Holland & Knight Team Helps Trafficking Survivor Vacate her Criminal Conviction

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Holland & Knight LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono assistance on behalf of  “Melanie,” an immigrant survivor of human trafficking.

Todd Schmid is Senior Legal Counsel at HSBC and Co-Head of HSBC’s U.S. Pro Bono Program. He is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Holland & Knight LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono assistance on behalf of  “Melanie,” an immigrant survivor of human trafficking. The team included Rob Bernstein, partner, Holland & Knight LLP; Ellen Marcus, attorney, Holland & Knight LLP; Sheila Hayre, consultant and professor of law at Quinnipiac University; and Krishna Patel, consultant. 

While states have advanced laws to punish and deter human traffickers, shortfalls in the criminal justice system remain. Too often, survivors find themselves burdened by criminal convictions with domino effects on their ability to rebuild their lives, even after escaping their traffickers. For non-citizen survivors, convictions adversely affect their immigration status (or ability to obtain relief) and can subject them to deportation risk. Survivors with a criminal record are often unable to secure meaningful employment, education, or housing, overwhelming their ability to move forward and build lives free from exploitation.

Sanctuary’s client Melanie, a Taiwanese trafficking survivor who was arrested in Connecticut for prostitution while being trafficked, was determined to vacate her conviction. “Melanie bravely took the initiative to cooperate with law enforcement to investigate her traffickers,” noted Amy Hsieh, Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative. “She then successfully obtained a T nonimmigrant status.” Yet as Ms. Hsieh pointed out, Melanie still faced barriers resulting from her trafficking – a basic internet search for Melanie’s name still yielded conviction results, and only successful vacatur could clear her public record.

Holland & Knight’s Ellen Marcus and Rob Bernstein began working closely with Melanie in the fall of 2017 to request vacatur from the Connecticut court of a conviction tied to her trafficking. Despite its existence on the books, the vacatur statute had not yet been tested in the Connecticut courts, and there was no clear-cut procedure for placing this type of case on the state docket. When they brought Melanie’s well-researched case to the attention of the Connecticut Office of the State’s Attorney, the diligent work that Ellen and Rob put in paid off, and the state’s attorney, seeing its merits, took the case forward with the papers that the Holland & Knight team prepared, yielding a successful result for Sanctuary’s client. “Working on Melanie’s case highlighted how enormous this bureaucracy is and how difficult it is to navigate even for those with legal training,” noted Rob. Charting new territory required diligence, patience, and a thoughtful, collaborative approach.

In reflecting on their work, Rob and Ellen emphasized the lasting influence that pro bono work can have on clients. “This case underscores just how important it is for lawyers and law firms to do pro bono work,” said Rob. “Clients are not always going to find the right resources on their end. Many are dealing with threats to their health and safety and will never have the chance to dig themselves out. Lawyers are told to stay in their area, to not take risks.” Yet Ellen and Rob encourage fellow lawyers to roll up their sleeves and to be unafraid to act boldly on behalf of clients. “Even if it isn’t your primary area of expertise, with a bit of training, you can achieve rewarding results,” said Ellen. “Don’t hold back.”

Their story shines a light, too, on the power of collaboration. Ellen and Rob were keen to involve experts early on. To make Melanie’s case as strong as they could, they contacted Krishna Patel, a seasoned former federal prosecutor and an active member of numerous human trafficking task forces, and Sheila Hayre, professor of law at Quinnipiac University with expertise in immigration law and human trafficking, for their guidance and support. Seeing Melanie’s situation as a marquee example of the vacatur law’s true intent, both enthusiastically rose to the occasion. “There’s work to be done in training law enforcement that instead of thinking of someone as a ‘prostitute’ engaged in criminal activity, someone they find on the streets could be a trafficking victim,” Krishna observed. While the process of vacating a criminal conviction can itself be nuanced and sometimes contentious, the intrinsic link between Melanie’s victimization as a trafficking victim and the conviction for prostitution made her case, in Krishna’s mind, an obvious one to take forward.

