WilmerHale Team Reunites Mother and Children in International Abduction Case

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of WilmerHale attorneys for their brilliant and dedicated advocacy on behalf of Rosa, whose worst nightmare was realized when her abusive husband abducted their two young girls and held them in Egypt for two unbearable years.

Camille is a Summer Law Clerk at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP and is currently enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of WilmerHale attorneys for their brilliant and dedicated advocacy on behalf of Rosa, whose worst nightmare was realized when her abusive husband abducted their two young girls and held them in Egypt for two unbearable years. The WilmerHale team worked tirelessly and overcame many obstacles to help Rosa reunite with her daughters.

This stellar team included partners Sanket Bulsara (currently at the SEC) and Sharon Cohen Levin, counsels Todd Blanche and Adriel Cepeda Derieux, senior associates Matthew Galeotti, Musetta Durkee, and Hanna Baek (currently at the NY Attorney General’s Office), associates David Yin, William Roth, Josh Vittor (formerly of WilmerHale), and Margaret Artz, and paralegals Vilmarie Alcaraz and Lauren Kennedy.

An International Nightmare

Between 2009 and 2013 Rosa and her two daughters alternately lived between Rosa’s native Mexico and New York City, where her husband John, a Legal Permanent Resident who later naturalized, lived.  In 2013, Rosa’s husband encouraged her to take the girls back to Mexico for a visit, assuring her that he had applied for a green card for her and that she could return to the U.S. with no issues. This turned out to be a lie, and when Rosa arrived at JFK the next month she was denied entry. After that, Rosa and the girls lived in Mexico for over a year, with John visiting only occasionally.

In 2014, John decided to travel to his native country, Egypt, and invited Rosa and the children to join him for a vacation, imploring her that he very much wanted the children to meet their Egyptian family and pointing out that she and the children could no longer visit him in New York. Rosa bought three round-trip tickets for herself and her daughters with money John had sent her, fully expecting that they would all be returning to Mexico after this family visit.

But once Rosa and the girls were in Egypt, John confiscated their passports and return tickets, became physically abusive toward Rosa, and refused to let her leave the house unaccompanied or without his permission.  Their short vacation turned into a long nightmare, made worse when Rosa’s mother became terminally ill.  John permitted Rosa to travel back to Mexico to visit her sick mother but refused to let the children join her.  While Rosa was in Mexico, John brought the children to New York, knowing that their mother was unable to enter the United States. Despite Rosa’s desperate pleas and John’s repeated promises to bring the children to Mexico, he never did.

In April 2015, John revealed his intention to take the children to Egypt permanently, telling Rosa that if she ever wanted to see her children again, it would have to be there. Still in Mexico, Rosa knew she needed immediate legal assistance, and started making desperate phone calls to attorneys in New York.

Answering the Call to Action: A Team Assembles

Rosa’s pleading message landed in the inbox of Lisa Vara, a senior staff attorney at Sanctuary for Families.  Lisa recalls feeling “compelled to follow up further and see if there was any way Sanctuary could help.” Crucial at this point in time was the fact that the children were still in the United States—both Mexico and the United States are parties to the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, which provides for children to be expeditiously returned after international parental abductions.  If John followed through with his threat to send the children to Egypt, a country not party to the Hague Convention, this expeditious option would be lost and the chances of Rosa getting her children back would be grim.

Lisa and Dorchen Leidholdt, Director of Sanctuary’s Legal Center, understood the urgency of the situation and immediately thought of WilmerHale, who answered the call to action and put together a top tier pro bono team in record time that very afternoon. Unfortunately, they were not the only ones moving quickly—before the team could file a Hague Convention petition or obtain an order for the children to remain in the U.S., John had sent the children to Egypt.

“We knew from that day forward, this was going to be an incredibly complicated case because Egypt is not a party to the Hague Convention,” shared Matthew Galeotti, who worked the case from start to finish.

