Weil Team Wins Major Victory for Incarcerated Survivor of Domestic Violence

At this year’s Above and Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring the pro bono work of Richard Rothman, Senior Counsel at Weil, Gotshal and Manges and Co-Chair of the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative, Nigar Shaikh, formerly an Associate at Weil and currently Counsel at Everytown for Gun Safety, and Dori Y. Cohen, Associate at Weil, for their representation of “Amy,” an incarcerated survivor of severe domestic violence.

Vanessa Gutierrez is the 2018-2019 Tow Policy Advocacy Fellow at the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice – CUNY.

At this year’s Above and Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring the pro bono work of Richard Rothman, Senior Counsel at Weil, Gotshal and Manges and Co-Chair of the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative, Nigar Shaikh, formerly an Associate at Weil and currently Counsel at Everytown for Gun Safety, and Dori Y. Cohen, Associate at Weil, for their representation of “Amy,” an incarcerated survivor of severe domestic violence.

Rich Rothman has long been a pro bono advocate for survivors of gender-based violence, primarily survivors of intimate partner violence and sex trafficking.  In 2017 Rich, in conjunction with Sanctuary Legal Director Dorchen Leidholdt, founded the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative (the “Initiative”)—a collaboration of professionals and survivors focused on three main goals:

  1. Representation on parole, clemency, and re-sentencing matters
  2. Systems-change advocacy to improve the rate of release for incarcerated survivors
  3. Education and training on issues related to the intersection of gender-based violence, trauma, and incarceration

Nigar Shaikh was an early member of the Initiative and was instrumental in helping the Initiative implement its three-fold strategy to assist survivors.

The Initiative strives to help survivors who have been in prison for many years.  As Rich points out,

“Many of these older convictions took place in an era where domestic violence and trauma weren’t really understood by many, but especially the criminal justice system.  The women we help are victims whose crimes are directly related to the abuse they suffered, which landed them in prison. These women pose no risk to society, and deserve to live their lives outside of prison.”

Amy was one of the Initiative’s first referrals. Like the vast majority of women in prison, Amy was a victim of horrific violence prior to her incarceration.  She grew up witnessing domestic violence perpetrated by her father against her mother and was so distraught by what she saw that she attempted suicide at the age of twelve. A year later she moved to a new school and started dating an older boy who preyed on her vulnerability. This marked the beginning of an eleven-year relationship during which Amy was subjected to increasingly violent and dangerous abuse, as well as psychological torture.  Her abuser threatened to kill her, her family, and her friends if she tried to leave him.  It was right after he threatened to kill Amy’s sister, who was visiting her, that Amy made the terrifying decision to flee.

Amy and her sister were hiding at their step-mother’s house for approximately six weeks before they began to fear that her abuser had found her.  During an argument with her step-mother and sister about how to stay safe now that she had been discovered, Amy’s relentless stress, terror, and untreated PTSD took over and, without conscious knowledge of what she was doing, Amy killed her step-mother, with whom she’d had a close, loving relationship. She was convicted in 1991 for murder in the second degree and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Amy was eligible for parole in 2015, but despite an impeccable record inside prison, a strong release plan, and deep remorse for the crime she committed, she was denied parole.  Instead of considering the many factors that warranted her release, the parole board focused solely on the severity of the crime, completely disregarding the governing statute, regulations, and case law.

Amy was referred to the Initiative for help preparing for her next parole interview in 2018. After his first meeting with Amy at Taconic Correctional Facility, Rich knew that the Initiative had to try to help her.  Soon after, he agreed to represent Amy and he recruited Nigar and Dori to complete Amy’s pro bono team.

Rich, Nigar, and Dori worked on updating and supplementing her parole packet. Understanding how important it would be to explain Amy’s extreme trauma and the effect it had on the commission of the crime, they hired a trauma expert to meet with Amy and deliver an expert report to the parole board. The team compassionately worked with Amy to prepare her for the parole board interview—an experience that is often incredibly re-traumatizing for many survivors.  With the expert support and guidance of Rich, Nigar, and Dori, Amy was finally, after more than 25 years in prison, granted parole in 2018.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 12, 2019, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor Richard, Nigar, and Dori’s outstanding pro bono work.  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.

