Weil Team Wins Major Victory for Incarcerated Survivor of Domestic Violence

At this year’s Above and Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring the pro bono work of Richard Rothman, Senior Counsel at Weil, Gotshal and Manges and Co-Chair of the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative, and Nigar Shaikh, formerly an Associate at Weil and currently Counsel at Everytown for Gun Safety, for their representation of “Amy,” an incarcerated survivor of severe domestic violence.

Vanessa Gutierrez is the 2018-2019 Tow Policy Advocacy Fellow at the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice – CUNY.

At this year’s Above and Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is honoring the pro bono work of Richard Rothman, Senior Counsel at Weil, Gotshal and Manges and Co-Chair of the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative, and Nigar Shaikh, formerly an Associate at Weil and currently Counsel at Everytown for Gun Safety, for their representation of “Amy,” an incarcerated survivor of severe domestic violence.

Rich Rothman has long been a pro bono advocate for survivors of gender-based violence, primarily survivors of intimate partner violence and sex trafficking.  In 2017 Rich, in conjunction with Sanctuary Legal Director Dorchen Leidholdt, founded the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative (the “Initiative”)—a collaboration of professionals and survivors focused on three main goals:

  1. Representation on parole, clemency, and re-sentencing matters
  2. Systems-change advocacy to improve the rate of release for incarcerated survivors
  3. Education and training on issues related to the intersection of gender-based violence, trauma, and incarceration

Nigar Shaikh was an early member of the Initiative and was instrumental in helping the Initiative implement its three-fold strategy to assist survivors.

The Initiative strives to help survivors who have been in prison for many years.  As Rich points out,

“Many of these older convictions took place in an era where domestic violence and trauma weren’t really understood by many, but especially the criminal justice system.  The women we help are victims whose crimes are directly related to the abuse they suffered, which landed them in prison. These women pose no risk to society, and deserve to live their lives outside of prison.”

Amy was one of the Initiative’s first referrals. Like the vast majority of women in prison, Amy was a victim of horrific violence prior to her incarceration.  She grew up witnessing domestic violence perpetrated by her father against her mother and was so distraught by what she saw that she attempted suicide at the age of twelve. A year later she moved to a new school and started dating an older boy who preyed on her vulnerability. This marked the beginning of an eleven-year relationship during which Amy was subjected to increasingly violent and dangerous abuse, as well as psychological torture.  Her abuser threatened to kill her, her family, and her friends if she tried to leave him.  It was right after he threatened to kill Amy’s sister, who was visiting her, that Amy made the terrifying decision to flee.

Amy and her sister were hiding at their step-mother’s house for approximately six weeks before they began to fear that her abuser had found her.  During an argument with her step-mother and sister about how to stay safe now that she had been discovered, Amy’s relentless stress, terror, and untreated PTSD took over and, without conscious knowledge of what she was doing, Amy killed her step-mother, with whom she’d had a close, loving relationship. She was convicted in 1991 for murder in the second degree and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Amy was eligible for parole in 2015, but despite an impeccable record inside prison, a strong release plan, and deep remorse for the crime she committed, she was denied parole.  Instead of considering the many factors that warranted her release, the parole board focused solely on the severity of the crime, completely disregarding the governing statute, regulations, and case law.

Amy was referred to the Initiative for help preparing for her next parole interview in 2018. After his first meeting with Amy at Taconic Correctional Facility, Rich knew that the Initiative had to try to help her.  Soon after, he and Nigar agreed to represent Amy.

Rich and Nigar worked on updating and supplementing her parole packet. Understanding how important it would be to explain Amy’s extreme trauma and the effect it had on the commission of the crime, they hired a trauma expert to meet with Amy and deliver an expert report to the parole board. Rich and Nigar compassionately worked with Amy to prepare her for the parole board interview—an experience that is often incredibly re-traumatizing for many survivors.  With the expert support and guidance of Rich and Nigar, Amy was finally, after more than 25 years in prison, granted parole in 2018.

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 Richard and Nigar’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.

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.