Cohen & Gresser Attorneys Reinstate Critical Public Benefits for Trafficking Survivor

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of pro bono attorneys at Cohen & Gresser LLP for their bono work fighting to make sure “Camilla,” a victim of trafficking, received the public benefits she was entitled to.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of pro bono attorneys at Cohen & Gresser LLP for their bono work fighting to make sure “Camilla,” a victim of trafficking, received the public benefits she was entitled to.  

Cut off from public benefits

Camilla, a victim of human trafficking from Mexico and a monolingual Spanish speaker, originally came to Sanctuary for immigration assistance.  But last summer when Camilla checked her public benefits card she realized that, for some reason, she had not received her cash assistance or her food stamps and could not buy groceries for her family.  Camilla, like many of Sanctuary’s lowest income clients, relies heavily on her monthly public benefits to meet basic living needs, like food and clothing.  But these critical benefits are often cut off, or drastically reduced, for no legitimate reason and/or with no appropriate notice.  This sudden lack of resources is devastating for our clients, and it was devastating for Camilla.

Camilla went to her local welfare center to find out what happened and discovered that her benefits case was closed, without any notice, because she had allegedly failed to recertify her case (public benefits recipients must periodically recertify their eligibility to receive benefits).  Camilla contacted Sanctuary for assistance and Sanctuary reached out to Cohen & Gresser, who had recently hosted a Sanctuary for Families Public Benefits training at their firm.

Cohen & Gresser attorneys step in

Scott D. Thomson
Scott D. Thomson

Cohen & Gresser attorneys Scott D. Thomson, who speaks Spanish, and Matthew V. Povolny volunteered immediately to represent Camilla at her fair hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to determine if her benefits should be reinstated.  Neither had ever done a public benefits fair hearing before, but they both got up to speed on the law and the procedures incredibly quickly.  Their first fair hearing was a success:  Camilla’s much-needed benefits were restored, she was awarded retroactive benefits from the time they were cut off, and she received another opportunity to recertify for her cash assistance and SNAP (i.e., food stamps) benefits.

Matthew V. Povolny
Matthew V. Povolny

Although Scott and Matthew had successfully wrapped up Camilla’s fair hearing, they maintained close contact with her to ensure that the Human Resources Administration (“HRA”) complied with the fair hearing decision.  Thanks to their diligence, they soon discovered that Camilla was not receiving adequate benefits for her household. In fact, HRA was only providing benefits for her minor son, who is a US citizen.  But, even though she is not a US citizen, HRA should also have been providing benefits to Camilla, who qualified to receive benefits due to her status as a certified victim of trafficking under the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Scott and Matthew jumped right in and filed a fair hearing request for Camilla to argue that her cash assistance and food stamps amounts were inadequate. Not only did they win the fair hearing, they educated the ALJ and the HRA representative about a non-US citizen’s eligibility for benefits if they are a certified victim of human trafficking.  Says Scott:

“I was impressed by the Administrative Law Judges.  They really wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on, and they pushed the agency representative to do the right thing. The agency representatives came around once we helped them understand the issues.”

Joy and stability

As a result of their committed advocacy, Camilla received over $2,200 in retroactive benefits and will see an increase in benefits going forward.  The success brought immense joy and stability to Camilla, who, prior to this experience, was reaching her breaking point with the complicated welfare system and wanted to give up fighting and just hope for the best.  Matthew and Scott both agreed that seeing the very personal effect that their successful representation had on Camilla was one of the most rewarding parts of working on a public benefits pro bono case.  Said Scott:

“We knew how much she needed that money to use for food and her son’s expenses.  It was really great to have a direct tangible effect on someone’s daily life.”

They both plan on continuing to do pro bono work at the firm, which has a strong commitment to pro bono.  Matthew explained:

“There is a tremendous feeling of what a great opportunity pro bono gives you to help people in the city that you pass by in the streets every day.  It’s always a great feeling to give back.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Cohen & Gresser’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.

Nicole Fidler is the Pro Bono Supervising Attorney at Sanctuary for Families.

5 Harmful Myths about Human Trafficking

When it comes to human trafficking, it’s hard to separate myth from fact.

Human trafficking is complicated. It’s kept under wraps, overlooked, and often ignored. Few reliable studies exist about its prevalence. As a result, it’s often hard to separate myth from fact when trying to understand this horrific abuse of human rights.

