Sanctuary Applauds Gov. Cuomo for Granting Clemency to Monica Szlekovics

Read our press release

After 23 years in prison and incredible advocacy by Sanctuary partners Davis Polk & Wardwell, Monica Szlekovics has been granted clemency for the crime she was compelled to commit in 1996 due to years of abuse from her ex-husband. In granting her clemency, the State acknowledges the extenuating circumstances of her conviction and the traumatic impact of domestic violence on its victims.

Read our press release below:

 Hon. Judy Harris Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families, New York State’s leading advocate and service provider for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking and related forms of gender violence, issued the following statement:

“In granting clemency to domestic violence survivor Monica Szlekovics, who served 23 years of a 50-year to life sentence, Governor Andrew Cuomo has not only recognized her incredible personal transformation and achievements while in prison, but he has also acknowledged the extenuating circumstances of her conviction and the traumatic impact of domestic violence on its victims.”

“Sanctuary for Families views Monica’s clemency as a victory for survivors of intimate partner abuse everywhere.  We applaud the Governor for his insight, compassion and courage in making this important decision.”

Monica’s clemency case was handled by an extraordinary team of pro bono attorneys at Davis Polk & Wardwell, led by Special Counsel for Pro Bono Sharon Katz and Pro Bono Attorney Dara Sheinfeld, and including associates Jennifer Kalmanides and Peter Bozzo, former associates Brooklynn Moore and Jaryn Fields, and former legal assistant Emma Schwartz.  Partner Tatiana Martins also provided valuable assistance.  The team worked closely with outside co-counsel, Sara Bennett, whose prior clemency experience proved invaluable.  The team engaged with numerous leaders in the domestic violence community, who strongly advocated for Monica’s release.  The case was referred to Davis Polk by the Initiative for Incarcerated Survivors of Gender Violence, founded in 2017 by Dorchen Leidholdt, the Director of Sanctuary for Families’ Legal Center.

Like so many women across this country, Monica suffered years of excruciating and escalating domestic violence at the hands of her now ex-husband.  He choked her, threatened her with guns, beat her mercilessly—rupturing her eardrum and bruising her from head to toe, and subjected her to ongoing psychological torture.  Years of abuse led her to fear that her husband would kill her. Eventually, he kidnapped her at gunpoint and forced her—through a combination of physical threats, force, emotional abuse, and psychological manipulation—to accompany him on a violent crime spree in Rochester in search of an estranged girlfriend, who, herself, had previously fled from his violence.

Monica was sentenced to 50 years to life for her participation in crimes masterminded and instigated by her abusive husband.  At his trial, which post-dated hers, the prosecutor characterized Monica as “a pathetic, battered woman,” and acknowledged that her husband was a dangerously violent man who was “manipulating her, controlling her [and] dominating her.”

During her 23-year incarceration, Monica transformed herself from a broken, battered, drug-addicted young woman into a self-aware, confident agent of change.  Among other accomplishments, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology, cum laude, became a responsible and valued employee of the prison’s college program, consistently volunteered her time to mentor other women, and flourished as a talented and published writer and artist.

Davis Polk Attorneys Fight for Immigrant Survivor of Sex Trafficking

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Maria,” a trans survivor of sex trafficking.

Melissa D. James is a Senior Associate at a boutique employment law firm, specializing in Workers’ Compensation and Social Security Disability. She is also an Adjunct Professor and member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

“Giving is not just about making a donation. It is about making a difference.” – Kathy Calvin, CEO & President of the United Nations Foundation

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Maria,” a trans survivor of sex trafficking. The incredible team, consisting of Joshua Sills and David Robles, was successful in helping Maria vacate two outstanding criminal warrants and ultimately secure a T-Visa.

