Debevoise team secures freedom and protection for survivor of abuse and her family in multi-year trial process

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Debevoise attorneys for their brilliant and effective advocacy on behalf of Rebecca. The Debevoise team worked tirelessly to help Rebecca win full custody of her son, an order of protection from her abuser, and a substantial child support award.

Brenna Rabinowitz is an associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP.  She is the Membership Chair of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Debevoise attorneys for their brilliant and effective advocacy on behalf of Rebecca. The Debevoise team worked tirelessly to help Rebecca win full custody of her son, an order of protection from her abuser, and a substantial child support award.

This dedicated team included partner Sean Hecker, associates Anna Domyancic, John Pierpont (now an AUSA at the Connecticut US Attorney’s office), Ashley Fillmore, Marisa Taney (now clerking in Miami), law clerk Rhianna Hoover, and litigation analyst Lesley Douglas.

Deceived by her Abuser

Rebecca moved to the United States in 2011 after waiting seven years to get a visa in her home country of Nigeria. She described the day she got her visa as a “dream come true” and explained that, though it was hard to leave her family, she decided to leave Nigeria in pursuit of a better life for her and her young daughter. Rebecca had to leave her daughter in Nigeria temporarily but vowed to return for her as soon as possible.

Soon after moving to this country without friends or family, Rebecca became involved with her abuser. It was only after Rebecca was several months pregnant with their child that he revealed he was a Level 3 sex offender, and had sexually abused his seven-year-old niece. Around the same time as this shocking revelation, he became aggressive, verbally abusive, jealous, and controlling. After Rebecca’s son was born, her abuser became physically violent, both at home and in public, often in the presence of their infant child. Frightened for her and her son’s safety, Rebecca contacted Sanctuary for Families in November 2014, seeking custody of her son and protection from her abuser.

Willing to go Above and Beyond

When the Debevoise team got Rebecca’s case through Dara Sheinfeld, former Director of Sanctuary’s Legal Project at the Manhattan and Bronx Family Justice Centers, they jumped into action. Initially they had agreed to represent Rebecca only in her family offense petition (FOP) and her custody cases, but when other issues arose the team eagerly stepped up and expanded their representation to address all of Rebecca’s legal needs.

The team appeared in court over 20 times on Rebecca’s FOP case alone, which included multiple hearings to secure the court’s permission for Rebecca to travel with her son to Nigeria to help bring her daughter to America, and another dozen or more times on her other matters. The team collectively spent hundreds of hours preparing for these appearances, including preparing multiple witnesses for cross-examination, practicing opening and closing statements, and gathering impeachment evidence to be used in cross-examining Rebecca’s abuser. The team also successfully represented Rebecca in child support proceedings, which resulted in doubling her support award.

Throughout these extensive preparations, Dara provided support and advice, even on late nights and weekends. Team members described Dara as a “great partner” throughout this process.

Positive Results

The team adeptly navigated Rebecca through a multi-year trial process. At one memorable juncture, they effectively used impeachment evidence against Rebecca’s abuser during a multi-day cross-examination when he attempted to deny the crimes for which he had been previously convicted.

Thanks to the Debevoise team’s hard work and dedication, Rebecca received a final order of protection, gained full custody of her son, received a support award sufficient to sustain her and her son, and, most importantly, achieved freedom and protection from her abuser. Rebecca’s daughter has also joined Rebecca and her son in the US.

The Debevoise team continues to represent Rebecca in her ongoing legal matters. Most recently, the team submitted a brief opposing an appeal filed by Rebecca’s abuser that challenges the five-year order of protection that Rebecca was granted. This dedicated  Debevoise team remains committed to representing Rebecca as long as her fight continues.

The team’s work was life-changing for Rebecca. When Rebecca learned of their nomination for this award, she told Sanctuary that the Debevoise team members were her “heroes.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor the Debevoise 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.

Schulte Roth & Zabel team successfully advocates for domestic violence survivor against abuser and aggressive opposing counsel

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team from Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP (SRZ) for their incredible and tireless efforts on behalf of “Nancy”, a woman who fled her abusive spouse and faced numerous obstacles in Family Court as she fought for custody of her eight-year-old son.

Jaclyn Neely is an litigation associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.  She works on a number of pro bono matters with Sanctuary, including the Human Trafficking Intervention Court Pro Bono Project, and is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Taleah E. Jennings, Mari S. Dopp, and Carly J. Halpin of leading law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP (SRZ). They are being recognized for their incredible and tireless efforts on behalf of “Nancy”, a woman who fled her abusive spouse and faced numerous obstacles in Family Court as she fought for custody of her eight-year-old son and navigated a Child Neglect and Abuse case brought by the Administration for Children’s Services against her child’s father.  The SRZ team addressed the ever-increasing challenges in stride, achieving successes along the way and ensuring that Nancy was not subjected to the aggressive tactics of her husband’s attorney. 

