Davis Polk Team Wins Custody Victory Against Abusive Father

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Anna” in her custody proceeding against the abusive father of her son “Eli.” The Davis Polk team included litigation associates Alyssa Beaver Gomez, Molly Greer Gurny, and Amanda Meyer, who helped Anna obtain sole legal custody of Eli as well as a final order allowing the father only supervised visitation.

Christina Pryor is an associate in the Government Enforcement and White Collar Crime group  in the New York office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.  She is also 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 a team of attorneys at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Anna” in her custody proceeding against the abusive father of her son “Eli.”  The Davis Polk team included litigation associates Alyssa Beaver Gomez, Molly Greer Gurny, and Amanda Meyer, who helped Anna obtain sole legal custody of Eli as well as a final order allowing the father only supervised visitation.

Davis Polk Stands by Former Client

Dara Sheinfeld, Sanctuary’s former Legal Director at the Bronx and Manhattan Family Justice Centers, had previously represented Anna pro bono in her initial custody case as an associate at Davis Polk.  The case settled on the first day of trial, resulting in the grant of joint legal custody as well as physical custody and final decision-making to Anna.  When Anna needed to file custody modification and violation cases years later due to the respondent’s increasingly controlling behavior towards Eli, Sheinfeld reached out to Davis Polk, who quickly agreed to represent Anna in this new proceeding.

The Davis Polk team assisted Sheinfeld with multiple aspects of pre-trial and trial work, including organizing exhibits, preparing witnesses, conducting cross examination, and drafting summations.  Sheinfeld noted that the Davis Polk team took the lead in drafting and conducting cross examination of the supervised visitation social worker as well as in responding to motions filed by the respondent regarding evidentiary issues, which enabled her to focus on preparing Anna for her direct examination.  In addition to their work in family court, the Davis Polk team also advocated on behalf of Anna in the related criminal case against the respondent for contempt.

The Team Prevails at Trial

The team ultimately won big at trial – not only getting Anna sole legal custody of her son, but also obtaining a decision that restricted the father’s visitation.  While the father previously had the right to visitation with Eli every weekend at his home, his visits are now limited to one day a week and take place at Comprehensive Family Services.

Sheinfeld, who is now the Pro Bono Attorney at Davis Polk, praised the team’s tireless work, stating:

“We spent countless hours on this case, and the Davis Polk team always produced top notch work, quickly and efficiently. . . .  The fact that we were able to get a final order with supervised visits speaks volumes!  The client and child were thrilled, and can finally, after many years, move on with their lives in peace.”

Anna also stated her appreciation for the team’s efforts:

“We no longer live our lives in fear of violence but in freedom we’ve never experienced before.  I can never thank them enough for what they’ve done for us and how they’ve changed our lives.”

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

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.

Cahill Associate Fights for Mother and Her Special-Needs Child

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Cahill associate Margaret Barone for her dedicated representation of Laura, a mother with a special-needs child, who escaped the abuse of her partner after being pressured into leaving her professional career in her home country.

Jamie Stinson is an associate in the Special Matters and Investigations practice in the New York office of King & Spalding. She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and Co-Chair of this year’s Above and Beyond Pro Bono Awards and Benefit.



At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Cahill associate Margaret Barone for her dedicated and compassionate representation of “Laura,” a mother with a special-needs child, who escaped her abusive partner after he pressured her into leaving behind her professional career in her home country—making her financially dependent on him. Through Margaret’s tireless efforts, Laura won court-ordered enforcement of critical provisions of her post-divorce agreements, allowing her to provide the support and care that her son so desperately needed.

Isolated by an Abuser

Laura had a thriving career in Mexico before being tricked into moving to the United States by her abuser.  Subject to abuse and the loss of her economic freedom, Laura struggled to provide for herself and her son, who has special needs.  Through a long and hard-fought legal process, in part with prior assistance from Sanctuary, Laura finalized her divorce, and procured a custody agreement as well as a financial settlement.

Various issues related to the agreements arose.  Laura is the primary custodial parent, but shares joint legal custody with her ex-husband.  Laura is a fierce advocate for her son to receive better services through the Board of Education to meet his complex needs but her ex-husband was effectively blocking her efforts and failed to participate in parent coordination meetings as required by the custody agreement.  In addition, he missed many deadlines on financial obligations and deliberately misinterpreted the financial agreement so as to deprive Laura and her son of support that he was required to pay.

Enforcing Her Client’s Rights

When Margaret took over the case, she dove head first into addressing the myriad issues related to both Laura’s rights under the custody and financial agreements, as well as those related to addressing the needs of Laura’s son.  The stakes were clear as emotions ran high in Margaret’s first meeting with Laura, who explained that all of this work was in service of fighting for her child. Recalling the meeting, Margaret said, “It makes you want to do everything you can as quickly as possible.”

Margaret worked closely with Sanctuary’s Director of the Matrimonial and Economic Justice Project, Amanda Norejko, in order to formulate next steps. Margaret drafted an extensive, several-inches-thick motion and memorandum of law (totaling 51 pages) to help Laura enforce her agreement in Manhattan Supreme Court. This motion required in-depth analysis of evaluations by medical and educational experts to show how the abuser’s obstruction impacted their special needs child.  In the course of organizing more than thirty motion exhibits, Margaret poured over custody agreements, a lengthy financial stipulation, and countless emails in order to demonstrate exactly how the abuser had violated relevant provisions and disrupted their child’s special needs services.  She also made herself available for late night and weekend telephone calls and meetings with Laura to assist her both with legal strategy and with her emotional response to the abuser’s hostile communications with her regarding their son.

As a result of Margaret’s efforts, the court ordered the abuser to comply with the terms of the custody agreement and to make the payments he was refusing to make.  In addition, Laura’s educational hearing against the Board of Education to get her son into a special school can now proceed unobstructed by the abuser.  When asked about how she approached the case, Margaret explained that she worked to tell a compelling story with the motion so that the judge could understand the unique situation.

Working Together to Move Forward

Margaret’s dedicated efforts continue.  While Laura has already begun to receive funds owed to her, there will be ongoing representation related to enforcement of the order, including court appearances and client meetings.  In addition, Margaret continues to assist Laura in preparing proposals to present at parent coordination meetings to obtain the father’s cooperation in enrolling the child in a special school.  Margaret looks forward to continuing to work with Laura and with Sanctuary.

Sanctuary’s Amanda Norejko praised Margaret, stating,

“Margaret’s hard work, diligence, excellent legal analysis and writing skills have given this mother the opportunity for a brighter future for herself and her son that she desperately desired.”

Reflecting on her experience so far, Margaret said, “It was wonderful working with Amanda [from Sanctuary], to have the opportunity to work with someone who is an expert in this field.  You can lose sight of how much legal work can matter.  Working one-on-one with a client makes you realize that you can make a huge difference in someone’s life.”

Laura also stated her appreciation for Margaret’s dedicated efforts:

“My son and I have been enormously blessed . . . with the valuable assistance of Margaret whom I can only thank forever with all my heart as a mother and as a woman and as a minority.”

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

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.