Empowering Survivors: Spotlight on Mintz’s Pro Bono Champion, Nick Butto

Discover the dedication of Nick Butto, a Litigation Associate at Mintz, in our latest Pro Bono Partner Spotlight. Nick’s tireless efforts and compassionate advocacy provide crucial support and justice for survivors of gender-based violence.

Sanctuary for Families’ Pro Bono Project has the honor of working with hundreds of extremely dedicated and expert pro bono attorneys annually. As part of our Pro Bono Spotlight, we highlight some of the great work done by Sanctuary pro bono attorneys!

*Please note that this blog contains descriptions of abuse that could be triggering*

We first connected with Nicholas (“Nick”) A. Butto, Litigation Associate and member of the pro bono committee at Mintz, in November 2022. Since then, he has thrown himself into both coordinating pro bono partnerships between Mintz and Sanctuary and taking on a hefty caseload of pro bono matters himself. While Nick’s work has ranged from co-counseling with our Family Law attorneys on Orders of Protection and custody trials, to drafting motions, to representing survivors in their asylum claims, one through-line is constant: Nick’s undeniable dedication to assisting survivors in any way he can, with extraordinary efficacy and compassion. We are thrilled to highlight Nick for his incredible advocacy on behalf of survivors.

One of Nick’s first Sanctuary cases involved an Order of Protection litigation for Ms. L, a survivor of intimate partner violence that included verbal and emotional abuse, stalking, and severe physical abuse.

Lindsey Song, Associate Program Director of the Family Law Project, explains,

“Nick was able to get a 5-year OP on consent, which in itself can be very challenging as it requires the abuser to make significant admissions on the record. Nick is not only super competent, organized, and effective, he is also just so kind, lovely, and easy to talk to. It is clear how comfortable our client feels going to him with any concerns or questions!”

Lindsey adds that it’s evident that his passion for helping survivors runs deep; Nick worked in the Georgetown University Law Center Domestic Violence Clinic. Nick is currently working on another Order of Protection and custody trial with Lindsey, which he agreed to take on even though trial was set to begin shortly – he is now mid-trial in that case.

Nick has also worked closely with Erin Mears, Senior Staff Attorney of the Community Law Project, on a custody modification that originated as a Motion to Dismiss drafting project and is now in the final stages of settlement. Erin reflects, “Because he was so great I asked him if he had any interest to continue working on the case, and now he’s really taking the lead, with me in the backseat whenever he needs support. He’s just really willing and genuinely interested in doing the work, and connects incredibly well with the client. This client in particular had a lot of anxiety around her case, and Nick is always compassionate, willing to speak with her, and understanding.”

Erin also said,

“Out of all the pro bono attorneys I’ve worked with, he’s been one of the best with clients. This client is a survivor of sexual assault, and for her to feel so comfortable around a male attorney really says something. He seems to instinctually know how to connect with clients and seems really at ease with them. And you can see that the client feels very empowered having a strong attorney on her side.”

Nick has taken the lead on settlement negotiations and is close to securing a final resolution that the client is comfortable with.

To top it off, Nick is now also working on an asylum case with Immigration Project Associate Director Deirdre Stradone, who states, “I recently began to work with Nick on an asylum case in removal proceedings.  Before I even had the opportunity to meet Nick, I was already hearing from my colleagues on other legal teams about his kindness, trauma-informed lawyering, and unwavering dedication to our clients.  In the past few months as we have worked with Ms. N.C.S. on her asylum, I have seen for myself how Nick lives up to all these accolades. I am sure Ms. N.C.S. joins me in my expression of gratitude for all of Nick’s support. He is a truly amazing pro bono partner to SFF and I’m so happy to see him receive this recognition for his work.”

Sue Finnegan, Member and Chair of the Pro Bono Committee at Mintz, adds,

“Nick is so committed to his pro bono clients. His enthusiasm for the work has encouraged so many other attorneys in the New York Office to work with Sanctuary and its deserving clients.”

I sat down with Nick to hear more about his experience seeking out, coordinating, and conducting pro bono work on behalf of gender-based violence survivors.

What made you want to do pro bono work, and why work with gender violence survivors specifically?