The pro bono team highlighted just how contagious Melanie’s collaborative spirit was. And Melanie was quick to shine a light on the effect their work will have as she continues to rebuild her life:

“Each of you made it a reality. I sincerely thank each of them for helping vulnerable people like myself. Because of the team, I will live a good life, and one day hope to pass on the love, kindness, and compassion that they have shown me.” — Melanie.

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Ellen, Rob, Krishna, and Sheila. You can buy tickets 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.

Counseling Child and Adult Survivors in Times of COVID-19

Thanks to our staff and clients’ commitment, Sanctuary’s CFSP has been able to provide therapy and support to families despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ramifications of the shelter-in-place orders made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic have been universally challenging, particularly for children and those who support them. As New York shut down to stop the spread of coronavirus, staff and the families working with our Children and Family Services Program (CFSP) worried how the agency’s shift to remote service provision would impact their counseling sessions. Many clients lacked privacy at home, had little or no access to tech devices, and/or had limited internet and mobile data. However, our staff moved quickly — reaching out to families to determine the safest and most effective ways to communicate, developing safety plans, and purchasing communication and tech devices whenever possible — to ensure continued support while the program shifted to teletherapy. Today, six months into the pandemic, we are proud to share the ways in which CFSP has adapted and overcome these obstacles to make sure our clients could continue to attend counseling sessions in these times of greater need.

A counselor’s workspace at home.

During the first few weeks “there was a lot of hesitation and even anxiety with parents, kids, and staff” related to having counselors enter clients’ homes virtually, said Estrella Perez, our Clinical Supervisor at the Manhattan Family Justice Center. Before COVID-19, clients would come into our office where counselors would have full control of the environment. But doing virtual work “throws that control out the window,” says Ines Cano, Program Director of Sanctuary’s Non-Residential Services. Often times, she explains, there will be other family members present in the room where the client is engaging in virtual counseling. According to Kimberly Neill, CFSP Clinical Supervisor at our Manhattan Office, this lack of privacy has been one of the greatest challenges for clients who still share their home with an abusive family member.

Nonetheless, we have seen many positive outcomes emerge during these unprecedented times. The shift to virtual counseling has made it easier for clients –– many of whom missed in-person sessions due to transportation issues –– to meet with their counselor for their scheduled sessions with much more consistency. The families CFSP is working with “have also been able to share their homes with us and the things that they have there,” Kim said, helping counselors gain a deeper understanding of the obstacles and strengths their clients live with each day. In many cases, virtual counseling has helped folks feel more comfortable and be more open during sessions. “Some of the boundaries have been broken down,” she acknowledged, “and we are all being a little more our full selves all the time.”

“I brought up recently that our clients never say they are ‘fine’ anymore (a common answer for ‘How are you?’) Instead they are more honest about the highs and lows of their week. It is a terrible price to pay but there are positive things during this time too.” — Kimberly Neill, CFSP Clinical Supervisor 

When it comes to our younger clients, Ines says “there are sessions that are amazing and there are sessions that are full of challenges.” She says that various factors — like the child’s age, whether the space is conducive for the child to focus on the counselor, what equipment is being used, and a parent’s access to and comfort level with technology — play a role in how these go.  It’s difficult to engage kids ages 3-6 given their very short attention spans. At times, children will run around the room while the counselor is trying to speak to them over video or phone. “We often need parental assistance to engage with them,” Kim told us. “I have done a few sessions where I talk to a child who is doing a headstand during our meeting.” Of course, there are also wonderful moments that bring great joy to both kids and counselors. “Children have been excited to show us their spaces, toys, or siblings.” Ines shared. “It gives us insight into their lives in ways that we wouldn’t have had before.”

Counselors and clients made arts and crafts together in virtual counseling sessions.

