Debevoise Attorneys Help Domestic Violence Survivor Secure Order of Protection

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, we’re honoring a team of attorneys from Debevoise & Plimpton LLP for their work securing an order of protection for “Alison,” a survivor, and her son. Read to learn more.

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 Wang Lachowicz, Associate

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

Wendy B. Reilly, Supervising Counsel

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.

Alston & Bird attorney’s support and advocacy on behalf of domestic violence survivor enables client to find peace and safety

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, we’re honoring an attorney from Alston & Bird for her pro bono work in support of Maya, a survivor of domestic violence. Read to learn more.

Louisa Irving is a Co-Chair of the PBC.

Sometimes a victory isn’t just about a win in court, it is about supporting your client and giving them the tools and encouragement they need to make the decision that is best for them.  In Maya’s case, victory was having the strength to withdraw her order of protection petition against her abuser so that she could move forward with her life and free herself from a long and re-traumatizing family court experience.  Maya was empowered in making this decision by the compassionate and persistent advocacy of Elizabeth (Liz) Buckel, Senior Associate at Alston & Bird LLP and recipient of a 2018 Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Award

Extreme Abuse

For years, Maya suffered extreme physical and verbal abuse by her boyfriend Ray.  In addition to punching, shoving, and pulling Maya’s arm out of its socket, Ray repeatedly flipped the couch while Maya was laying down, causing her to sustain successive head injuries that eventually led to seizures.  One night in 2015, Ray became extremely violent again and Maya fled to her office to sleep because it had 24 hour security.  That night, Ray repeatedly called her and left multiple abusive and threatening voicemails. Fearing for her life, Maya filed a complaint with the police.  Criminal charges were brought against the abuser, resulting in a guilty plea and settlement that included a two year criminal order of protection.

Still terrified of Ray, Maya hoped for a longer order of protection from Family Court—given the extensive abuse and the physical injuries, Maya was likely entitled to a five-year civil order of protection.  Thankfully, Liz volunteered to represent Maya and, under the supervision of Betsy Tsai, Director of Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocate’s Project, assist with her petition for a civil order of protection from Staten Island Family Court.  In early 2016, Liz filed a detailed petition and the case was set for trial.

Trial Delays Lead to More Pain

Over the next two years, the trial inched painstakingly forward in 10 to 15 minute increments.  Although an appearance would be scheduled for a time certain, Liz, Maya, and Betsy would wait for hours in the small Family Court waiting room, only to be called in and informed that their hour-long time slot had been reduced to mere minutes before the Judge.  For each court appearance, Maya had to take a full day off of work, mentally prepare herself to confront Ray both in the tiny waiting room and in the courtroom, and recount the details of the violence she endured.

Maya struggled with understandable anger and anxiety as she processed the trauma of her years of abuse, making each court appearance and the days leading up to that appearance incredibly difficult.  Sensitive to Maya’s emotional state and the impact that it was having on her life and her ability to testify, Liz referred Maya to counseling services at Sanctuary for Families.  Liz also served as a comfort to Maya, calmly reassuring her in the days before and after each appearance. According to Betsy,

“[Maya] felt totally understood and empowered, due in large part to Liz’s consistency and understanding approach.  She was always there for the client, and the client knew that.”

In addition to providing Maya the support she needed, Liz was a skilled and fierce advocate for her client.  Liz fought hard to end the constant trial delays that were taking such a toll on Maya.  She filed a creative motion for judgment as a matter of law seeking to have the abuser’s plea in criminal court recognized as an admission to a family offense.

The motion was denied and the trial dragged on. Recognizing the harm this was doing to her client, Liz attempted to settle the case, but the abuser refused.  In the meantime, over the course of several court appearances, Liz conducted a powerful direct examination of Maya that included playing aloud, over opposing counsel’s objections, the terrifying voicemails left on that December night when Maya fled her home.  She also elicited detailed testimony about the numerous incidents of abuse.

Finding Peace

After Maya’s examination was complete, the case faced yet another delay.  Opposing counsel announced that he needed to withdraw from the case and Ray retained new counsel, who decided to move for a mistrial after noting that the transcripts from the proceedings indicated some “inaudible” testimony.  Liz filed a strong response opposing the motion for mistrial, but despite the fact that the inaudible pieces of testimony were minimal, the court messaged to the parties that it was inclined to declare a mistrial.

After more than 2 years of seeking relief from the Family Court, Maya was faced with a difficult choice: begin this painful process again at square one or withdraw her case.  In light of the active criminal order of protection, the toll that the trial was taking on Maya, and the inevitable stress of starting all over again, Liz worked very closely with Maya so that she could understand and weigh her options.  Maya ultimately determined that she did not want to proceed with her case.

Because Liz invested so much time and energy in developing a relationship with Maya, tuning into her needs and wishes, and building trust, she was able to support Maya through the court proceedings and the decision to withdraw her case. According to Betsy,

“Liz had the perfect balance of both, litigating the case at a very high level, while also understanding the dynamics of domestic violence in a way that enabled the client to trust her and rely on her for years.”  In her nomination of Liz for this Above & Beyond award, Betsy wrote: “The legal work, which was excellent, is not why I think Liz deserves this award.  She was committed to this case and to this client in a way that was remarkable.”

Reflecting on her experience, Liz says that on a professional level, working on Maya’s case taught her how to be a trial attorney in family court. On a personal level, working on Maya’s case was a real eye opener to the ways the judicial process can wear down a victim.  But according to Liz, when she and Maya rode the ferry after that final court appearance, she “never saw her look so happy and free.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 13, 2018, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor Liz Buckel’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.