I first became interested in being a lawyer to try to help amplify the voices of individuals who might find it difficult to access the justice system. I have been practicing for almost six years now—the last two at Mintz—and have been lucky to have access to a lot of resources that have allowed me to do that. As a law student, I participated in my school’s domestic violence clinic, and in practice, I have tried to take on a substantial pro bono caseload from early on in my career.

But with respect to gender-based violence survivors specifically, I so admire the work that the lawyers at organizations like Sanctuary do every day. Given how widespread of a problem intimate partner violence is, and how infrequently survivors are able to secure relief or protection from the justice system, I know it’s a constant uphill battle, and I just hope to be able to use the resources available to me to help survivors be heard, and ideally to feel that they and their families are safe from harm, like everyone deserves.

What has been your experience working with survivors predominantly in the Family Law arena?

Working on cases for survivors of intimate partner violence in Family Law definitely feels different than other cases—even than other pro bono cases. On one hand, helping a client achieve asylum, for example, ideally leads up to an amazing “victory” for the client and the legal team. On the other, working to secure Orders of Protection or other forms of relief for survivors of intimate partner violence does not have the same sort of victorious feeling, because you feel like this should never have happened in the first place. So even in “successful” cases, where we get the full Order we are seeking, the relief I feel for the client is often matched with frustration at the fact that our client had to endure such a long and difficult process just to achieve this basic form of safety and stability.

Sanctuary attorneys have glowing reviews of your trauma-informed, client-centered lawyering. How do you approach working with survivor populations?

I’ve now spoken with more than a dozen individuals who have suffered some sort of gender-based violence and I think that the initial conversations can be intimidating for everyone in the room, including the lawyers. The way I approach it is by listening first. So much of the power dynamic in abusive relationships leads to survivors not being heard: by their partner, by friends and family, by authorities. When you sit down with survivors, you hear how strong they are, how much they have to say, and how willing they are to fight for themselves given the right forum to do so. But it’s a process; you have to meet with clients a few times, because no one opens up 100% in the first meeting. So I try to establish trust, that what they’ve gone through is real, that it is their story to tell, and that we as lawyers are there to support them along the way.

What pro bono case stood out to you? Why?

One client I’m representing is currently in the midst of trial and seeking an order of protection. We’ve been through most of her direct examination at this point. I remember that in our first couple of meetings, she was hesitant about sharing certain parts of her story, and the thought of having to give details in court made her very nervous. But after numerous prep sessions and nearly two hours of testimony at her first day of trial, I have seen the sense of empowerment that telling her story has given her. In our latest prep meeting, she ended our conversation with, “I’m ready for this.” She has gained so much strength, and seeing that growth over the last year and a half has been amazing. She has an incredibly strong case but has been through a lot. It’s always tough to ask survivors to repeat and relive certain traumas but you can often see how valuable it is for them to be able to speak their whole truths.

Are there any cases you’re working on now that you’re excited about?

I’m now working on my first Sanctuary asylum case. Our team has met with the client three times now, and she just recently shared with us the part of her story about the trek from Honduras through Guatemala and Mexico to the US. We had heard about the violence she had both witnessed and endured herself, but hearing about the life-changing decision to leave, not because she wanted to, but because she knew it was the only way to have a chance at giving her children a future free of danger and fear, was really moving. Over the last 15 years she’s been through maybe more than any client I’ve worked with–from her community, gangs, intimate partners, and her own government—and for her to have the courage to make that incredibly difficult journey, with no guarantee of success and against significant odds, and make it to New York and find access to legal resources is so inspiring. No one deserves asylum more than she and her children do.

We are deeply grateful to Nick for his outstanding advocacy and commitment to serving survivors.

Celebrating Judge Alice Schlesinger: 2024 Pillars of Change Honoree

For her profound dedication, exceptional legal expertise, and relentless commitment to justice in aiding incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence.

Judge Schlesinger’s unwavering commitment to aiding those in need shines through her extensive professional experience as both a Legal Aid Criminal Defense attorney and later as a pro bono attorney for incarcerated women.

Judge Schlesinger shared,

I believe my legal expertise as a former defense attorney helped obtain positive results in every case I handled as a pro bono parole attorney, including the one where volunteers from Sanctuary were also assisting the inmate. The resources, expertise, and commitment of the other Sanctuary volunteers was very rewarding and resulted in the positive outcome”.

