The Honorees Every year, Sanctuary for Families honors those who have made major contributions to
Every year, Sanctuary for Families honors those who have made major contributions to the movement to end gender based violence at our annual Zero Tolerance Benefit. This year we were thrilled to present the Law Firm Leadership Award to Lynn and John Savarese.
Since meeting as first-year Harvard Law students, Lynn and John have devoted significant time and resources to advancing social justice. Together they have raised awareness about gender violence, secured justice for victims of abuse, and have provided unique platforms and opportunities for survivors to speak out. We are incredibly grateful for Lynn and John’s longtime support of Sanctuary and thrilled to have had the opportunity to honor two individuals whose lives’ work so connect with this year’s theme of “Breaking the Silence.”
Originally from a small town in Texas, Lynn is a graduate of Harvard Law School. For many years she enjoyed careers in corporate law and investment banking before taking time off to raise her family and pursue volunteer work for various human rights organizations. Several years ago Lynn took up photography in earnest, and quickly garnered international acclaim for her fine arts images.
Lynn first became involved with Sanctuary as a pro bono attorney. When her interest in photography grew from hobby to profession, she partnered with Sanctuary to launch a groundbreaking photography project called the New Abolitionists Campaign.
Employing Lynn’s photographs of anti-trafficking advocates and survivors, the Campaign has become an ever-growing tool for advocacy and awareness about sex trafficking, a modern form of slavery in the United States. Photographs of New Abolitionists have been exhibited at galleries and venues across the country and have been seen by tens of thousands of people.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, John joined the Litigation Department of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Over the last 25 years, John has represented numerous Fortune 500 corporations, major financial institutions and senior executives in SEC and other regulatory enforcement proceedings, as well as white-collar criminal investigations, complex securities litigations, and internal investigations. Despite the workload, John has always made time for the issues he cares about and has taken on numerous pro bono cases for Sanctuary over the years.
In addition to his work with Sanctuary, John is the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Vera Institute of Justice, a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board at Harvard Law School, a member of the Board of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the former President of the Board of Trustees of The Brearley School in New York.
With their impressive portfolio of human rights work, the Savareses have shown time and again their commitment to ending gender-based violence. We thank Lynn and John for the immense amount of time and energy they’ve given towards realizing our shared dream of a more socially just world. Our community is all the better for it.
For a summary and photos of our 2018 Zero Tolerance Benefit, click here.
THE HISTORY In 1973, in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, the United States’
In 1973, in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, the United States’ Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman’s right to have an abortion.
Forty-five years later, the national debate sparked by the Supreme Court’s decision wages on. As traditionally conservative states continue to pass legislation aimed at closing abortion clinics, more and more women have broken the silence around what has historically been deemed a “taboo” topic. These women, many of whom have had abortions themselves, believe that it has been their ability to control their own bodies through access to safe and legal abortion that has allowed them to become the successful and independent women they are today.
Sanctuary is proud to honor one of these women, Janice Mac Avoy, as the 2018 recipient of the Zero Tolerance Award for her work in the legal battle to uphold abortion rights for all women.
JANICE MAC AVOY
Janice Mac Avoy is a New York-based partner at the law firm of Fried Frank, where she is a member of the Real Estate Department and the Litigation Department, head of the Real Estate Litigation Practice Group, and co-chair of the Firm’s Pro Bono Committee. She is a member of the American Law Institute and the Association of Real Estate Women, a former member of the Board of directors of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and current board member of Sanctuary for Families and the Center for Reproductive Rights, as well as a member and voting representative of the CRE Finance Council.
Janice graduated summa cum laude from Washington University and received her JD from Columbia Law School, where she was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar and associate editor of the Columbia Law Review.
Two years ago, Janice was the lead signer on an amicus (friend of the court) brief to the United States Supreme Court in the Whole Women’s Health case – an important Supreme Court case addressing Texas’ restrictive abortion laws, which would have closed 75% of the abortion clinics in the state. Janice wrote an article for the Washington Post discussing her role in the amicus brief and how the right to abortion changed her life and why it needs to be upheld. Recently, Sanctuary got the chance to interview Janice and find out more about her personal and legal connection to the ongoing battle over women’s right to abortion:
How did you first get involved with Sanctuary for Families?
