Cravath Attorneys Support Mother and Child’s Effort to Flee Domestic Violence

Adam Snyder is a Pro Bono Intern at Proskauer Rose LLP and is currently an undergraduate student at Columbia University. Erin Meyer is Proskauer’s Pro Bono Counsel and a graduate of Columbia Law School.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Cravath attorneys for their pro bono work in support of Sanctuary’s efforts to persuade an appellate court that it should not return a child to an abusive father because his pattern of domestic violence against the child’s mother poses a grave risk to harm to the child.  Cravath partner Rachel Skaistis and associates Rachel Fritzler and Amal El-bakhar submitted a compelling amicus brief educating the court about the dynamics of domestic violence, its effects on children, and the correlation between spousal abuse and child abuse.

Escaping an Abuser

Miranda escaped to the United States in 2015 with a single, all-important objective: to protect herself and her baby girl from harm. Her daughter’s Italian father raped and hit Miranda throughout her pregnancy. He also abused and threatened the well-being of their infant daughter. Miranda fled from Italy with her daughter after suffering physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

After Miranda fled, her ex filed a petition under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction in a district court in Ohio, demanding that his daughter be returned to him in Italy. Miranda countered that the court should not return her baby to the child’s father because doing so would expose the baby to a grave risk of physical and psychological harm.  Under the Hague Convention, a court is not required to order that a child be returned to her abducted-from country if there is a “grave risk” that the child would face physical or psychological harm in that country. Although the court found Miranda’s testimony about her ex’s acts of domestic violence to be credible, the court ordered that Miranda return her baby to the abusive father in Italy within forty-five days. Despite the proven history of the father’s domestic violence, the court did not believe that the child would face a grave risk harm. Miranda appealed this devastating and erroneous decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Supporting her Appeal

Recognizing the serious injustice caused by the court’s decision and the danger facing Miranda’s daughter, the pro bono attorneys at Cravath quickly answered Sanctuary’s call for help in supporting Miranda on appeal. The pro bono team decided to represent Sanctuary as an amicus curiae not only to fight for the baby’s safety, but also to seize the opportunity to educate the appellate court that exposure to domestic violence does in fact create a grave risk of harm to a child, despite unfavorable decisions from other courts that have failed to recognize domestic violence as a grave risk.

In just two months, partner Rachel Skaistis and associates Rachel Fritzler and Amal El-bakhar took a deep dive into case law and social science research to draft a persuasive amicus brief arguing that the appellate court must protect Miranda’s baby against the very real threat of harm. The team also recruited several academics and non-profit organizations to join Sanctuary for Families in authoring the amicus brief, including Legal Momentum, Lawyers Committee Against Domestic Violence, Battered Women’s Justice Project, New York Legal Assistance Group, National Network to End Domestic Violence, Merle H. Weiner, Jeffrey Edleson, Ph.D, and Stephanie Brandt, M.D.

Recalling their work, Rachel Fritzler observed:

“We all felt tremendous empathy for the victim and child on whose behalf we were submitting the amicus brief. It was a challenge and a privilege to get to put our legal skills to work in service of that empathy, to work to help someone in a terrible position.”

Cravath’s arguments reflected what we know to be true in so many cases involving intimate partner violence: abusive spouses are substantially more likely to also abuse and neglect their children, and the exposure to intimate partner violence can have profoundly negative effects on a child’s behavior, development, and ability to succeed in school. Moreover, separating a child from her supportive parent, when there has been abuse or neglect, can cause the child to suffer additional psychological trauma. Although the “grave risk” exception to returning a child to her abducted-from country has been interpreted by some courts in a very narrow way, in this case the pattern of abusive and neglectful behavior by Miranda’s ex should have led the court to exercise its discretion under the Hague Convention to prevent Miranda’s baby from being returned to an intolerable and dangerous situation.

Said Fritzler:

“We are confident we presented the best arguments from many of the foremost authorities in support of the victim-petitioner’s position, an important step in shedding light on the domestic violence issues that must be considered in Hague Convention abduction cases.”

Fighting for Justice

Thanks to the hard work of Cravath’s talented pro bono lawyers, Sanctuary was able to file a strong amicus brief and reply amicus brief in support of Miranda’s appeal. The case is still pending before the Sixth Circuit, but the team hopes for a favorable result. When asked about her firm’s commitment to pro bono work, Fritzler explained:

“I believe we have a responsibility as lawyers to represent those less fortunate, and help do what we can to bend the arc a little further toward justice.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Cravath’s outstanding pro bono work.  Tickets are available for purchase 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.