for Work with LGBTQ+ Asylum Seekers

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring an extraordinary team of attorneys from Latham & Watkins LLP who worked with several pro se LGBTQ+ asylum applicants in a clinic over the past summer.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is honoring an extraordinary team of attorneys from Latham & Watkins LLP who worked with a number of pro se LGBTQ+ asylum applicants in a clinic over the past summer. The Latham & Watkins team includes partners Michèle O. Penzer, George A. Davis, and Brittany Ruiz; and associates Prudence Ng, Jaclyn Newman, Abhinaya Swaminathan, Matt Carmody, Layan K. Charara, and Jacob Watts.

Clients in terrible danger

Recently, Sanctuary for Families’ immigration team became aware of a troubling trend: numerous asylum applicants have been directed to removal proceedings with no legal representation due to a staggeringly high demand for legal assistance in this area. Asylum cases can often take years to be fully processed, a fact that sometimes makes pro bono representation challenging for firms to take on. Latham & Watkins joined forces with Sanctuary staff to brainstorm a possible solution to this pressing problem and ultimately arrived at the idea of an asylum pro se clinic, whereby Latham pro bono attorneys would sit down with clients who were in removal proceedings to draft their affidavits and other application materials and give them extremely detailed, step-by-step guidance on how to continue their asylum applications pro se.

The pilot pro se clinic, which took place in summer 2022, worked with 4 clients, all of whom had experienced LGBTQ+-based persecution in their home countries. They all had a very specific and straightforward legal need, yet one that can be quite daunting for anyone, and especially for trauma-impacted clients. The Latham attorneys immediately set to creating compelling affidavits and filling out the requisite forms so as to help these survivors to attain the asylum they deserved.

The Process

At the outset, the Latham & Watkins team knew that their objective was to file with USCIS as quickly as possible, given the fact that their clients had already been called into immigration court. Their work consisted of preparing a I-589 Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal, which includes copious supporting materials. In this case, the applications centered around the LGBGTQ+-based persecution that clients had faced in their home countries. An application for asylum must be based on a number of factors, including past persecution and/or a well-founded fear of future persecution in the applicant’s home country and evidence that their home country’s government is unwilling or unable to protect them. Though legal representation is not required to file such applications, the administrative process is extremely difficult, even before the added complications of trauma and potential language barriers. “Nothing about the process is intuitive for survivors,” Associate Abhinaya Swaminathan told us.

The Challenge

When she signed up to participate in the asylum pro se project, Prudence Ng, a third year corporate associate, had already worked on immigration cases. For the first time, however, Prudence found herself with a client who had survived a decade of homelessness and violence, and whose manifold experiences of trauma had to be sensitively parsed out and arranged into a cohesive application narrative. “I realized the application needed to be based on themes instead of chronology,” said Prudence. When the process of information collection was less straightforward than expected, “I had to craft a cohesive narrative, which involved making sense of a complex story.”

The most challenging part of this work for the Latham & Watkins team – as well as for their clients – was distilling a long trauma history and “making it fit into the USCIS boxes.” While it was clear from the outset that these clients had compelling needs for asylum, telling their stories was nonetheless not a simple task, and was one that necessitated trauma-informed questioning and empathy. Prudence will be bringing those lessons into her practice. “I learned a lot of lessons about connecting with a client and telling their story from their perspective.”

She also noted that the summer associates she worked with were engaged, demonstrated compassion and sensitivity, and were skilled at parsing out relevant details. “Our team was impressive at handling strong emotions and keeping their lawyer hats on to put forward a very strong case for our clients.”

All of Latham’s lawyers underlined how Sanctuary for Families’ mission is important to them and helps shape their pro bono work by assisting different people with a common need. Abhinaya strikingly noted that “SFF’s focus on gender-based violence is particularly important right now because people from all over the world come to get help with gender and or sexuality based problems, even though we are also facing these problems here in the US.”

Latham’s four clients have strong claims filed now and await a response from USCIS while remaining in the United States. They are empowered not only to proceed with their own applications, but with the knowledge to inform their friends and family of their rights and the resources they could use.

“The asylum system in the United States is a stressful, opaque, and deeply bureaucratic process for all those who flee their home countries in hopes of creating lives free from violence. Through their advocacy this summer, Latham protected the rights of four LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and helped them take that first step toward building a safe and stable life in the U.S. We are so grateful for the work of the Latham attorneys and summer associates and hope this is only the beginning of our continued work together.”

Deirdre Stradone
Co-Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project

Join us at our Above & Beyond Awards Ceremony on November 2, 2022, as we honor Latham & Watkins’ outstanding pro bono work.


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

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