Sanctuary staff and pro bono attorneys took on the legal system to reunite Jennifer with her son Tommy.
By now, you’ve watched Jennifer share her story. Ben A. Schatz, a Sanctuary pro bono attorney who worked with Jennifer on her case, shares how they took on the legal system to ensure Jennifer and Tommy could find safety and freedom from violence.
Jennifer came to Sanctuary’s office at the Bronx Family Justice Center one afternoon last year in a panic. Her ex-boyfriend John had thrown a metal cooking pot at her, severely bruising her arm. Next time, he said, he’d kill her.
Then he left with their then two-year-old son, Tommy, and told Jennifer she’d never see Tommy again.
Reuniting mother and son
Dara Sheinfeld, Sanctuary’s Legal Director in the Bronx and Manhattan, acted fast. Working with law enforcement, she had John arrested for assault. Tommy was returned to Jennifer’s care the very same day. Jennifer said that when she woke up the next morning with Tommy by her side it was one of the happiest days of her life.
I joined Dara as pro bono counsel to help Jennifer take the necessary legal steps to ensure that she and Tommy could escape their terrible past with John and move on with their lives. Dara and I filed petitions in Bronx Family Court seeking an order of protection that would require John to stay away from Jennifer and Tommy and give Jennifer full custody.
As Jennifer and I waited in the gallery before each court appearance, I could feel her discomfort as John sat across the aisle only a few feet away.
We argued that the court should enter an order of protection based solely on threatening statements John made when he pled guilty to assaulting Jennifer. The court agreed and granted an order of protection for Jennifer. An issue remained, however, as to whether the order of protection could extend to Tommy as well. We were headed for trial.
A child’s safety, on trial
Jennifer took the witness stand and bravely recounted the terrifying details of the years of physical and emotional abuse John inflicted upon her in Tommy’s presence, and at times, while Tommy was in her arms.
John took the stand and insisted that he never laid a finger on Jennifer. It quickly became clear that the judge saw through his lies; our cross-examination was so withering that John’s lawyer interrupted the proceedings to protect him from further perjuring himself.
When we left court that day, we knew the worst was over. The court ruled fully in Jennifer’s favor, entering a final order of protection that would place John in contempt if he contacted Jennifer or Tommy for the next five years. Shortly thereafter, the court awarded Jennifer full custody over Tommy and denied John any visitation rights, a rarity in New York.
A new home and a new start
Our advocacy for Jennifer did not end with her legal victory. We worked to find her housing and helped arrange counseling for Tommy. And when Jennifer temporarily relocated to an apartment not far from my own, my wife and son joined Jennifer, Tommy, and me for a tour of her new neighborhood.
Jennifer was of course happy to have Sanctuary on her side, but I feel like the lucky one. Lucky to have learned so much from Dara about how to be a holistic advocate for my clients. And lucky to have met Jennifer, whom I have come to know as a caring mother, kind friend, and true survivor.
Sanctuary staff and pro bono attorneys assisted nearly 15,000 survivors like Jennifer and Tommy last year in reclaiming their lives after violence. When you make your gift, you ensure we can continue this life-saving work in 2016. Thank you.