Because John had remained in New York, the team worked to get a court order instructing him to bring the children, in person, before a family court judge in Queens. “We overcame a number of challenges in getting that order, not least of which was the fact that our client was in Mexico and unable to physically appear before the Family Court,” reflected Lisa.  But John refused to follow the court’s order and, using an Egyptian passport he had previously told the court did not exist, fled to Egypt in June 2015.  Once in Egypt, he contacted Rosa, threatened her life and cursed her, her attorneys, and the Family Court judge handling the case.

Despite these devastating developments, the team did not give up, and worked to persuade the U.S. Attorney’s Office to open an international kidnapping case and issue a warrant for John’s arrest.  They strategized constantly with Sanctuary about how to pressure John to come back and what to do once he returned, and they provided support and strength to Rosa.

“It was a difficult time to be without my daughters for two years, but I never lost hope that my children would be back in my arms sometime.  Sanctuary and WilmerHale listened to me, helped me, and were by my side every step of the way although I was in Mexico and my legal team was in New York.”   – Rosa

Finally, not knowing about the open federal warrant, John returned to New York with the children in August 2016 and was immediately arrested at JFK for International Parental Kidnapping and Conspiracy to Commit International Parental Kidnapping. With the children back on U.S. soil, the WilmerHale team was able to file a Hague Convention petition in federal court seeking the children’s return to their mother in Mexico.

Following John’s arrest, at least one member of the WilmerHale team attended every court appearance from arraignment to sentencing on Rosa’s behalf at the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  The team was in close contact with the Assistant United States Attorney handling the case throughout the proceedings, and prepared and submitted a victim impact statement on Rosa’s behalf for sentencing.  Ultimately, John pled guilty to the conspiracy charge and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison with credit given for time already served and was given special conditions to his release, including not to threaten or harass Rosa and the children and to obey any family court orders.

Reunited At Last

In November 2016, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York ordered the children’s return to Mexico, and Rosa reunited with her daughters two weeks before Christmas. After tracking the children’s flight via Flight Tracker, Matthew Galeotti finally received a photograph of Rosa with her daughters at the airport in Mexico. “It was the most touching thing I have experienced as a lawyer,” he reflected.

Lisa Vara echoed similar sentiments, commenting, “I have had many rewarding experiences over the years while working at Sanctuary for Families, but this one was truly the most moving. This extraordinary outcome could not have happened without the hard work and dedication from the WilmerHale team.  They truly went above and beyond in making this happen.”

Rosa knew that the return of her daughters “was something Sanctuary and WilmerHale worked so hard for, but it still seemed like being reunited with them would be a long way off.”  In the end, she shared, “when I hugged my daughters upon being reunited with them at the airport, it was a miracle.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor the WilmerHale team’s outstanding pro bono work. Learn more about the event 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.

 

Funding for the Courtroom Advocates Project is Under Threat: Why it Matters

Since its founding in 1997, Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP) has been almost entirely funded by grants under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Today, funding for this critical program is in danger. Take a stand and join the effort to protect VAWA funding.

Brenna is a J.D. at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

Ana’s Story

In July 2016, Ana arrived alone at the Bronx Family Courthouse hoping to obtain an Order of Protection against her husband. Ana’s husband had subjected her to severe physical and emotional violence during their marriage. On that day, she had a bruise on her upper arm from when her husband bit her the week before and a puncture wound from when he stabbed her with a pen. Those physical scars were in addition to the devastating trauma Ana experienced from months of repeated rapes and strangulations by her husband. She was upset, afraid, and like many victims of domestic violence, had no money to hire an attorney to help her.

Unsure of where to go or who to turn to, she eventually found a free consultant at the courthouse who introduced her to two attorneys in Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP). Ana’s fortunes were about to change.

Finding Sanctuary

Ana was assigned to a team of law student advocates who had been trained by CAP to help Ana file for and obtain a temporary Order of Protection in Family Court. Sanctuary’s CAP attorneys then took Ana’s case on for direct legal representation.

Over the course of two years, they not only helped her obtain a final Order of Protection against her husband, but also referred Ana to Sanctuary’s social workers from whom she received counseling. Today, Sanctuary continues to help Ana with her housing and immigration issues, all at no cost to her.