Gloria Steinem and Advocates Applaud NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson for His Commitment to Criminal Justice Reform

Our joint statement on Speaker Johnson’s Call for the Equality Model

Speaker Johnson’s Call for the Equality Model is the right step to protect and promote the well-being of those who are sex trafficked and individuals in the sex trade while holding accountable those who harm them.

As leading direct service providers, women’s rights, anti-trafficking and youth activists, immigrant, gender and racial justice advocates, child welfare advocates, and sex trade survivors, we applaud City Council Speaker Corey Johnson for his leadership in calling for meaningful criminal justice reform in New York City.

In particular, we commend the Speaker’s support for the repeal of the “loitering for purposes of engaging in prostitution” offense, which permits law enforcement to make often arbitrary arrests based on untenable suspicions of prostitution. These arrests have been used as a discriminatory tactic and reports show that the law’s usage disproportionately targets women and girls of color as well as transwomen and girls.

Speaker Johnson also declared his support for the Equality Model (also known as the Nordic Model) and called for urgent action in addressing prostitution and sex trafficking. This legal framework solely decriminalizes people in prostitution while only targeting those who harm them, including pimps and sex buyers.

Key to the Equality Model is its directive to create and implement comprehensive services, including trauma-informed medical and mental health services, housing, education, and job training, for all people in prostitution. Speaker Johnson’s announcement concerning his commitment to opening a center that will provide wrap-around services to individuals in the sex trade is an important step in the right direction.

New York City prides itself in being at the forefront of protecting human rights, especially those of the most marginalized populations among us. The overwhelming majority of those in prostitution are marginalized women, girls, transwomen and girls, especially of color. In our city, most of these individuals are New Yorkers; others are undocumented immigrants who have likely been sex trafficked. Many of us are part of and all of us work with these communities.

The Equality Model’s goal is to promote and protect the economic security, health and social equality of the most disenfranchised women and transwomen while safeguarding them from violence and discrimination. In tandem with providing comprehensive services, the City must also invest in education and training, and commit to changes in policy and practice to eradicate discrimination and mistreatment by law enforcement and the judicial system. Already, due to grassroots efforts, we’ve seen improvements. Through training and engagement with law enforcement, arrests of pimps and traffickers have slowly increased since 2016 when the NYPD committed to targeting “pimps and johns” and investing in long-term investigations, while arrests of individuals selling sex have steadily decreased each year.

The sex trade is where sex trafficking happens. Every dollar that feeds the multi-billion dollar sex trade comes from sex buyers who treat people in the sex trade like commodities and cause immense, long-term harm. The Speaker courageously recognized that the sex trade is inherently antithetical to equality for all and affirmed that we have the power to fight it.

The Equality Model must be part of New York’s toolkit of laws and policies to reform the criminal justice system and promote gender, racial, economic and immigration justice.

Gloria Steinem

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women

Covenant House


Equality Now

Graham Windham


National Organization for Women – New York City

New York Alliance Against the Legalization of Prostitution

New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition

Not On My Watch

Sanctuary for Families

DHS plan to deputize border agents to handle Credible Fear Interviews will harm refugees

Tasking Border Patrol agents with conducting credible fear interviews is a clear effort to fast-track the removal of vulnerable asylum seekers.

Lori Adams is the Director of the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families.

The recent U.S. Department of Homeland Security decision, reported by President of the National Border Patrol Council Brandon Judd, to task Border Patrol agents with conducting credible fear interviews is a clear effort to fast-track the removal of vulnerable asylum seekers, many of whom are gender violence survivors, from the U.S.