Read on to see some myths about human trafficking dispelled, and during Human Trafficking Awareness Month, take the opportunity to learn, share – and take action. 

1) MYTH: Human trafficking only happens in countries far away from the United States.

FACT: Human trafficking occurs around the world, in the United States, and right here in New York City. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center received over 16,600 calls for help last year. At Sanctuary, we regularly serve survivors of sex trafficking and human trafficking from the five boroughs. Our clients include both immigrants and native New Yorkers.

2) MYTH: Only women are victims of human trafficking.

FACT: Anyone, regardless of gender, can be a victim of human trafficking. In fact, studies have indicated that 45% of victims of human trafficking are men and boys. Men and boys can be victims of both labor trafficking AND sex trafficking.

3) MYTH: Human trafficking requires physical force or restraint to be considered trafficking.

FACT: Traffickers can use many kinds of tactics to coerce victims, including threats to a victim’s family; exploiting a victim’s vulnerability, such as lack of immigration status; using psychological tactics, like shaming, mental abuse, and isolation; and using debt bondage against a victim.

4) MYTH: Human trafficking is a small, underground industry that doesn’t affect many people.

FACT: 20.9 million people around the world are victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a $150 billion global industry. There are no reliable numbers on human trafficking victims in the United States, but the reality is pretty clear – this crime is widespread and affects millions of people around the world and at home.

5) MYTH: There is nothing I can do to end human trafficking.

FACT: Everyone can take action to end human trafficking. You can volunteer with Sanctuary, make a donation, or sign up to receive advocacy updates. You can also make smart decisions about how you spend your money and what you buy – check out slaveryfootprint.org to see how your consumer decisions might be supporting human trafficking, and what you can do to make change.

Running a Marathon to Make the World Safe for Girls

Josephine shares why she is training and fundraising as a member of Sanctuary’s marathon team: to make the world a safe place for girls, everywhere.

My name is Josephine Ngong-Tawe and I am from Cameroon, Africa. I have lived in the US for 20 years. I am an optometrist by profession and I own FRANKLIN FAMILY EYECARE in Somerset, NJ. In my “free time,” I am a wife to Wilson and mother to my 3 beautiful kids: Tawe, Eka and Beri.

On Sunday, November 1st, I will run 26.1 miles through the streets of New York City as a member of Sanctuary’s TCS NYC Marathon team. I have spent the past months raising money and training for this run of a lifetime.

I heard about Sanctuary through my good friend Margaret Ngunang. She is a clinical social worker at Sanctuary’s Sarah Burke House shelter. She introduced me to Sanctuary when she found out I wanted to run the NYC Marathon. And why not run for this worthwhile cause?

A few weeks before joining Sanctuary’s team, I listened to an audio of young girls from my home country of Cameroon who were employed in Kuwait. These young ladies narrated a bone chilling story of finding themselves as unpaid servants, sex slaves and literal prisoners in Kuwaiti households. Their passports confiscated, they were in a foreign country with no knowledge of the language and no means to communicate with the outside world.

One told a story of watching a young lady shot dead by the mistress of the household because she tried to escape. They told about hundreds of young ladies from Africa and south East Asia who have been lured to these countries in the hope of getting jobs with decent salaries to help their families, but instead have found themselves in a situation worse than they could have imagined.

In the same week, I found out that one of my young patients was raped on her college campus. Another young lady I work with has a scar on her neck from a knife wound from an ex-boyfriend; an acquaintance was stabbed to death by her fiancée. The stories go on…

I am moved to run in support of Sanctuary for Families, because I believe their mission looks at the complete picture through advocacy, outreach, children’s services, legal and economic empowerment and shelter for those displaced.

My goal as a member of Sanctuary’s charity team is to raise $3,000 in support of their work with survivors, and I am hoping to make it to this goal in these last 2 weeks before the race.

The more we do, the more awareness we bring to the plight of many who live through this every day. We are all only a few degrees removed from someone who is going through or has gone through this situation.

Ultimately, if even one child’s future plight can be completely reversed through Sanctuary’s services, I will consider my running all these hundreds of miles since July worthwhile.

You can support Josephine and her race for Sanctuary! Donate today.