Virtual Courtroom Advocates Project: Helping Survivors Get Orders of Protection During COVID-19

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a group of dedicated volunteer attorneys, summer associates, and paralegals who provided virtual pro se assistance to survivors of domestic violence seeking orders of protection during COVID-19.

Tushna is Of Counsel at Morrison & Foerster LLP and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

One of the unfortunate and dangerous effects of the Coronavirus pandemic has been that the frequency and intensity of domestic violence has escalated during this challenging time. With Family Courts physically closed and operating at reduced capacity as a result of the Covid-19 health crisis, those experiencing domestic violence were not able to receive in-person pro se assistance in preparing and filing family offense petitions against their abuser in order to obtain orders of protection for themselves and their children.

To address this serious gap in services, Sanctuary for Families worked quickly to create a new pro bono project called the Virtual Courtroom Advocates Project (or VCAP), which provided virtual pro se assistance to survivors of domestic violence seeking orders of protection from abuse and violence.  A group of six firms promptly agreed to staff the VCAP program and a group of dedicated volunteer attorneys, summer associates and paralegals from Cahill, Gordon & Reindel LLP, Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP, Paul Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Simpson Thacher & Barlett LLP, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, and Schulte, Roth &  Zabel LLP made a huge commitment to help these brave survivors. Volunteers from each of these firms immediately began staffing the VCAP program five days a week starting in April 2020. By the time VCAP ended on September 1, 2020, VCAP volunteers had drafted nearly 200 family offense petitions on behalf of victims of domestic violence seeking orders of protection.  Nearly 180 of those petitions were filed with the court, with almost all of the petitioners being granted an order of protection and other requested relief.

Each of the volunteers focused their time, energy, and efforts to help their clients prepare and file their petitions and to serve the Temporary Order of Protection on the respondent. VCAP attorneys were tenacious and skilled in their quest to help the clients obtain full stay away Temporary Orders of Protection. In addition, they were able to achieve hard to obtain additional relief to meet the needs of survivors of domestic violence, such as stay away orders for petitioner’s children and pets, child support orders, and orders preventing the electronic dissemination of intimate images and videos of the petitioner.

Each pro bono attorney was compassionate and patient in assisting these courageous survivors to get protection from their abusers and offered empathetic and trauma-informed support, empowering petitioners to find their own path to safety and justice. For example, one pro bono attorney worked for over a week with a petitioner who was afraid to file her family offense petition, patiently supporting the client and empowering the client to make her own decision regarding whether to file the petition. Ultimately, the client decided to move forward with filing the petition and obtained the protection she needed.

As a long-standing member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and Sanctuary supporter, I am deeply grateful to each of the caring pro bono attorneys, summer associates, and paralegals for their fierce advocacy combined with kindness and deep empathy, and the law firms that supported and facilitated their work. I am also thankful to the Sanctuary for Families staff attorneys who were instrumental in swiftly setting up this innovative program that met the urgent needs of the moment.  And, as always, I am also grateful for, and constantly inspired by, the courage and strength of the clients who stepped forward to protect themselves and their families from violence and abuse in the midst of a global health crisis.

In the words of VCAP volunteer attorney Amy Barton of Paul Weiss,

“Although my clients repeatedly expressed their appreciation to me for my assistance, in the end, they were the ones who deserved my thanks for inspiring me with their strength to find help when needed and allowing me the opportunity to try to make someone’s life a little safer in a world that seemed to be turning upside down for all of us.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the VCAP volunteers’ outstanding pro bono work. Click here to RSVP for free.

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

COVID-19 & Gender Violence: Sanctuary’s Response

Since COVID-19 hit New York City—the pandemic’s initial epicenter in the U.S.—the survivors Sanctuary serves have reported urgent concerns triggered or exacerbated by the public health and economic crisis, and the resulting quarantine.

Since COVID-19 hit New York City—the pandemic’s initial epicenter in the U.S.—the survivors Sanctuary serves have reported urgent concerns triggered or exacerbated by the public health and economic crisis, and the resulting quarantine. As New York State’s largest provider of trauma-informed, holistic services for these families, Sanctuary’s services are perhaps more important now than ever before.

Learn more about the range of challenges experienced by abuse survivors during this difficult time, and Sanctuary’s rapid, multi-pronged service, outreach, and advocacy response, below.

Urgent Needs

In addition to the trauma of abuse, survivors have experienced an array of challenges, including:

  • Job loss, food, and housing insecurity
  • Court closures preventing or delaying life-saving legal remedies like orders of protection
  • Dangerous visitation situations
  • Stressors and technology challenges around remote schooling, and other childcare issues
  • Increased economic abuse such as stolen stimulus checks
  • Heightened racism and xenophobia
  • Abusive partners restricting reproductive and other healthcare access
  • Immigrant clients’ fears of reporting virus symptoms or seeking emergency police or medical assistance.