Since connecting with CAP and accessing Sanctuary’s holistic services, Ana has flourished. She has become more confident and is in charge of her own life, happiness, and safety. In Ana’s words,

“Had it not been for [Sanctuary], I don’t know what I would have done.”

Currently, Ana is on the path to fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a nurse, and has completed a nursing education and training program. She is now able to leave her past behind and move forward.

The Courtroom Advocates Project(CAP)

CAP trains and supervises advocates, mostly law students, who provide in-court assistance to domestic violence victims seeking orders of protection in Family Court. Since 1997, CAP has trained nearly 12,000 advocates and has helped nearly 10,000 litigants in Family Court. Victims of domestic violence often come to court alone and intimidated. CAP advocates help them tell their stories more effectively, and provide needed reassurance.

CAP advocates can also direct victims to additional resources that may help them reach safety. Like Ana, many clients first connect with Sanctuary through CAP, and then receive help from Sanctuary with additional issues such as divorce, custody, spousal and child support, housing, public benefits, counseling, job training and immigration. For these clients, CAP serves as a crucial first stepping stone in their journey from an abusive relationship to freedom.

Not only does CAP provide vital assistance to victims of domestic violence, it also trains the pro bono attorneys of the future. CAP provides law students with an introduction to family law, a chance to meet with clients, and an opportunity to learn how to be litigators. Often, CAP may be a law student’s first experience working one-on-one with a client or appearing on the record in a courtroom, which can be invaluable lessons in their development as lawyers.  It also solidifies their passion for pro bono work, and sets them on a lifetime course of helping low-income clients.

How CAP Changed Me

I participated in CAP during the summer after my second year of law school. Paired with another law student, and under the supervision of a Sanctuary CAP staff attorney, I helped a high school student obtain an Order of Protection against her ex-boyfriend, who had attacked her in school several times.

I learned valuable skills in legal writing and courtroom advocacy and, more importantly, I was able to successfully advocate for a client. The experience and her gratitude for my help left a lasting impression. I returned to Sanctuary for an externship the following spring, and I have continued my involvement while working at a law firm by serving on Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and representing another Sanctuary client pro bono.

Protect the Violence Against Women Act

Today, funding for this critical program is in danger due to potential budget cuts recommended by the current federal administration. Since its founding in 1997, CAP has been almost entirely funded by grants under The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

VAWA classifies domestic violence and sexual assault as federal crimes and funds programs that provide life-saving services for victims, including legal and criminal justice services, counseling, housing, prevention programs, and much more. The current administration is intent on cutting the budget for the Department of Justice (among many other agencies), which could very well include cutting or eliminating VAWA grants that are funded through the Department of Justice budget—something that President Trump has indicated a willingness to do. Such action would jeopardize the future of CAP.

Without CAP, thousands of clients like Ana would be less safe, and thousands of law students would be denied the invaluable experience of advocating for vulnerable clients. In Ana’s words, “[CAP] gave me a reason to stand up and fight.”

Now, it is time to stand up and fight for the program that has helped Ana and thousands of others take their first steps toward freedom.

What You Can Do

Tell your Representatives that you want them to make a strong public statement now that they will never approve a budget that reduces VAWA funding.

  • Schedule a meeting with your Representative to discuss the importance of VAWA, or see if there are any town halls you can attend and ask them to fight for VAWA funding now.
  • Call, write/e-mail, and tweet.

Ask your networks to advocate – spread the word to your contacts and ask them to advocate on behalf of VAWA.

Organize an informal “30 minutes of activism” breakfast or lunch.

  • Use these talking points to educate attendees on the issue, explain its importance to you, and ask them all to call, tweet, email, etc. together during the 30 minutes.

Post this article on social media and send it to your contacts.

Draft Op-eds. Use your connections to get op-eds published and get the issue out there!

Together we can make sure victims like Ana have access to the lifeline that she had. Take a stand today to preserve VAWA and its critical life-saving funding.