Complicating Factors

When Nancy fled her home with her eight-year-old son to relocate to a safe space away from her abusive husband, she had no idea what legal obstacles lay ahead.  Shortly after she left, Nancy sought a temporary order of protection from her husband and also filed for custody and child support in Family Court.  Mere weeks after Sanctuary for Families began working with Nancy and referred her case to the Schulte Roth & Zabel team—consisting of Taleah E. Jennings, Mari S. Dopp, and Carly J. Halpin—the Administration for Children’s Services (“ACS”) filed a Child Neglect and Abuse case against Nancy’s husband.

The ACS action, otherwise known as an “Article 10” case, greatly complicated the legal tableau and was an additional stressor on Nancy, who was already going through a great deal of stress after finally escaping a long-term abusive relationship.  While the Article 10 case was filed against Nancy’s husband, not Nancy, the case was based on his abuse of Nancy and their son’s exposure to that abuse, and Nancy was thus compelled to play a central role.  The strain on Nancy was heightened when Nancy’s husband hired an unduly aggressive private attorney.

Combatting Aggressive Tactics

Instead of seeking documents and testimony from ACS, the opposing counsel sought unreasonably broad categories of documents from Nancy and tried to submit Nancy to a deposition and her son to a mental health evaluation.  Both experiences would have been extremely traumatic, and would have forced Nancy and her son to revisit the abuse she suffered in explicit detail.

Luckily, Nancy had the support of Sanctuary and the Schulte Roth team, who were able to effectively counter the opposing counsel and win over the Family Court Judge, as well as the attorney assigned to the child.  Taleah, Mari, and Carly put their strong legal writing and oral advocacy skills to use, and the team successfully opposed the motion to submit the child to a mental health evaluation.  Their tenacity led the father’s attorney to withdraw many of his previous unreasonable requests.

Thanks in large part to their strong advocacy, the opposing counsel approached Nancy’s legal team and proposed a settlement for the various other pending legal actions on very favorable terms—including full custody for Nancy and an agreement that the father would go to therapy.  The parties continue to work toward a global resolution to resolve the various outstanding legal actions.

Reflecting on the Case so Far

This experience has been both rewarding and challenging for the SRZ team.  They appeared in court on numerous occasions, drafted voluminous court filings, and negotiated with the husband’s lawyer at length.  For Mari, a mid-level associate, this case has been a great opportunity for her to appear and argue in court and establish a strong relationship with a client whom she could help on a personal level.  “Safety is something I take for granted,” Mari explained.  “To be able to use the skills I have as a lawyer to help ensure the safety of someone else has been incredibly rewarding.”

Taleah, a partner in the Litigation Group at SRZ (and also a member of the Sanctuary for Families’ Board or Directors), praised the collaboration between Sanctuary and her SRZ team, explaining that they all worked together throughout the case—from strategizing to drafting and appearing in court.  Sanctuary provided support and institutional knowledge but also allowed the SRZ team to take ownership at every stage.

Maria Zhynovitch, the Sanctuary attorney supervising Nancy’s case, applauded the work of the Taleah, Mari, and Carly, and the trust they were able to cultivate with Nancy right from the beginning.  Maria noted,

“this was uncharted territory for myself and some of my supervisors . . . a lot of the issues raised in the process were really novel for us.  There was no blueprint.  But the Schulte attorneys were completely undeterred by this.”

Maria praised both the quality of the team’s research and writing and the compassion they exhibited toward Nancy.  “The way in which they related to Nancy was quite tremendous.”

While the SRZ team continues to represent Nancy in her ongoing legal matters, the positive effects of their advocacy are already apparent.  Empowered by her legal team, Nancy is not only living a life free from abuse, but she is also enrolled in an educational program and living in a safe space with her son.  The SRZ team is committed to representing Nancy as long this fight continues.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor the Schulte Roth & Zabel 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.

About Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP

Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP ( is a full-service law firm with offices in New York, Washington, D.C. and London. As one of the leading law firms serving the financial services industry, the firm regularly advises clients on corporate and transactional matters and provides counsel on regulatory, compliance, enforcement and investigative issues. SRZ has a long history as a leader in pro bono legal work and a firm-wide legacy of contributing to the greater good.

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.

Reed Smith Attorneys Exhibit Great Skill and Persistence in Complicated Custody Case

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of pro bono attorneys at Reed Smith LLP for their bono work in a challenging custody matter.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a dynamic duo from Reed Smith for their pro bono work in a challenging custody matter.  The team was led by associate Brandon Cunningham and Jeff Glatzer, a retired partner from Reed Smith who is currently in private practice.

As lawyers, we are trained to be zealous advocates ready to endure lengthy legal battles. However, by the time a client seeks representation, she has often already endured a difficult path paved with grief, abuse and conflict behind her — long before legal advocacy even begins. Jeff and Brandon are extraordinary examples of the persistence, dedication, respect and care that serves Sanctuary clients beyond the courtroom.

cunninghambdPro Bono Council co-chair Mia Marie White talks with Brandon Cunningham about the team’s experience working with Sanctuary on the matter.

Mia: Tell us about the work you did for Sanctuary.