With children in the 7-12 age range, our counselors have had greater success connecting through TheraPlatform, a teletherapy platform that provides games, interactive drawings, videos, and stories. Kim says working with older kids has been a lot easier as they “tend to know how to use the tech and are less likely to decide to show us the inside of their noses on video.” Some kids have felt a little self-conscious and preferred to do sessions over the phone rather than through video, but many have been excited to enter the counselor’s home and find that they are surviving COVID together.

Kim says that under this new framework, setting tech communication boundaries with clients has certainly been important. There have been situations that have pushed many counselors outside of their comfort zones, but Estrella and others say that, overall, navigating virtual counseling has been a bonding experience for counselors and clients. Ines even admits that at times, children have taught her how to use technology which in turn allows them to feel masterful and proud of themselves. According to Jenn Sanchez, CFSP Clinical Supervisor, the best part of it all is “being able to take joy in hearing some of [the kids] own success stories like making it through this crazy school year and still receiving passing grades or graduating.”

Virtual baking sessions to keep children engaged.

Overall, COVID-19 has pushed CFSP counselors and childcare providers “to think even more creatively about how we interact and the tools we have on hand,” according to Kim. Over the past few months, she and her team have worked tirelessly to create an online library of our in-office books to use with clients, as well as a public drive with information for families and activities for children. Echoing Kim, Jenn also spoke proudly about “all the creative ways that our team has pulled together to develop workshops, provide out resources, offer assistance to get particular supplies delivered to help our children keep some sense of enjoyment, normality, and structure in their lives.”

Staff delivered “Summer Survival Kits” to kids that included books, art supplies, frisbees, bubbles, and more.

Thanks to our staff and clients’ commitment, Sanctuary’s CFSP has been able to provide therapy and support to children and families experiencing or healing from the trauma of domestic violence, despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. “I can honestly say that I have been so inspired and hopeful with the work our CFSP staff have been able to achieve with clients,” Kim says, “and with the willingness of clients to continue to trust in us through hardship . . . I think in many ways this time has brought us closer, as we all recognize we are in this together, doing the best we can each day.”

Learn more about Sanctuary’s Children & Family Services here.

“We won’t settle for tokens.” Remembering the Great Ruth Bader Ginsburg

A giant of American jurisprudence and a relentless champion for the rights of women and minorities, Justice Ginsburg embodied the values that lie at the core of Sanctuary’s mission to end gender-based violence.

We at Sanctuary for Families join in mourning the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a pioneering advocate for civil rights and gender equality and a jurist of historic stature. We commit ourselves to honor her legacy by carrying on her work and protect it from being undone.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a true feminist icon and tenacious dissenter, paved the road for women in law and changed the culture for women in America. A daughter of a Russian immigrant, she began her legal career in 1956 at Harvard as one of only nine women who were famously shamed for “taking the place of a man” within a class of about 500. Two years later, she transferred to Columbia Law School, where she became the first woman ever to be on two major law reviews — the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review — and graduated in 1959 at the top of her class.

In 1963, at a time when there were less than 20 female law professors in the United States, Ginsburg landed a teaching job at Rutgers Law School and eventually received tenure. By the early 1970s, she had co-founded the groundbreaking Women’s Rights Law Reporter and transferred to Columbia Law School, where she became the first tenured female professor in 1972. That same year, Ginsburg co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. Between 1973 and 1976, in her role as director, Ginsburg argued six gender discrimination cases before an all-male Supreme Court. She won five of them, transforming the constitutional understanding of gender and creating the legal framework for preventing discrimination “on the basis of sex.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg receiving Sanctuary’s 2002 Abely Award for Leading Women and Children to Safety.

After thirteen years of service on the DC Court of Appeals, in 1993, Ginsburg became the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court. Over the course of her 27 years on our nation’s highest bench, Ginsburg brought her constitutional analysis to arduously defend women’s and civil rights. In the landmark case United States v. Virginia, Ginsburg authored the Court’s opinion which struck down the  long-standing male-only admission policy of the Virginia Military Institute and any law that “denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature — equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.”