After retiring from the bench, her deep dedication to justice led her to volunteer her time and skills with Sanctuary for Families. In this role, she focuses primarily on preparing inmates for their parole hearings with Sanctuary’s Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative (IGVSI). With meticulous attention to detail, Judge Schlesinger assembles comprehensive “packages” of supportive information for the Parole Board. Additionally, she plays a crucial role in coaching her clients, providing them with the guidance and confidence needed to navigate their hearings effectively.

Isabelle Demenge, Pro Bono Counsel with Sanctuary’s IGVSI, speaks highly of Judge Schlesinger’s contributions noting that her involvement in a case was desired for some time. In collaboration with IGVSI, Judge Schlesinger worked on a particularly challenging parole case for a client who had been incarcerated for nearly 25 years after surviving an unimaginable abusive childhood that included sex trafficking by her father. Judge Schlesinger’s relentless dedication was pivotal in securing the client’s release on parole in November 2023. Her work for Sanctuary spanned countless hours of consultation, both in person and virtually. She not only provided legal counsel but also acted as a trusted confidant to the client, helping her navigate the trauma and anxiety associated with her impending difficult parole hearing.

Judge Schlesinger’s impact on Sanctuary’s staff, clients, and the agency as a whole is undeniable. Her wealth of legal expertise, coupled with her compassionate approach, has been invaluable to the work of the IGSVI team. Isabelle Demenge emphasizes that Judge Schlesinger also serves as an exemplary mentor to younger attorneys, inspiring them with her dedication and skill.

The multitude of ways Judge Schlesinger has shared her time, thoughtfulness, and endless knowledge are evident and make her an obvious choice as a 2024 Pillars of Change honoree.

A huge thank you to Judge Schlesinger for her hard work and dedication to Sanctuary for Families and survivors of gender-based violence.

To learn more about Judge Schlesinger and her work, please join us on April 18th from 6:00-8:00 PM at Pillars of Change.


Celebrating Acompañamientos: 2024 Pillars of Change Honorees

For their outstanding dedication and invaluable support in aiding asylum seekers through the intricate and often traumatic immigration process.

By Deirdre Stradone, Co-Deputy Director, Immigration Intervention Project; and Melissa Chandler, Senior Immigration Specialist, Immigration Intervention Project.

For the past three years, the Immigration Intervention Project (IIP) at Sanctuary for Families has heavily relied on its supportive partnership with the Acompañamientos. Acompañamientos is a volunteer-run group that provides accompaniment and support to migrants in New York City so they do not face immigration removal proceedings alone. Acompañamientos volunteers stand in solidarity with migrants in their removal proceedings before the New York Immigration Courts and at their Order of Supervision reporting appointments with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The work of these incredible volunteers allows migrants to feel welcomed, respected, valued, and supported as they navigate the United States’ complex, confusing, and traumatizing immigration process.

Since the development of the partnership between IIP and the Acompañamientos volunteers, the Acompañamientos have provided support to asylum seekers by first referring them to IIP. If IIP is able to accept the case for either direct representation or placement with pro bono law firm partners, or if IIP is limited to only assisting with pro se representation, the Acompañamientos remain heavily involved with the case.

Volunteer lead, Ann Currier, recalls a particularly memorable moment,

“Acompañamientos members accompanied a young single mother, who lived in a shelter, to many of her hearings. She was really struggling, had been victimized [in the United States] as well. We tried to help her find assistance, but it wasn’t until a member referred her to Sanctuary that she received the legal and emotional support she needed. [Immigration Intervention Projection attorney at Sanctuary for Families] Deirdre Stradone represented her, and she won her asylum case. It would not have happened without Sanctuary”.

In the past year specifically, the Acompañamientos assisted with the representation of a total of fifteen direct/pro bono represented clients and pro se asylum seekers. Their volunteer work included assistance with filing of documents to the Immigration Court, translation of documents, preparation of relevant documents, high-quality and trauma-informed interpretation during client meetings, trial preparation and psychological evaluations, accompaniment to Immigration Court hearings and reporting appointments with ICE, assistance with the preparation and submission of application for asylum and employment authorization, and access to other brief services and Know Your Rights trainings that allow these brave survivors to understand the options available to them and prevent them from becoming a target of immigration fraud.