Drawing Parallels

Maria started grappling with her gender identity in her early teens, back in the early 2000s, while living in her home country of Mexico. As she began to transition at the age of fourteen, Maria would come to face horrible backlash and even violence from her parents. One day she came home from school to find that her father, in a rage, had set all of her belongings on fire. This prompted Maria to leave her parents’ home immediately and move to Mexico City where, like many transgender youth without familial support, she was forced to live on the streets. By the age of fifteen, Maria was residing in a group home and waiting tables to earn money. It was there where she met the older man who would later rape and force her into the world of trafficking.  He brought Maria to the U.S. and as soon as they crossed the border, he took her to her new “home”—a house where she was forced to have sex with the men who lived there as well as other men who came for the purpose of buying sex.  Maria eventually managed to escape with the help of a childhood friend who was also living in the United States. She ended up in New York City and was arrested for prostitution but, luckily, was referred to the Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Brooklyn where she was connected to Sanctuary and, ultimately, to Davis Polk.

In sheer contrast, Josh, who is the same age as Maria, lived a life free from such a dark reality. In fact, Josh expressed that “going through life, not understanding” the challenges others face is a “real eye-opener and a motivator to do more” to help victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. So, when the time came to face an unexpected obstacle, the Davis Polk team did not hesitate in taking the necessary steps to help Maria vacate two outstanding criminal warrants that could have jeopardized her T-Visa application.  As Josh so humbly stated, “passing it [the task] on to anyone else was not even a thought.”

Blazing a Path

As part of the T-Visa application, clients must provide proof that they cooperated with reasonable requests for assistance in the investigation or prosecution of acts of trafficking. This proof often comes in the form of a law enforcement “certification.”  At the time that Josh and David were working on Maria’s case, no trafficking survivor had yet to obtain this type of certification from the Brooklyn Human Trafficking Intervention Court (“HTIC”).  Working with Maria to prepare her for an in chamber interview with a Brooklyn HTIC Judge, Josh and David were able to help Maria obtain this critical certification from the Judge, blazing a path in Brooklyn for future survivors.

The Game Changer

During the process of preparing Maria’s T-Visa application, the Davis Polk team learned that it could be compromised unless two outstanding criminal warrants were resolved. Without hesitation, the team reached out to Red Hook Community Justice Center (“RHCJC”) and got the cases placed on the calendar to be heard before a criminal law judge. At the hearing the team made an application to vacate the outstanding warrants that was granted by the presiding judge. Josh remembers Maria initially being scared, however he recognized her resilience and admired her for her strength. At the end, Maria was granted a T-Visa and could now truly move on from her past.

The Golden Standard

Amy Hsieh, Sanctuary’s Senior Staff Attorney, had an opportunity to work closely with the Davis Polk team and expressed that they provided “the perfect combination of support for Maria.” “Their legal work was of course outstanding,” said Hsieh, “but they also formed a true bond with their client so much so that Josh—even though he is now in Spain—continues to help her as needed from afar.” She noted that the Davis Polk team was very passionate, stepped outside the box and treated Maria like any other client who walked through Davis Polk’s doors. In her eyes, the way that the Davis Polk team took the lead to handle this arduous obstacle represents a level of dedication that she wishes could be the standard for all pro bono work.

What brings true value to the Davis Polk team is that both Josh and David understand the time and effort that it takes to provide exceptional pro bono representation. In fact, prior to joining Davis Polk both Josh and David regularly participated in complex pro bono opportunities. In law school, David worked closely with victims of domestic abuse and prior to law school, Josh was involved with Immigration Equality – the leading national LGBTQ immigrant rights organization. David expressed that working with Sanctuary has been invaluable and has shaped him into a better attorney. Similarly, Josh feels blessed to work so closely with Sanctuary and often thinks deeply about the struggles that face so many victims of sex trafficking. This vast contrast in life is what drives him to continue doing this type of work – the notion that sometimes we live a life so secluded oblivious to the fact that there is someone else so close living a life that mirrors a nightmare.

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 Davis Polk’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.

Cahill and Davis Polk Attorneys Join Efforts to Defend Domestic Violence Survivor and Her Children

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, we are recognizing a powerful joint collaboration between attorneys at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP and attorneys at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP for their unwavering commitment to their client, “Shiho.”  The team helped Shiho gain full custody of her children, a final order of protection against her abusive husband, and a fair and appropriate child support order.