Ending Child Marriage in New York

Loopholes in New York’s marriage laws allow thousands of children as young as 14 to be married. Join us in our effort to end child marriage in New York.

It happens here

Most people don’t think of child marriage as a New York problem. Current law in New York and many other states, however, makes child marriage not just a possibility, but a sad reality for thousands of children.

As the law in New York currently stands, children ages 14 and 15 may be married with parental consent and judicial approval, and children ages 16 and 17 may be married with parental consent.

Parental consent or parental coercion

We believe that the current law in New York fails to protect children from entering into involuntary marriages. Parents and family can force children into marriage using threats and/or physical assault, and can often do so without encountering any significant legal barriers from City Clerks Offices.

According to data from the NY State Department of Health, 3,853 children under the age of 18 were married in New York State between 2000 and 2010.

A vast majority—about 85%—of the children married in that same study were young girls who were, more often than not, married to adult men. A separate study done in 2011, for example, found that a 14 year old was married to a 26 year old, a 15 year old to a 28 year old, a 16 year old to someone age 30-34, and a 17 year old to someone age 45-49.

While anyone can become a victim of forced marriage regardless of age, children face additional barriers because of their status as minors. From renting an apartment to opening up their own bank account – these challenges can often prevent minors from leaving an unwanted or abusive marriage.

Moreover, the current law permits child marriage in cases where sexual relationships between adults and children would otherwise constitute statutory rape.

Because of the legal exceptions that permit child marriage, authorities such as the police, school officials, and children’s services may be unsure of their role and duty to protect a child from a forced marriage, even when she or he reaches out for help.

Their stories

Child marriage is not a problem particular to one type of population, group or gender (boys can be victims as well). The stories below are composites of experiences shared by survivors of child marriage.

  • Arielle was only 17 years old when she was told she’d be marrying the almost 30 year old man she had just met. All her life, the importance of having children had been stressed to Arielle by her family and members of her Orthodox community. As soon as she was married in a legal ceremony, Arielle and her husband began trying to have children. Though Arielle did not know her husband, and did not want to have a sexual relationship, her husband, family, and in-laws repeatedly chastised her for not having children. After a year of unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant, Arielle’s husband began to physically and verbally abuse her. Her in-laws and family supported her husband, saying that he was entitled to children and that Arielle must be doing something wrong. As the abuse worsened, Arielle began sneaking out of the house whenever possible. Arielle began to make friends in the surrounding neighborhood, and in her 20s, after suffering years of abuse, was able to escape her marriage with the assistance of friends.
  • Marie was married in New York at the age of 15, to a man who was in his late 40s at the time. Though they lived in the United States, Marie’s family closely kept traditions observed by her extended family in West Africa, where her parents were from. Marie’s parents had promised her at birth to a man also from their home country who lived in New York. Though Marie did not want to get married, and wanted to continue her studies and eventually go to college, her family began pressuring her from a young age to get married to this man three decades years older than her. Despite Marie’s protests, her family refused to listen to her. Marie felt powerless, and though she protested, her parents gave this man written “consent” for the marriage, and a judge approved. Thus, Marie was legally married in New York at 15 years old to a much older adult man. From the day Marie was married, she suffered severe sexual, physical and psychological abuse. Marie is still married and is seeking counseling and legal support to leave her abusive situation, tracing back to her childhood.
  • Sara moved to the United States from South Asia with her parents and older siblings. Her parents struggled financially but met a man who agreed to help them. One day, this man offered to apply for the family’s green cards and continue to provide financial support in exchange for marrying Sara. Sara’s parents pressured her to marry the man to secure the family’s immigration and financial situation, and she was soon wed to him at age 14. After her wedding, Sara was repeatedly raped and forced to cook and clean for her husband before she reached out to her teacher and was connected to Sanctuary.

We can end it

Marrying at any age before the age of 18 harms children’s health and education opportunities and increases their likelihood of facing poverty and domestic violence. Join Sanctuary and advocates across New York to help end child marriage in New York State.