The work of Acompañamientos volunteers has made it possible for many migrant survivors of gender-based violence to receive access to Sanctuary’s holistic services. Often, Acompañamientos volunteers continue to stand in solidarity with migrants who are ordered removed by immigration judges and provide much-needed comfort and encouragement for migrants to not give up in their hope to live safely and with dignity. Though there are many volunteers who provide support through Acompañamientos, we want to acknowledge these leaders. The work they have provided over the years to asylum seekers, to those who are pro se, and to those who eventually become clients of the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families is invaluable and life-changing. Without their assistance, IIP would not be able to reach and serve the vast number of asylum seekers that we have in the past year.

Acompañamientos volunteer leaders for Sanctuary for Families:

Ann Currier
Joan Racho-Jansen
Lamia Guellati
Margaret (Peggy) Conte
Marisa Lohse
Patricia (Pat) Ferrick
Penny Babel
Santiago (Santi) Domenech

To learn more about Acompañamientos and their work, please join us on April 18th from 6:00-8:00 PM at Pillars of Change.


Celebrating Laura Dionisio: 2024 Pillars of Change Honoree

For her unwavering creativity and passion in bringing the wonders of STEM to the children at Sarah Burke House, creating a safe and inspiring environment that fosters curiosity and joy.

Laura Dionisio began volunteering at Sanctuary for Families in early 2023 after being encouraged by a friend. The mission of Sanctuary really resonated with Laura, and knowing that she could help provide a safe and fun learning space, she felt drawn to work directly with the children.

Sarah Burke House, Sanctuary’s large transitional shelter, was looking for workshop leaders to provide enriching opportunities for school-age children in their on-site Afterschool Program. Laura was onboarded as a volunteer and connected to the Children and Family Services Program team. For over a year, Laura has been creating and leading monthly STEM workshops. Laura plans the activities, makes a flier to hang at the shelter, teaches a fun science lesson, and brings all of the necessary materials to create a STEM project.

To date, the children have made rubberband-propelled cars, created rollercoasters out of paper and marbles, built towers using spaghetti and tape, learned about chemical reactions through writing messages using invisible ink, and other fun activities that make learning and STEM fun for the kids!

Heidi Gomez, Program Coordinator, Children and Family Services at Sarah Burke House, says,

“Not only is Laura a passionate and incredible volunteer, she is a woman who currently works in STEM as well. She brings compassion and joy to the program and is a great role model for our students who may want to explore different areas of STEM. One thing that she always leaves behind with us at Sarah Burke House is wonder, curiosity and excitement to try new things!”

Laura shares a couple of favorite memories, “One time a younger child, around 4 years old, joined the STEM workshop for the first time. One of the older girls who had been to the STEM workshop a few times was explaining to the younger one that ‘Miss Laura is an engineer, and she does fun science stuff with us!’ That really warmed my heart”.

“Every time I go to the classroom and see the different themed art work they do like for Black History month or women’s history month I’m reminded of how much the staff care for these kids. There’s such positivity and encouragement despite the situation the kids were previously living in. Many times, I’ve seen the kids write encouraging words on the white board and I’m humbled by it every time. It reminds me to think positively even on ‘bad” days.'” — Laura

It is evident that Laura has given the children and grown-ups something to look forward to each month. The staff shares that Laura inquires about other themes or events happening at the residence so she can connect her plans to other lessons or seasonal fun taking place. The thought and time Laura puts into her volunteering goes far beyond her hour-long sessions. It’s abundantly clear from the questions and mentions of her name that she has left a lasting impression on the youngest residents of Sarah Burke House that will live on long after they have left the shelter; one of hopefully many positive memories created during an otherwise difficult time of transition in their young lives.

Flyers created by Laura for her workshops:

“One of the activities she brought was to make our own marble run/roller coaster. There were all girls that day of various patience eves and she just let them explore and figure out how they wanted it to fit together. It was magical to see how each of them pitched in and how Laura guided them to work together. During the build, one of the girls wrote ‘girls work’ for the name of the building company.” 

To learn more about Laura and her work, please join us on April 18th from 6:00-8:00 PM at Pillars of Change.