Amidst a global spike in domestic violence, Sanctuary has seen a sharp increase in calls to our legal and clinical hotlines, double and triple the rates of previous years. We expect an even greater surge of need as restrictions are lifted and survivors have greater opportunities to seek out help. Throughout the crisis, the message survivors frequently heard and, in too many cases, internalized—from police, the court system, the media, or their abusers—is that their abuse did not constitute a serious “life or death” emergency compared to the medical crisis of the pandemic, leading them to believe that help was not available or accessible.

Sanctuary’s staff and survivor leaders have worked tirelessly to counteract these messages, to help ensure survivors’ safety and access to our essential services.

Our Response

Sanctuary for Families pivoted rapidly to continue providing nearly all our holistic, life-saving services after stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March, converting all but our shelter services to remote within a matter of days. Over the past 6-½ months, more than 5,100 adults and children have received services, including the following:

  • Crisis intervention, safety planning, and case management via phone and video calls: Over 3,900 sessions to over 600 clients.
  • Licensed mental health counseling via secure, interactive telehealth services: 35 clinicians have provided over 4,700 counseling sessions to over 500 adults, children and families.
  • Conversion of our intensive, full-day career training to remote learning, purchasing and delivering laptops, software, and Wi-Fi hotspots to 40 trainees last spring (and 60 more this fall), and relaunching trainings within just a few weeks of quarantine order.
  • Continued operation of our five shelters at capacity, with residential aides onsite 24/7 to ensure residents’ safety, and enhanced cleaning/safety protocols to protect their health.
  • Expanding our clinical and legal helplines, staffing the legal line full-time with attorneys so that callers always get a live response (when they may have few free moments to call) and increasing helpline hours—responding to nearly 900 calls.
  • Significantly expanding our direct cash assistance program, distributing more than $250,000 to over 425 families to date for emergency food, supplies, rent, medicine, clothing, and more.

Innovative Outreach

Sanctuary also rapidly developed new initiatives designed to connect with and provide resources to often-isolated abuse survivors and children, who may be cut off from regular avenues of access to assistance:

  • Our clinical and legal helplines launched a website chat feature to enhance accessibility during COVID-19 and beyond—particularly crucial for survivors quarantining in dangerous situations and unable to safely call for help.
  • Sanctuary clinicians and survivor leaders published two guides: a quarantine safety planning guide for domestic violence survivors and a guide for survivors of human trafficking to cope during COVID-19, which have been translated into multiple languages and reached more than 160,000 individuals online.
  • The Virtual Courtroom Advocates Project trained over 80 pro bono attorneys to help survivors seeking orders of protection from remote courts—receiving over 250 referrals and obtaining nearly 180 protection orders to date—and has begun training law students to assist survivors this Fall.
  • Targeted outreach to raise awareness of our new and ongoing services, as well as the rights of survivors during COVID-19, including ads on social media, ethnic news sites, taxis, and public areas at hospitals and other sites, including a powerful We’re Still Here video featuring staff and survivor leaders.
  • We hosted a week-long, trauma-informed virtual summer camp for 25 teens affected by domestic violence, which saw high attendance and active participation.
  • Volunteer and in-kind programming have continued with a virtual tutoring program, remote interview prep and career days for career training participants, and our annual backpack and school supplies drive for almost 600 children returning to school this Fall.
  • Through an initiative overseen by the NYC Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, and privately funded by Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and Jay-Z, the Robin Hood Foundation, and more, Sanctuary was selected to administer nearly $500,000 in unconditional micro-grants to abuse survivors from domestic violence service providers citywide.

Thank You

The generous support of numerous companies, foundations and private donors have helped us meet the urgent needs of abuse survivors and their children during this unprecedented crisis. Even with the successful delivery of our services over the last seven months, with the pandemic still a major threat and so many New Yorkers facing deep economic uncertainty, the demand will only continue to grow. As our helplines continue to receive nearly 3x the number of calls and our staff field ongoing requests for emergency assistance, we must be prepared to address the anticipated flood of new clients and cases we expect when the city begins to reopen and survivors begin to have greater freedom to seek confidential help as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted.

We hope that you will continue to partner with us to help abuse survivors during the pandemic and beyond.

An update from Sanctuary for Families regarding COVID-19

How we’re supporting survivors and staff during this public health crisis.