I first got involved with Sanctuary about thirty-one years ago, when I was a student at Columbia Law School. During my time there, I participated in a family law clinic to get orders of protection for women who had been subjected to domestic assault. Ultimately, about fifteen years later, I was very involved in Fried Frank’s efforts to fund the beginning of the Courtroom Advocates Project at Sanctuary, which formalized the practice of students assisting victims of domestic violence obtain orders of protection. I started doing pro-bono work with Sanctuary right out of law school, and I have continued working with Sanctuary ever since.
What is/are you connection(s) to domestic violence?
I have always tried to be an advocate for victims of domestic violence since law school, and I continue to work with Sanctuary and other service providers to help victims of domestic violence escape their abusers. I have worked on almost 500 divorces, mostly for victims of domestic violence. I also believe that in order for women to fulfill their potential, they need to control their bodies, not only by being free of physical abuse or exploitation, but also by choosing when or if to have children. In addition to the friend of the court brief in Whole Women’s Health, which was signed by me and over 100 female attorneys who had exercised their constitutional right to have an abortion, I have also acted as counsel to other organizations that have submitted friend of the court briefs to the United States Supreme Court and other courts in support of protecting abortion rights, including the National Abortion Federation, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and other medical professionals who support women’s access to safe, legal abortion.
The issue of a woman’s right to have an abortion is not an abstract one; it is a very real issue for women from all walks of life. The women lawyer’s brief got a lot of press, and I realized I had to keep speaking out on the issue, which then led to the Washington Post article, the CNN article, and a number of public speaking engagements discussing how critical it is to talk about abortion. The importance of access to reproductive rights is vital to a woman’s ability to control her destiny. Much of my work and the work done at organizations like Sanctuary is all about empowering women to be free of the patriarchal systems that currently dominate our political and social landscapes.
The theme for this year’s Zero Tolerance benefit is “Breaking the Silence.” What made you want to break the silence around what has for so long been deemed the “taboo” topic of abortion?
When the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights contacted me about being the lead signer on the Whole Women’s Health brief, I was very nervous about public reaction, but I knew I was going to do it anyway. I decided I wanted to talk to my family before agreeing to do it.
We all sat around the dinner table – me, my husband, my daughter, who was 16 at the time, and my son, who was 13. I sat them down and told them: “This is a big deal. My name is going to be out there, so it could affect you too.” My husband responded by saying that it was my decision and he supported whatever I wanted to do, and my daughter said that she would be disappointed in me if I didn’t do it. Everyone was incredibly supportive of my decision to speak out about my abortion. I even spoke with my mother, who absolutely supported my wish to speak out. “I wish I had the choices that you had,” she told me.
The firm’s support was also a big help. After the brief and before the decision, so many at Fried Frank were supportive in not only publicizing the firm’s role in the Supreme Court brief, but also furthering our efforts within the context of gender rights.
What do you hope other women can gain from your story, and those of other women who have broken the silence surrounding abortion rights?
We need to stop being ashamed. No matter what the issue is. Sanctuary has played an important role in breaking the silence on domestic violence and sex trafficking, and I hope to continue breaking the silence on abortion. Women shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed because they chose to have an abortion, just like they should not be shamed if they decided to have a child. This issue needs to be talked about. We have to take the shame away, and breaking the silence is a primary way to do that.
For a summary and photos of our 2018 Zero Tolerance Benefit, click here.
On the morning of Jan. 21, 1993, Niki Rossakis shot and killed her severely abusive
On the morning of Jan. 21, 1993, Niki Rossakis shot and killed her severely abusive husband. In 2017, after serving over twenty-five years and being denied parole three times despite an impeccable prison record, Niki was finally granted parole—and in the process helped to inspire a movement to help other incarcerated women and to reform the parole process itself.
In early 2017 Niki Rossakis, a Queens native who fatally shot her severely abusive husband in 1993, was scheduled for a new parole hearing after a state appellate court ruled, on November 10, 2016, that the parole board’s decision denying her parole for a third time was “so irrational as to border on impropriety and [was] therefore arbitrarily and capriciously rendered.” Others may not have taken a second glance at this appellate victory, but to Sanctuary Legal Center Director, Dorchen Leidholdt, and Weil Gotshal Senior Counsel, Richard Rothman, the opinion and the new parole hearing for Niki carried the possibility of becoming monumental.
Niki’s husband, Gary Rossakis, had been severely physically and sexually abusive to her throughout their marriage. In 1993, despite being advised to refrain from sex while she was healing from a medical procedure, Niki’s husband sexually assaulted her and threatened to rape her. Convinced that he was going to kill her, Niki shot and killed her husband with one of the many guns he possessed – guns that he had used to threaten her in the past. Niki was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to 24 years to life. On appeal the sentence was reduced to 15 years to life.