Sanctuary for Families serves individuals and families who have suffered gender-based harm to find safety and rebuild their lives. Our refugee clients, including women who have survived gender-based violence in their homes and in their communities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community who have suffered violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have a right to seek asylum and to have a trained officer evaluate their claims.

These claims require an understanding of the country conditions that provide the context for that suffering, the failure of state protection for women and others in those countries, and an understanding of the evolving laws and policies impacting gender-based asylum cases. Credible fear interviews are the first step in the U.S. asylum process.  They are a matter of life and death.  And they should only be conducted by asylum officers who have received the training and have the time to recognize a refugee when they see one.

Section 235 of the Immigration and Nationality Act requires this. The “professional training in country conditions, asylum law, and interview techniques” that asylum officers receive is not provided to Border Patrol officers whose role is to monitor the border for weapons, drugs, and other threats to U.S. security. DHS should not divert the attention of Border Patrol agents away from their intended duties, and should not ask them to take on responsibilities that they were not hired or trained to do. That will almost certainly lead to failure to properly identify refugees at the border, and will increase the burden on the U.S. immigration courts to reconsider improperly denied applicants.

Instead, the U.S. should fund the creation of additional positions within the Asylum Division and ensure that the new asylum officers receive the requisite training in country conditions, asylum law, and interviewing techniques to properly evaluate the asylum claims of vulnerable refugees who fled to this country to seek protection.

The U.S. is a nation of immigrants and was founded as a safe haven for those who escaped persecution in their countries of origin. Not only are we bound by international law and our own domestic asylum laws to protect refugees who cross our borders, but providing that safety and protection is also inextricably bound to the ideals upon which this nation was founded.

The pilot program is reportedly scheduled to begin two weeks from now. Sanctuary for Families urges DHS to cancel this pilot program and leave the responsibility of conducting sensitive credible fear interviews with the asylum officers who are trained to conduct them.

To speak with Lori Adams, Director of the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families, contact LAK Public Relations.

On International Agunah Day, Sanctuary Stands with Jewish Orthodox Survivors

Learn about the plight of “chained women” and how you can support our work within the Jewish Orthodox Community.

On the eve of Purim, the Jewish Orthodox community observes Ta’anit Esther to commemorate the plea of Queen Esther – a Jewish woman who saved her people during their exile in the Persian Empire. Like many Jewish women today, Esther was trapped in a forced marriage to the king of Persia and spent years fearing her husband might kill her.

Today, Sanctuary joins advocates around the world to observe the International Day of the Agunah – a day marked yearly on the Fast of Esther to bring awareness to the plight of the modern-day agunah, or “chained woman” – and stands in solidarity with Jewish Orthodox women in New York and across the world who have suffered from get-refusal and are trapped in unwanted marriages.

According to Jewish law, a marriage can only be dissolved once the husband voluntarily grants a get, or religious divorce, to his wife – something many men refuse to do out of malice or to use as leverage when negotiating financial settlements and custody arrangements. Get-refusal is thus a form of domestic violence by which the husband asserts power and control to deny his wife the opportunity to separate and move on with her life. Orthodox Jewish women in these situations are called agunot, or chained women, for they are not allowed to remarry. For agunot, any new relationship they have is considered adultery, and their children will be considered illegitimate if conceived outside of marriage.

At Sanctuary, we recognize get-refusal as a form of gender violence that harms women, their children, and the wider Jewish Orthodox Community. In 2015, seeing that many women seeking help with civil and religious divorces had virtually nowhere to turn for help, we launched the Jewish Orthodox Matrimonial Project. In the years since, we have provided clinical and legal services, shelter, and economic empowerment to hundreds of Jewish Orthodox women and their children. Furthermore, we have actively engaged with rabbis, community leaders, and peer organizations, to build a network of advocates committed to raising awareness about domestic violence within the Jewish Orthodox community and protecting the rights and wellbeing of survivors.

Please consider demonstrating your solidarity this International Agunah Day by donating to Sanctuary’s Jewish Orthodox Matrimonial Project.