On February 14th, 2017 Assembly Member Amy Paulin will introduce Assembly Bill A.5524. The bill will prohibit marriage of children under 17. Marriages for children age 17 to under 18 will require court approval. This is important step in the right direction and will save thousands of children from being forced into marriage against their will.

Here’s what you can do:

Contact your New York State Assembly Member and urge them to support Assembly Bill  A.5524. Contact your New York State Senator to support the Senate equivalent.

Contact your New York City Council Member to urge them to sign onto Resolution 1244-2016, which calls upon the New York State Legislature to pass legislation prohibiting marriage under 18 without exceptions.

Sign Sanctuary’s petition and talk to others in your community to show legislators that New Yorkers are standing up against child marriage. Please get in touch with us to learn more about our advocacy efforts and how you can get involved.

Sayoni Maitra is a former staff attorney for Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project.

Advocate Spotlight: Photojournalist Donna Ferrato Shines a Light on Domestic Violence

Donna Ferrato BACK IN THE EARLY 80s, when Sanctuary for Families’ five founding members were

Donna Ferrato

BACK IN THE EARLY 80s, when Sanctuary for Families’ five founding members were struggling to shelter just 35 women and children each night, photojournalist and activist Donna Ferrato was there, on the front-line, capturing the varied faces of domestic violence with her camera.

Over the course of the next decade, Donna went to demonstrations, attended conferences, hung around courtrooms and hospital emergency rooms, rode with police, sat in on batterers’ therapy groups and women’s self-defense classes, and lived in women’s shelters, women’s prisons, and the violent homes in which domestic violence occurred. At a time when marital rape was still legal in many states, Donna’s photographs shined a light on an issue that few women spoke of, but an estimated 66% of women had or would experience during their marriages.

Drawing on these experiences and the photographs she took along the way, Donna published her seminal book, Living With the Enemy. Her advocacy did not stop there. In 2011, Donna launched “I am Unbeatable” through Domestic Abuse Awareness Inc., a non-profit organization she founded in 1991.

“I am Unbeatable”

“I AM UNBEATABLE” aims to raise awareness, educate and prevent domestic violence against women and children by sharing the archive of stories, photographs, and video narratives Donna developed over the course of nearly four decades of work in the field. Currently, the project is raising money to support the Quincy Area Network Against Domestic Abuse (Quanada), a service provider in Quincy, Illinois.

Quanada serves five counties in southern Illinois, but due to the state’s budget crisis,  critical funds have been put on indefinite hold. With the next closest shelter over an hour away, shelter employees have worked without a salary for months in order to keep the shelter doors open. Like Sanctuary, Quanada provides emergency shelter and advocacy services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. These services are critical to the safety and well-being of many families in the area. Quanada needs to raise 40,000 to make up for their funding gap. You can support Quanada but donating to their IndieGoGO campaign here.

Hear their stories

LEARN MORE about the survivors featured in “I am Unbeatable.”

Elisabeth
elisabeth

“Bengt was a very successful engineer and designer: a self-made man. Elisabeth, his stunning wife, mother of five, was the envy of everyone who knew them… When I first saw Bengt hit Elisabeth, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

Sarah

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-12-04-43-am“It is the same old story about love and power and fear and pain, and it began the way it usually does: He wanted her. She was young, 13, and he, 18, was attracted to her vulnerability… He wove a fairytale for her, that she was The One, and together they could create a happily-ever-after.”

Vikki

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-12-13-07-am“Sitting with her and her mom and her older brother on the steps of a shelter in 1983, I saw evidence of terrible things. Vikki’s mother’s face was a road map of abuse.  I took their picture. As time passed, Vikki grew up in a haze of alcohol. She married an abuser just like her mom.”

Hedda

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-12-15-55-am“When Hedda met Joel Steinberg she had no doubt he was that man. A successful attorney, he charmed her and appeared to have endless love for her. This is the story: Hedda lost everything and her journey back to the land of the living made her an Unbeatable woman.”

To hear more survivor stories click here.

Follow Quanada and Donna Ferrato online via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram