Survivors marched, trained, tabled and more in an effort to educate their communities about abuse during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
The fall can be a hectic time but every year, October presents an unique opportunity for survivors and advocates to bring the issue of domestic violence to the forefront of the public’s attention. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and to say the women is Sanctuary’s Survivor Leadership Program were busy, would be an understatement.
See the many ways these survivors worked to educate their communities this past month and learn more about Sanctuary’s Survivor Leadership Program.
1. Marching in the Brides’ March
Survivor Leaders marched in the Eighteenth Annual Gladys Ricart and Victims of Domestic Violence Memorial Walk, more commonly known as the Brides’ March. Each year, survivors and community advocates march from Washington Heights, through the South Bronx and into Harlem in memory of Gladys Ricart, a Dominican woman from Washington Heights, who was murdered in New Jersey on September 26, 1999 by her abusive former boyfriend on the day she was to wed her fiancé.
2. Training fellow survivors
Sharing personal experiences of abuse can be extremely challenging. Through our Survivor Leadership Program, these women have learned how share their stories in a way that is safe and empowering for them and informs those they’re speaking to about the various forms of abuse. Last month, these Survivor Leaders led a Domestic Violence 101 training and instructed a group of survivors at the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic and Gender Based Violence on how to do the same.
3. Telling stories through dance
Through Sanctuary’s partnership with Gibney Dance, a number of survivors are exploring storytelling through movement and dance. The photo above was taken following night two of Cracks of Light, a special Domestic Violence Awareness Month performance that is hosted each year by Gibney.
4. Press Interviews
Escaping domestic violence is never easy, but for undocumented immigrant victims the challenges can be unique. Leticia spoke candidly with Telemundo in mid-October about her experience with abuse. Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Legal Center, Linda Lopez, provided additional information and context about the U Visa and other forms of relief that are available to undocumented immigrant victims of gender violence.
Hospitals can be important points for intervention when it comes to domestic violence. Survivor Leaders passed out information on the signs of abuse and Sanctuary’s services to medical professionals and patients at the Kings County Hospital; reminding everyone that abuse can take many forms and that help is available.
Survivor Leaders know that in order to effect change, we must engage everyone, especially those who control important levers of power. Kristin (center) trained New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYS DOCCS) employees on domestic violence, an experience that the vast majority of people in New York State prisons have in common.
About the Survivor Leadership Program
Recognizing the importance of advocacy in the healing process for many survivors and the value of survivor expertise in community engagement, Sanctuary first launched a leadership program for survivors back in 1998. This initiative, known as the Mentors Program, trained dozens of survivors to use their experience as survivors to educate their communities, mentor other survivors, and become public speakers all while maintaining their safety and practicing self-care.
Last year, the Mentors Program was renamed the Survivor Leadership Program and in August, we brought on our first-ever Survivor Leadership Coordinator to manage the Survivor Leadership trainings, a growing and increasingly active alumni group, and all survivor leadership activity at Sanctuary.
For over a year, Sanctuary staff, survivors, and supporters advocated for the removal of the coercion provision in New York’s trafficking law which forced child victims testify in court. In August 2018, Governor Cuomo signed the End Child Sex Trafficking Act into law.
SANCTUARY FOR FAMILIES APPLAUDS GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO FOR ENACTING THE END CHILD SEX TRAFFICKING ACT
New law relieves prosecutors of the burden of having to prove that a child sex trafficking victim was coerced into having sex
(New York – August 15, 2018) – Sanctuary for Families (Sanctuary), New York State’s largest dedicated service provider and advocate for victims of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence, today applauded Governor Andrew Cuomo for signing into law the “End Child Sex Trafficking Act” – a measure that relieves prosecutors of the burden of having to prove that a child was coerced into prostitution in order to in order to convict that child’s exploiter of sex trafficking.
Dorchen Leidholdt, Director of Sanctuary’s Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services, stated,
“This law is the result of the powerful advocacy of a diverse coalition of survivors, their families, advocates, and faith-based leaders, determined to protect our most marginalized and brutalized children and hold their exploiters accountable.”
Hon. Judy Harris Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families said,
“This year alone, hundreds of thousands of children in the United States will be subjected to or at risk of sex trafficking. With the enactment of the End Child Sex Trafficking Act, New York has taken a major step forward to eradicate this scourge. Prosecutors can now build strong cases against those who traffic children without forcing the children to testify and relive the devastating trauma. Sanctuary for Families applauds Governor Cuomo’s decision to sign this bill into law. We are also deeply grateful to the bill sponsors, Assembly Member Amy Paulin and Senator Andrew Lanza, for their unrelenting commitment to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
Judge Kluger also commended the team at Sanctuary for Families for their tireless advocacy on this issue.
Prior to enactment of this measure, prosecutors in New York could not build successful cases against traffickers of children unless the child victim was willing and able to testify. The trauma children suffer as a result of sex trafficking and their terror of retaliation from their traffickers often prevented child victims from testifying.
The End Child Sex Trafficking Law creates an affirmative defense for all sex trafficking victims. New York now aligns with federal law and the other 49 states, which do not require that prosecutors prove coercion in sex trafficking cases when the victims are minors.
Children are major targets of human traffickers, who pursue them because they are vulnerable and because sex buyers demand children. Estimates suggest that each year at least 100,000 U.S.-born children become victims of sex trafficking. From 2000-2010, service providers in the New York City metropolitan area reported working with nearly 12,000 human trafficking survivors, many of whom were children.
Attorney General Sessions’ decision concerning Matter A-B- reverses decades of asylum law and puts at tremendous risk the lives of women and children who have suffered horrendous domestic violence in their home countries. Read our statement.
Sanctuary for Families stands with survivors of violence in condemning yesterday’s announcement by U.S. Attorney General Sessions to overturn Matter of A-B- — a case which he referred to himself and one in which he directed immigration judges to deny asylum to survivors of domestic violence.
That heartless decision reverses decades of asylum law and puts at tremendous risk the lives of women and children who have suffered horrendous domestic violence in their home countries. It also leaves vulnerable victims of other human rights abuses including forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The United States has long been a safe haven for immigrants who have been persecuted and cannot rely on their own governments to protect them. This decision by A.G. Sessions eviscerates that safe haven, limiting the types of cases in which immigration judges can grant asylum and thereby increasing the likelihood that women, children, and others will be sent back to their persecutors.
Hon. Judy Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families, stated:
“At Sanctuary for Families, too many of our clients bear the scars of unrelenting intimate partner violence that occurs in countries where no government or authorities will intervene. For many, a forced return to their nation of origin will be nothing short of a death sentence.”
“This callous move by the Attorney General threatens the lives of those seeking refuge in the United States, after having suffered tremendous violence and believing that this country would stand by its promise to protect those who cannot find safety in their own countries. It is a huge step backward for this country and an atrocious way to treat vulnerable immigrants who came here seeking our help.”
This decision was issued in the wake of other brutal immigration changes including a sharp increase in the criminal prosecution of asylum-seekers for “illegal entry” and a practice of separating mothers from their babies and young children at the U.S.-Mexico border to detain them in separate immigration jails, for the stated purpose of deterring families from making the journey north to seek protection in this country. It is cruel and inhumane to treat mothers and children as pawns in a political game.
Sanctuary for Families and other legal services and human rights organizations will continue to work together to push back against this incremental erosion of the rights of asylum-seekers to seek protection in this country. We invite you to stand with us and to fight for the rights of all survivors of gender-based violence.
“Hi, my name is NAME, I’m from CITY, STATE, and I’m a constituent of SENATOR / REPRESENTATIVE NAME. I’m calling today to ask SENATOR / REPRESENTATIVE NAME to stand up for victims of gender violence, those escaping gang warfare, and LGBTQ+ people, and demand that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reverse his decision on the Matter of A-B-. Sessions’ decision to deny asylum to those persecuted by private actors is a cruel step backwards for our country. Please speak out. Thank you.”
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.