Funding for the Courtroom Advocates Project is Under Threat: Why it Matters

Since its founding in 1997, Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP) has been almost entirely funded by grants under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Today, funding for this critical program is in danger. Take a stand and join the effort to protect VAWA funding.

Brenna is a J.D. at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

Ana’s Story

In July 2016, Ana arrived alone at the Bronx Family Courthouse hoping to obtain an Order of Protection against her husband. Ana’s husband had subjected her to severe physical and emotional violence during their marriage. On that day, she had a bruise on her upper arm from when her husband bit her the week before and a puncture wound from when he stabbed her with a pen. Those physical scars were in addition to the devastating trauma Ana experienced from months of repeated rapes and strangulations by her husband. She was upset, afraid, and like many victims of domestic violence, had no money to hire an attorney to help her.

Unsure of where to go or who to turn to, she eventually found a free consultant at the courthouse who introduced her to two attorneys in Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP). Ana’s fortunes were about to change.

Finding Sanctuary

Ana was assigned to a team of law student advocates who had been trained by CAP to help Ana file for and obtain a temporary Order of Protection in Family Court. Sanctuary’s CAP attorneys then took Ana’s case on for direct legal representation.

Over the course of two years, they not only helped her obtain a final Order of Protection against her husband, but also referred Ana to Sanctuary’s social workers from whom she received counseling. Today, Sanctuary continues to help Ana with her housing and immigration issues, all at no cost to her.

Since connecting with CAP and accessing Sanctuary’s holistic services, Ana has flourished. She has become more confident and is in charge of her own life, happiness, and safety. In Ana’s words,

“Had it not been for [Sanctuary], I don’t know what I would have done.”

Currently, Ana is on the path to fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a nurse, and has completed a nursing education and training program. She is now able to leave her past behind and move forward.

The Courtroom Advocates Project(CAP)

CAP trains and supervises advocates, mostly law students, who provide in-court assistance to domestic violence victims seeking orders of protection in Family Court. Since 1997, CAP has trained nearly 12,000 advocates and has helped nearly 10,000 litigants in Family Court. Victims of domestic violence often come to court alone and intimidated. CAP advocates help them tell their stories more effectively, and provide needed reassurance.

CAP advocates can also direct victims to additional resources that may help them reach safety. Like Ana, many clients first connect with Sanctuary through CAP, and then receive help from Sanctuary with additional issues such as divorce, custody, spousal and child support, housing, public benefits, counseling, job training and immigration. For these clients, CAP serves as a crucial first stepping stone in their journey from an abusive relationship to freedom.

Not only does CAP provide vital assistance to victims of domestic violence, it also trains the pro bono attorneys of the future. CAP provides law students with an introduction to family law, a chance to meet with clients, and an opportunity to learn how to be litigators. Often, CAP may be a law student’s first experience working one-on-one with a client or appearing on the record in a courtroom, which can be invaluable lessons in their development as lawyers.  It also solidifies their passion for pro bono work, and sets them on a lifetime course of helping low-income clients.

How CAP Changed Me

I participated in CAP during the summer after my second year of law school. Paired with another law student, and under the supervision of a Sanctuary CAP staff attorney, I helped a high school student obtain an Order of Protection against her ex-boyfriend, who had attacked her in school several times.

I learned valuable skills in legal writing and courtroom advocacy and, more importantly, I was able to successfully advocate for a client. The experience and her gratitude for my help left a lasting impression. I returned to Sanctuary for an externship the following spring, and I have continued my involvement while working at a law firm by serving on Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and representing another Sanctuary client pro bono.

Protect the Violence Against Women Act

Today, funding for this critical program is in danger due to potential budget cuts recommended by the current federal administration. Since its founding in 1997, CAP has been almost entirely funded by grants under The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

VAWA classifies domestic violence and sexual assault as federal crimes and funds programs that provide life-saving services for victims, including legal and criminal justice services, counseling, housing, prevention programs, and much more. The current administration is intent on cutting the budget for the Department of Justice (among many other agencies), which could very well include cutting or eliminating VAWA grants that are funded through the Department of Justice budget—something that President Trump has indicated a willingness to do. Such action would jeopardize the future of CAP.

Without CAP, thousands of clients like Ana would be less safe, and thousands of law students would be denied the invaluable experience of advocating for vulnerable clients. In Ana’s words, “[CAP] gave me a reason to stand up and fight.”

Now, it is time to stand up and fight for the program that has helped Ana and thousands of others take their first steps toward freedom.

What You Can Do

Tell your Representatives that you want them to make a strong public statement now that they will never approve a budget that reduces VAWA funding.

  • Schedule a meeting with your Representative to discuss the importance of VAWA, or see if there are any town halls you can attend and ask them to fight for VAWA funding now.
  • Call, write/e-mail, and tweet.

Ask your networks to advocate – spread the word to your contacts and ask them to advocate on behalf of VAWA.

Organize an informal “30 minutes of activism” breakfast or lunch.

  • Use these talking points to educate attendees on the issue, explain its importance to you, and ask them all to call, tweet, email, etc. together during the 30 minutes.

Post this article on social media and send it to your contacts.

Draft Op-eds. Use your connections to get op-eds published and get the issue out there!

Together we can make sure victims like Ana have access to the lifeline that she had. Take a stand today to preserve VAWA and its critical life-saving funding.