Dear Sanctuary Community,

As the coronavirus spreads and fear increases, I wanted to share how we, at Sanctuary for Families, are approaching this crisis. This blog will be updated as the situation in New York evolves and our programs adapt.

COVID-19 impacts all of us but for victims of gender-based violence, the effects are compounded by the numerous challenges they already face.

  • Calls to self-quarantine may deter victims from seeking help, compelling them to cope at a time when stress levels are heightened.
  • Economic stress due to layoffs and lack of work elevates the risk of domestic violence
  • School closings are forcing many of our clients who are parents to secure childcare so they can continue to work, often for employers in the service-sector who offer little flexibility or sick time.
  • Immigrant survivors, who are already reluctant to access public services for fear of deportation, may avoid reporting symptoms or visiting Urgent Care. Those from countries with higher rates of infection may also experience more discrimination.
  • Families living in shelter or over-crowded apartment complexes with more shared spaces are having a harder time with social distancing.

Our clinical, shelter, economic empowerment, and legal services are critical for survivors, and Sanctuary is committed to ensuring they continue to have the access they need.

Program Updates

General

  • The health and safety of our clients and staff are our top priority.
  • In the interest of public health and safety, all staff whose job responsibilities allow are working remotely.
  • Program staff throughout the agency are reaching out to clients and providing services remotely, including counseling and legal assistance.
  • Our main office, shelters, and the EMPOWER Center remain open with limited staff.
  • Our hotlines have expanded hours, 9am – 5pm Monday through Friday.
  • The Family Justice Centers are closed but continue to refer survivors seeking help to Sanctuary and other NYC providers.

Counseling

  • Counselors, case managers and support staff are reaching out to all clients on their caseload to offer phone sessions.
  • Counselors are offering traditional counseling sessions through a HIPPA compliant tele-counseling platform to clients interested and able to participate.
  • Counselors are also offering more frequent phone check-ins to assess how survivors are coping with the pandemic.
  • Staff are safety planning with high risk clients and are in contact with our residential team to ensure we are up to date on shelter vacancies as emergencies arise.

Shelter

  • We are following the City’s guidelines for shelters.
  • Staff continue to go in person to the dwellings to meet with clients and address important case management needs like referrals for public assistance, completion of housing applications, legal referrals etc.
  • Face masks are being distributed, food is being stockpiled, and our operations team is cleaning frequently.
  • Our childcare and after-care staff are working with parents to engage their children who are out of school.

Economic Empowerment Program (EEP)

  • Survivors in the current EEP cohort are receiving laptops and hotspots so they can continue their training remotely.
  • Staff are providing crisis intervention services and are safety planning with high risk clients.
  • Staff are checking in on survivors in internships, if they’re able to work remotely, and those who been placed in jobs to ensure they are being supported.

Legal

  • All temporary orders of protection that have been issued by criminal and civil courts have been extended until the next court date.
  • Emergency Family Court hearings are being held virtually as of Thursday, March 26.
  • Eviction proceedings and all pending eviction orders have been suspended.
  • New York City’s immigration Courts remain open and filing deadlines for detained and non-detained cases remain in place.
    • Attorneys are struggling to put filings together remotely and are risking exposure by going to the post office or appearing in court.
    • USCIS has temporarily suspended routine in-person services, at least through May 3.

Our team is closely monitoring the virus’ spread and is developing contingency plans to protect staff and clients should the situation in New York continue to escalate.

We are also taking measures to minimize contact within our broader Sanctuary community. At this time, we are refraining from on-boarding new volunteers and accepting in-kind donations.

How You Can Help

Donate

If you would like to support survivors during this challenging time, please consider a making a donation to general donation page or our Fund for Vulnerable Families.

Your support will cover the cost of:

  • Basic hygiene items and help us meet the emerging needs of our clients
  • Food for our shelters and survivors who are struggling to cover the costs of stockpiling essentials
  • Remote learning platforms, laptops, and wifi hotspots for survivors
  • Video conferencing tools for our service providing staff
  • Deep cleanings which will help us protect our staff and clients

Help Spread the Word

Visit our COVID-19 Resources & Information page

We’d also appreciate any resources you see that may be of use to survivors of domestic violence, trafficking, and related forms of gender-violence. Email Info@sffny.org or tag us on social media!

We Couldn’t Do This Without You

Thanks to people like you, Sanctuary has consistently supported survivors in times of crisis throughout our 35-year history. We are confident that this will be no different. By staying vigilant, taking the necessary precautions, and supporting each other, we will get through this together.

Wishing you and your loved ones health and safety.

Warmly,

Hon. Judy H. Kluger
Executive Director