Alizah Charaniya is a 2L at Cornell Law School. She was a 2019 Summer Associate at Vinson and Elkins and a Summer Intern at Sanctuary for Families through V&E’s Public Interest Program.
At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Debevoise & Plimpton LLP for their work securing an order of protection for “Alison” and her son. The team consisted of Associate Lisa Wang Lachowicz and Supervising Counsel, Wendy B. Reilly.
Seeking Protection on Her Own
In 2018, Alison courageously walked into Family Court alone to try to get an order of protection for herself and her two children against her boyfriend, with whom they were living. Alison had previously tried to get him out of her home, but he threatened to hurt her and refused to move out. For over two years, Alison feared for their safety because of her boyfriend’s physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. Alison’s boyfriend was also using a form of abuse that has become an increasingly common tool for abusers — he was attacking her on social media with vulgar messages and threatening to distribute sexual photos and videos of her online if she reported him for his continued threats and violence.
Finding Help Through the Courtroom Advocates Project
When Alison walked into court that day, she met Debevoise attorney Lisa Wang Lachowicz, a first-year associate participating in Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP). CAP enables law students and first-year non-admitted law firm associates to advocate for survivors of domestic violence seeking orders of protection. CAP advocates meet survivors in the courthouse and help them draft same-day family offense petitions and appear in court to advocate for temporary orders of protection. CAP advocates then have the option of assuming full representation of the client under the supervision of a Sanctuary for Families attorney.
Lisa and her CAP partner drafted a detailed family offense petition for Alison that day and later appeared with her before the magistrate judge, helping her secure a temporary order of protection. Lisa continued to support Alison over the next couple of months as she waited for her next court appearance, assisting her with safety planning, service of process, and other concerns.
“From the very beginning of the case, Lisa was an attentive, supportive, empathetic, and compassionate advocate. She was incredibly supportive of Alison and was in constant communication with her from the very beginning, where there is often a lot of stress and transition and it can be a difficult time.” – Lindsey M. Song, CAP Senior Staff Attorney.
When it became clear that Alison’s abuser was going to contest the order of protection, Lisa eagerly took on a full representation and committed to working to ensure that Alison secured a strong final order that would protect Alison and her son.
Overcoming Evidentiary Challenges
Alison’s case was challenging. Much of the abuse came in the form of psychological abuse, threats of physical harm, and threats to post sexual images online (also known as cyber sexual abuse), all of which can pose evidentiary hurdles. In addition, at the time of the hearing, New York State did not recognize cyber sexual abuse as a family offense.
But Lisa was creative in collecting evidence to corroborate the abuse and steadfast in her arguments about why Alison needed protection. Lisa successfully entered into evidence multiple damning text messages from Alison’s boyfriend—including texts where he threatened to distribute sexual photos of her—a police report, and bank statements showing that her abuser had used her debit card without her permission. Further, Lisa successfully prevented the abuser from introducing voluminous texts that he was going to use to muddy the record. These evidentiary wins were critical developments in in the hearing.
“It was incredibly rewarding to give Alison her day in court and encourage her to share her story. This was the first time she had reached out to an attorney and she put a lot of trust in me. She was scared to say what she wanted to say and nervous to see her abuser after a long time, but she stayed focused and conveyed her story to the judge. When the judge credited her testimony, and discredited the abuser’s, it was extremely validating for her.” – Lisa Wang Lachowicz
At the end of the hearing, the judge issued a strong final two-year order of protection for Alison and her son, who had been subject to repeated verbal abuse by Alison’s boyfriend. The final order included a provision prohibiting Alison’s abuser from posting, distributing or threatening to post or distribute any intimate images or videos of Alison. This was an important protection, and one that not all judges were willing to add at that time, particularly because there was no criminal penalty or family offense in New York State directly related to cyber sexual abuse. Thankfully, that recently changed when Governor Cuomo signed a law in July 2019 making the unlawful disclosure of an intimate image a criminal and family offense in New York State.
“Lisa took on a case that otherwise would likely not have resulted in anything more than a short limited Order of Protection. She was able to support Alison and use her legal training to get Alison what she needed – a final stay-away order for two years. Alison was very relieved and incredibly grateful for Lisa’s assistance.” – Lindsey M. Song
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 this Debevoise team’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.