Brandon:  Our case was a custody matter that was complicated by the dynamics of domestic violence.  Following a brutal dispute shortly after the child was born, the mother was pressured to give up custody of her little boy to his father.  But things were not going well for the child, and his father was failing to get him the help he needed.  The father took actions to undermine our client’s relationship with the child and infringe on her visitation rights.  Our objective was to regain custody rights for our client and improve her situation in the meantime.

Mia: I understand that you were engaged in representation for almost three years.

Brandon:  Yes, we worked on the case for nearly three years.  We spent an enormous amount of time documenting the issues the child was experiencing and the evidence of the father’s malfeasance.  We drafted filings relating to the father’s failure to abide by the visitation orders in place, negotiated increased visitation rights for our client, and prepared for trial, including a forensic examination.

All of the work we did was in concert and collaboration with Sanctuary’s Legal Director at the Bronx and Manhattan Family Justice Centers, Dara Sheinfeld, without whose invaluable experience and counsel we could not have achieved what we did.

Mia: How did you become involved with this case?

Brandon: The case came to us via Sanctuary for Families in May 2013.  Jeff had previously expressed an interest in collaborating on a pro bono matter with Sanctuary, and I worked with Sanctuary in law school through the Courtroom Advocates Program, advocating for Orders of Protection for battered women. Following an initial intake meeting with the client, we were impressed with the gravity of the situation and eager to help; there was clearly a woman, and even more so a child, in real need of our help.

Mia: What is the status of the case now?

Brandon: We and Sanctuary are no longer her counsel, so we do not know the status of the case.  This case really showed the toll that litigation, especially trial preparation, can take on already traumatized clients. This was the second time that the client had, for all purposes, to make the difficult choice to stop fighting for her son in court – both times because of the intense pressures of litigation.

Mia: Despite that you are no longer engaged in representation, several positive outcomes were achieved. Can you share some examples of those?

Brandon: While we sadly had to withdraw from representing this client because she no longer wanted to pursue her case vigorously, we understand and respect her decision. One outcome is that we significantly improved her visitation rights, more than doubling the time she is now able to share with her son.  Perhaps most importantly, we were also able to advocate and obtain medical and therapeutic help for her son, which he urgently needed.

Mia:  It is often said that Sanctuary is unique because of its holistic approach to client service. Did you find that you and Sanctuary were able to provide support outside of the courtroom?

Brandon: A great deal of our work took place outside of the courtroom and after working hours.  There were instances of receiving urgent calls on Saturday morning from the police precinct, or late at night to resolve ongoing visitation issues.  We also spent a great deal of time with the client working through the challenges inherent in her custody setup and in her relationship with the father and the child.  Finally, our legal work and strategy were strongly influenced by what the client was and was not able to work with and compromise on; a holistic approach was necessary to reconcile those aspects as much as possible.

Mia: It is incredibly difficult to advocate for custody rights after having (seemingly) voluntarily relinquished custody, which is one of the many ways that domestic violence manifests against the abused parent. What were some of the other hurdles or challenges you faced?

Brandon: The relationship between our client and the child’s father was deeply unpleasant; the father would regularly send abusive, belittling screeds full of personal attacks to our client and also to us.  For a while, the father was pro se, which made things even worse.  There were numerous instances in which reasonable compromises were met with impasse because the parties could not get past their personal feelings.

Mia: How has Reed Smith supported your work with Sanctuary?

Brandon: Reed Smith takes pro bono seriously and provided all the resources we could ever have needed.  The attorney hours we committed to this case over the course of three years were immense, in addition to the support staff assistance with filings, assembling of materials, etc.

In addition, Jeff was able to join in the case as a result of the firm’s participation in the New York State Attorney Emeritus program, which enables retired partners to continue to participate in pro bono matters through the firm.  This program is fantastic for pro bono generally, given the highly experienced lawyers with time to contribute that the program brings into the fold.

Mia: What is your practice area? Is it different from the subject-matter of the case?

Brandon: Jeff’s primary experience has been as a bankruptcy lawyer and commercial litigator, and I am a white collar crime and government investigations lawyer.  So yes—worlds away from family court and custody disputes.

Mia: Do you have any lessons or takeaways you’d like to share? Has working on this case helped you grow as a lawyer?

Brandon: This was definitely a very challenging case, with a lot of difficult interpersonal dynamics to manage and barriers to overcome.  In the end, we felt we had done as much as we possibly could for the client, even though that didn’t involve taking her case to trial.  We learned a great deal about dealing with clients who are deeply emotionally involved in the subject matter of the case, about dealing with hostile and legally unsophisticated adversaries, and about the challenges faced by abused women trying to assert their rights.  Working with and learning from a lawyer of Dara Sheinfeld’s caliber was particularly valuable for a younger attorney such as myself and a senior lawyer without experience in custody matters.

Mia: Is there anything else would you like to share?

We would like to thank Dara, and Sanctuary for Families generally, for the opportunity to work on such a rewarding case.  And we encourage all attorneys to reach out to Sanctuary for Families and ask how they can contribute, even if they have no experience in gender violence or family law.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Brandon and Jeff’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.

Mia is a Pro Bono Council Co-Chair for Sanctuary and a senior associate in the intellectual property and information technology (IP/IT) practice group of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in New York.