During her time in prison, Niki proved that she was worthy of parole. She completed two associate degrees and multiple rehabilitative programs, obtained intensive trauma-informed therapy, received offers of a job and housing upon release, and achieved the best possible score on her COMPAS Evaluation – which tests one’s inclination to resort to violence, substance abuse, and/or criminal behavior. Even after accomplishing so much, however, Niki was denied parole on three separate occasions in 2009, 2011, and 2013. Each time the parole board asserted that Niki failed to articulate remorse because of her continued assertions that she was a victim of domestic violence. Niki’s hopes of parole seemed to diminish with every passing year.
Help finally arrived in 2016 when Dorchen Leidholdt, Legal Director at Sanctuary for Families, and Richard Rothman, Senior Counsel at Weil Gotshal and Manges LLP, became interested in the case and offered to represent Niki at her next parole hearing. When asked how he became involved, Richard Rothman said it was simply a matter of wanting to help:
“I first heard about Niki Rossakis from Dorchen Leidholdt, who I believe had learned about Niki from the co-chair of Sanctuary’s PBC. Dorchen called to ask her if she needed representation after having been denied parole three times, and then travelled to the Taconic prison in Bedford, New York, to meet with Niki on a Saturday. Dorchen asked me if I could work on the case with her, and I jumped at the opportunity.”
Earlier that year, an Article 78 petition seeking a new parole hearing had been filed on Niki’s behalf, which Judge Alice Schlesinger approved. In January 2017, with the pro bono representation of Sanctuary and Weil Gotshal, the Parole Board finally granted parole to Niki after more than twenty years in prison. Inspired by their success, Leidholdt and Rothman founded the Initiative for Incarcerated Survivors of Gender Violence with the hopes of improving the parole system for survivors of gender violence.
The Initiative for Incarcerated Survivors of Gender Violence (“the Initiative”) is a collaboration among legal and social services organizations, law firms, advocacy groups, former judges, formerly incarcerated survivors, and other individuals committed to assisting survivors of gender violence currently serving prison time in New York State.
“As a leading advocate and service provider for victims of gender-based violence, Sanctuary is proud to be a founding member and co-chair of the Initiative, and excited to be involved in this critical work.”
Since its founding in 2017, the Initiative has grown into a multi-faceted program, while maintaining its devotion to incarcerated survivors. The Initiative works to achieve three main goals:
(i) To provide representation in matters relating to parole; (ii) Engage in advocacy to improve the justice system’s approach to parole release decisions for incarcerated survivors; and (iii) To provide education and training on issues of gender-based violence for those involved in parole and clemency decision-making. These three main pillars are designed to help survivors like Niki Rossakis get the legal counsel and parole preparation that is needed before their hearings.
WHY IT ALL MATTERS
Although it may seem as though Niki’s case is highly individualized, the reality of the matter is that most incarcerated women have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse during childhood or adulthood. As victims of gender violence, but also as perpetrators of violent crimes, they face a complicated and often misunderstood battle in seeking parole. More times than not, the parole board does not grant parole due to a variety of reasons, which include failure to admit remorse and responsibility, need for rehabilitation, and chances of recidivism. As was illustrated in Niki’s case, the parole board tends to misconstrue identification as a victim as the opposite of remorse. This becomes especially problematic once factors such as the prevalence of PTSD among survivors are introduced. Such realities make gender violence survivors a unique subset of the prison population for whom special assistance, like the Initiative, is essential.
Currently, the Initiative relies on pro bono legal services, which are provided by Davis Polk, Latham & Watkins, Paul Weiss, and Weil Gotshal. Representatives from each of the firms partner with members of the Initiative, who train and mentor the attorneys. Because there is no right to counsel for parole applicants, many individuals eligible for parole prepare for their interview on their own, which, unfortunately, becomes a scary, overwhelming, and sadly unsuccessful endeavor. In order to mitigate this issue, and assist with the training of volunteers and attorneys of the Initiative, Sanctuary has created a Parole Training Manual and a complementary Resource Library, both of which aim to increase awareness and knowledge for the incarcerated subjects of gender violence.
In addition to creating change through legal representation, Sanctuary is also working on behalf of incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence by meeting with those involved in the parole and clemency decision-making process. This includes recent meetings with Alphonso David, the Governor’s Counsel, and Tina Stanford, Chairwoman of the Board of Parole, as well as an upcoming training for all of the Parole Board Commissioners. These meetings have resulted in positive outcomes, including expressions of interest and excitement about working with us. We look forward to continuing to partner together with individuals in the Governor’s office and within the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision on matters of parole and clemency.