Even when in the minority, Justice Ginsburg’s analysis could bring about change. Her masterful dissent in the court’s opinion on Ledbetter v. Goodyear inspired the 2008 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a statute that put an increased burden on employers so that employees were better able to make for pay discrimination.

Most recently, she joined the majority for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a case that struck down parts of a Texas law that placed restrictions on the delivery of abortion services. In her concurring opinion, Ginsburg argued that it was “beyond rational belief that [such regulations on abortion providers] could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law ‘would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions.”

The Honorable Judith S. Kaye, 1997 Abely Honoree, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Sanctuary’s 2002 Abely Awards.

Eighteen years ago, Sanctuary had the honor to present Ruth Bader Ginsburg with the Maryellen Abely Award for Leading Women and Children to Safety— an award given annually to a person who has worked for the empowerment of women through the legal system and shares the compassion, energy, and dedication for which we remember Maryellen Abely, one of our first pro bono attorneys. While presenting Justice Ginsburg with the award, we offered the following tribute:

“Through intellectual force, you have changed our world. For the women and children at Sanctuary for Families, relief from the legal disabilities imposed by marriage and gender makes possible their escape from the emotional, physical and economic oppression wrought by their abusers. Without your work, ours would not be possible. For your vision, persistence and effectiveness, we confer upon you our highest honor.”

A giant of American jurisprudence and a relentless champion for the rights of women and minorities, Justice Ginsburg embodied the values that lie at the core of Sanctuary’s mission to end gender violence. It is up to us to create her legacy and to continue her work to ensure the “equal citizenship stature of [all] men and women”, regardless of race, creed, or origin. At Sanctuary for Families, we recommit ourselves to that vision in her honor.

May her memory be a revolution.

History of Abely Honorees

The Abely Award for Leading Women and Children to Safety The Abely Pro Bono Leadership


The Abely Award for Leading Women and Children to Safety

Since 1997, the Abely Award for Leading Women and Children to Safety has been presented annually to a person who has made a difference in the lives of survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking and who shares the compassion, zeal, energy, and dedication for which we remember Maryellen Abely.

Previous recipients of the award are:

2019 The Honorable Toko Serita, Presiding Judge, Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court

2018 The Honorable Amiena Khan, Executive Vice President, National Association of Immigration Judges

2017 Ronnie Eldridge, Government & Community Social Justice Leader & Journalist

2016 The Honorable Robert A. Katzmann, Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

2015 The Honorable Loretta Lynch, United States Attorney General, and the Honorable Pamela K. Chen, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York

2014 The Honorable Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., District Attorney, New York County

2013 The Honorable Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York

2012 Sarah Buel, Faculty Director, Diane Halle Center for Family Justice; Clinical Professor of Law, Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

2011 The Honorable Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson, Administrative Judge for the Family Court of the City of New York

2010 The Honorable Carolyn B. Maloney, United States Representative, New York’s 14th District

2009 Casey Gwinn, President, National Family Justice Center Alliance

2008 Teresa Columba Ulloa Ziáurriz, Regional Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Maestra María Guadalupe Morfín Otero, Special District Attorney for Violent Crimes Against Women for the Office of the Attorney General of Mexico

2007 The Honorable Jack B. Weinstein, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York

2006 The Honorable Denny Chin, Circuit Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

2005 The Honorable Betty Weinberg Ellerin, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division, First Department

2004 The Honorable Judy Harris Kluger, Chief of Policy and Planning for the New York State Office of Court Administration

2003 The late Honorable Paul Wellstone, United States Senator, and the late Sheila Wellstone, domestic violence victims advocate (posthumously presented)

2002 The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

2001 The Honorable Sheldon Silver, New York State Assembly Speaker

2000 The Honorable Charles E. Schumer, United States Senator

1999 The Honorable Helene Weinstein, New York State Assemblywoman

1998 The Honorable Kathryn A. McDonald, Administrative Judge of New York City Family Court, and Patricia Eng, founder and Executive Director of the New York Asian Women’s Center

1997 The Honorable Judith S. Kaye, Chief Judge of the State of New York


The Abely Pro Bono Leadership Award

Created in 2001, the Abely Pro Bono Leadership Award recognizes the contributions of the extraordinarily dedicated attorneys who have consistently demonstrated professional commitments to improving the lives of Sanctuary’s clients.