Caroline Irving is the director of Sales Development at Parfums Christian Dior and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, we are recognizing a powerful joint collaboration between attorneys at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP and attorneys at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP for their unwavering commitment to their client, “Shiho.”  The team helped Shiho gain full custody of her children, a final order of protection against her abusive husband, and a fair and appropriate child support order. We are pleased to honor this incredible team consisting of Dara L. Sheinfeld, Pro Bono Attorney at Davis Polk; Chui-Lai Cheung, Associate at Davis Polk; Jonathan White, Associate at Cahill Gordon; and Dan LeCours, former Associate at Cahill Gordon.

In the fall of 2012, Dara began assisting Shiho pro bono, with co-counsel from Sanctuary for Families.  Shiho had experienced multiple severe instances of domestic violence by her husband and in 2012 she made the brave decision to leave the marriage, taking her 2 young children with her. Sanctuary for Families had been providing counseling to Shiho, and the legal team then jumped in to assist Shiho in court.  The team filed a Custody and Family Offense Petition for Shiho, and she received a full temporary order of protection, for herself and her children, which was continued throughout the several years of litigation.

In 2013, Dara joined Sanctuary full time as the Family Law Director in the Bronx Family Justice Center and continued to represent Shiho, along with Barbara Kryszko, Sanctuary’s Family Law Director in the Brooklyn Family Justice Center. As Dara and Barbara prepared to move forward with a trial concerning family offense and custody matters, they sought pro bono assistance, and Associates Dan LeCours and Jonathan White at Cahill Gordon came on board to join the trial team. Jon and Dan provided much needed assistance by gathering evidence spanning more than 12 years, preparing exhibits and witness questions, and drafting motions. Additionally, Dan conducted a direct examination of one of the custody trial witnesses and Jon and Dan handled discovery and conducted the examinations of all witnesses in a simultaneous child support hearing.  According to Barbara Kryszko, who nominated this team,

“Dan and Jon’s . . . overall ability to stay abreast of all the ongoing developments in the case were vital in our ability to provide Shiho with zealous, professional advocacy.”

In addition to their invaluable help with trial preparation, Jonathan and Dan’s immense support of Shiho extended to handling a difficult relationship with Shiho’s husband, who elected to appear pro se and who was an extremely challenging respondent. Her husband reached out incessantly to Jon, Dan, and the rest of the legal team – sometimes with hostility and threats because of his unrealistic desire to reunite with Shiho and their children. However, the team was undeterred, continuing to fight for Shiho in the family offense, custody, and child support proceedings.

When Dara moved to Davis Polk in 2017 to join their Pro Bono Program as a Pro Bono Attorney, she continued to represent Shiho in her new role. Chui-Lai Cheung, an Associate at the firm, joined the team to assist with trial preparations. Chui-Lai and Jonathan worked seamlessly together to support the trial team and took the lead in preparing the powerful written summation at the end of the trial. Chui-Lai noted that she benefited from this case by being able to be in a courtroom and gain a deeper understanding of how family law works.

Shiho has expressed her immense gratitude to the whole team for all their work during the past 7 years and recognizes that having them on her side made all the difference. In August 2019, a decision was handed down granting Shiho full custody of her children and a full final order of protection against her ex-husband. Furthermore, the court found that the father had committed 16 family offenses against Shiho, including numerous counts of criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation, menacing, assault, harassment, and criminal mischief, and had also, on several occasions, violated the temporary orders of protection.

In response to the ruling, Dara said,

“I’m just so happy for her that there is some finality, at least for now.”

This decision finalizes what Shiho has been fighting for for the past 7 years – she now has full custody of her children and the abuses she suffered have been recognized and validated. As they were leaving trial, in an emotional goodbye, Shiho told her team that she would miss them, but is thrilled to be out of court for the first time since 2012.

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 Dara, Jon, Dan, and Chui-Lai’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.

Davis Polk Attorneys Help Trafficking Victim Tell Her Story, Secure T-Visa, and Aid in the Successful Prosecution of Her Traffickers

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, we’re honoring a team of attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell, LLP for their dedicated advocacy on behalf of their client, “Jie,” in her successful T-Visa application. Read to learn more.

Sam Zeidman is a Software Developer at Red Rabbit, LLC in New York. From 2012 through 2017 he was an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell in the Litigation Department.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell, LLP for their dedicated and powerful advocacy on behalf of their client, “Jie,” in her successful T-Visa application. The team consisted of former associate Lisa Doolittle, Associates Hanbing Zhang and Iris Hsiao, Partner Po Sit, and Special Counsel for Pro Bono Sharon Katz.