MAKING IN-ROADS AT TACONIC CORRECTIONAL FACILITY
Lastly, Initiative volunteers have reached out to Taconic Correctional Facility to assist in identifying potential clients as well as allowing us to provide parole preparation and gender-based violence training. According to Sanctuary staff and member of the Initiative, meetings with the superintendent at Taconic have gone well. According to Nicole Fidler, Director of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Program,
“We are very fortunate to have the support of Taconic Correctional Facility’s new Superintendent, Tanya Mitchell-Voyd. She has met with us twice and has encouraged us to engage with both the staff at Taconic and with the women incarcerated at Taconic. Building partnerships with Correctional Facilities in New York is critical to our ability to effectively serve incarcerated survivors.”
Leidholdt and Sanctuary Clinical Director and Initiative member Laura Fernandez recently conducted a training on gender-based violence for staff at Taconic Correctional Facility. The Initiative hopes to continue partnering with Taconic to conduct trainings and outreach.
Although there is still a long road ahead, we are confident that our work will soon produce tangible change in not only the parole hearing process, but the lives of those who are have been affected by this complicated and dated process.
 In one study of women incarcerated in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, it was found that 82% had been severely physically or sexually abused as children and 93% of women convicted of killing sexual intimates – current or former husbands, boyfriends or girlfriends – had been physically or sexually abused by an intimate.
Pieter Keushkerian is a communications intern at Sanctuary and a student at NYU’s Gallatin School
Pieter Keushkerian is a communications intern at Sanctuary and a student at NYU’s Gallatin School for Individualized Study, where he is majoring in Social and Political Theory relating to Human Rights.
Partnership with BRIC
In August 2016, Sanctuary partnered with BRIC, a community media arts organization based in Brooklyn, to develop a public service announcement. Working with Sanctuary staff members, Andrea Yeriazarian, Program Director of Children and Family Services at the Manhattan Family Justice Center (FJC) and Deborah Lee, Senior Staff Attorney with Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project at the Brooklyn (FJC), members of Sanctuary’s teen girls group shared how domestic violence had impacted their lives and how Sanctuary’s services enabled them to heal and thrive. By sharing their stories, they hoped to raise awareness and encourage other teens to reach out for help.
Thrilled by the success of the first PSA, Sanctuary teamed up with BRIC again this past summer to utilize the organization’s Media Share Grant, an in-kind grant aimed at helping Brooklyn-based and Brooklyn-affiliated nonprofits tell their unique story. Deborah and Andrea received free training and became certified in podcast production with the help of their BRIC mentor, Keisha. Both Andrea and Deborah learned numerous techniques and helpful tricks of the trade from the recording to the editing stages. All of their work culminated in Conversations, Sanctuary’s new client driven podcast.
The first episode of Conversations focuses on the extent to which cultural norms impact individual behavior in abusive relationships. It begins with the story of Keziah, a seventeen-year-old survivor of domestic violence and one of the teenagers featured in the PSA. Keziah and her family are long-standing clients of Sanctuary and have received immigration assistance, counseling services, and economic empowerment support over the years. Keziah approached both Andrea and Deborah with the desire to interview other clients and survivors in order to get a better understanding of the origins and consequences of domestic violence.
“Keziah directed us in terms of structuring the podcast, and we were so happy to have been able to help her have this podcast conversation.”
For Sanctuary’s inaugural episode, Keziah chose to host a panel of survivors which included Maria, John and Shantae, all of whom had been affected by domestic violence and gender abuse in one way or another and were eager to share their personal narratives. Their shared perspectives and openness create a warm space in which healing and understanding are encouraged.
The ultimate goal of our new podcast series is to give survivors, who often avoid sharing their stories for fear of revealing their identity, a way to speak out. In Keziah’s words:
“Doing this podcast helped me to stop hiding behind my story. It helped me to realize that I was using my story to define me, and that I really don’t know who I am. It forced me to realize that I need to find myself and use my story to help others instead of hiding.”
Both Andrea and Deborah hope that this new series inspires others who have been impacted by domestic violence to share their stories on this new and exciting platform.
Chat for Help
To chat with an advocate about safety planning, shelter, and counseling services, click here.
To chat with an advocate about family law, immigration, trafficking, or other legal concerns, click here.