Previous recipients of the award are:

2019 William C. Silverman, Partner, Proskauer Rose LLP

2018 Joel Kurtzberg, Partner, Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP

 2017 Richard Rothman, Senior Counsel, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP

 2016 Sharon Katz, Special Counsel for Pro Bono, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP

 2015 Jennifer L. Kroman, Director of Pro Bono Practice, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP

 2014 Brenna K. DeVaney, Pro Bono Counsel, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP

 2013 Samidh Guha, Partner, Akin Gump LLP

 2012 Harlene Katzman, Pro Bono Counsel and Director, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP

 2011 Josephine Lea Iselin, Attorney Emeritus, and Jill Crawley Griset, Partner, and Matt Pearson, Associate, McGuireWoods LLP

 2010 Jill M. Zuccardy, Partner, Lansner Kubitschek Schaffer & Zuccardy

 2009 Hannah M. Pennington, former Associate, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP

 2008 Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, accepted by Sharon Katz, Special Counsel for Pro Bono

2007 Cynthia B. Rubin, Partner, Flemming Zulack Williamson Zauderer LLP

 2006 Claudia L. Hammerman and Robyn F. Tarnofsky, Partners, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP

 2005 Mary Rothwell Davis, Volunteer Appellate Counsel, Sanctuary for Families’ CBWLS

 2004 Saralyn M. Cohen, Pro Bono Counsel, Shearman & Sterling LLP 2003 Ellen P. Chapnick, Dean for Social Justice Initiatives, Columbia Law School

 2003 Ellen P. Chapnick, Dean for Social Justice Initiatives, Columbia Law School

 2002 Nora von Stange, former Associate, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

 2001 Nancy L. Lazar, former Counsel, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP


The Maryellen Abely Fellowship

The Maryellen Abely Fellowship, underwritten by Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, funds a summer internship at Sanctuary’s Legal Center and is given annually to a Columbia Law School student who is committed to working with victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking.

Fellowship recipients include:

2019 Shuxin Qian

2018 Ammar Monawar

2017 Yiqing Shi

2016 Christina Zhang

2015 Whitney Hood

2014 Alexandra Swain

2013 Rosie Wang

2012 Alicia Lobeiras

2011 Sayoni Maitra

2010 Joy Ziegeweid

2009 Frances Kelly

2008 Mia Robertshaw

2007 Emma Glazer

2006 Carla Martinez

2005 Anya Emerson

2004 Yiwen Ouyang

2003 Erin Dougherty

2002 Alexander Karam

2001 Galen Sherwin

2000 Anne E. Glatz

1999 Rachel Wilgoren

1998 Deborah L. Fine

1997 Nihara Karim Choudhri

1996 Hilary Sunghee Seo


Special Awards

In 2005, a special Abely Leadership Award was given to Mary Ann Mailman in honor of her extraordinary contributions to Sanctuary for Families. Ms. Mailman is a past president of Sanctuary’s Board of Directors and a current member of Sanctuary’s President’s Council. She is a founder and active member of Sanctuary’s Legal Advisory Council and served as Co-chair until September 1, 2010.

In 2018, a special Abely Award for Extraordinary Service was presented to Kathleen Kundar for her years of devotion to Sanctuary for Families. As co-chair of the Legal Advisory Council for 12 years, Kathleen championed Sanctuary’s work, assisted our clients, and strengthened our Legal Center resources.