A Nexus of Vulnerability: From Domestic Abuse to Trafficking

Jie was living in China, married with children to an abusive husband. After their divorce her ex-husband took custody of their children because Jie lacked the financial resources to raise them. Jie sought employment so that she could earn money to win back custody of her children. She found what she thought was a promising job cleaning houses in the U.S. Despite not speaking English and having no connections in the U.S., she took the job.

Upon arrival in the U.S., it immediately became clear to Jie that the job she was promised was a sham. Instead, she was expected to engage in sexual acts in hotels and massage parlors. From the moment of entry to the U.S., every aspect of Jie’s life was controlled by her traffickers; unable to speak the language and with no one to reach out to, she felt helpless.

Despite the painful and frightening circumstances, Jie persisted in seeking a way out and never gave up hope that she would one day escape her traffickers.

After an Arrest, Another Legal Avenue

Jie was arrested on vice charges and was referred to New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Court, where she was referred to Sanctuary’s Queens Trafficking Intervention Pro Bono Project (QTIPP) that, among other things, allowed her to meet with lawyers to discuss possible legal and immigration options.

Lisa Doolittle and Hanbing Zhang were the QTIPP volunteer attorneys for Jie’s legal consultation. Doolittle credits Zhang, a native Mandarin speaker, for forging a strong connection in a short time, which helped them gather enough information to determine that Jie was a good candidate for a T-Visa and quickly volunteered to represent her.  Lori L. Cohen, the Director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families, supervised the team and agreed Jie had a compelling case:

“This is a woman who was clearly trafficked, promised a job that didn’t exist, charged fictitious fees, kidnapped, held in a hotel, and raped by men paying to have sex when she did not agree.”

After an extensive series of meetings with Jie to establish their relationship, the DPW team began to advocate on her behalf as she cooperated with law enforcement into the investigation, arrest and prosecution of her traffickers, an emotionally challenging process. Sharon Katz noted that Jie “was initially very wary, even distrustful” of her new attorneys, understandable given her situation.

In addition to participating as a victim-witness in the criminal case, she was skeptical about the US immigration system, particularly the T-Visa process; like many other victims, she already had engaged an attorney who had filed an asylum application and said it was making progress. As Doolittle put it, “In her mind, why would attorneys who worked for free be high quality attorneys, especially compared to her paid attorney who repeatedly assured her he was making advancements in her asylum case?” (The team did not believe the asylum claim would prevail. Cohen said it was common for unscrupulous attorneys to charge women like Jie exorbitant fees up front but deliver very little. Because of the fees, women are drawn deeper in debt and may feel they need to continue working at massage parlors in order to pay it off.)

Meanwhile, the T-Visa process took time and required Jie to share information about some of the worst experiences of her life in great detail and to overcome cultural norms against speaking out about one’s bosses and revealing shameful events.  Moreover, she worried about retribution.

Patience and Persistence from Attorneys and Client

Over the course of a year, with great perseverance, the DPW team gradually gained Jie’s trust. Cohen said the team’s approach was key to making her comfortable with the process.

“They treated her with dignity, respect, patience, and compassion. Their humanity for this woman really came through as they quickly put together a strong, moving, powerful application.”

For their part, the attorneys believe Jie herself deserves most of the credit. Zhang stated,

“She was hesitant to share her story but also believed it was wrong for women to be treated as she was. She had a strong sense of justice and felt that the situation could not go on forever.”

Jie’s T-Visa application was eventually granted and her traffickers convicted.  The effect on Jie was noticeable. Katz said,

“A different part of her came through. She was smiling and outgoing, a change from the initial meetings.”

Iris Hsiao, who is working on the derivative visas for Jie’s children, noted that,

“[Jie] seems extremely hopeful and has more confidence in the process. Before she thought the application was pointless and would take forever, but she saw that waiting paid off in the end.”

As Doolittle put it,

“A burden was lifted. She has T-visa status and no longer has to live every day with the fear over her head that she will be sent back to China.”

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