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.

Stories of Courage and Empowerment

Economic Empowerment Program graduates share stories of struggle and perseverance.

This past June, Sanctuary for Families’ Economic Empower Program held its semi-annual graduation ceremony to celebrate the achievements of forty-three strong and inspiring women, all survivors of domestic violence. With friends, family and Sanctuary staff in attendance, the women accepted their diplomas thereby marking the start of a new stage in both their personal and professional lives.

To honor the occasion the class elected fellow graduates to speak on their behalf. The speeches delivered by Coleen, Rebecah, and Yijie reflect many of the challenges that an estimated 25% of women in the U.S. have/will face in their lifetime. Follow the links below to read their speeches and hear their remarkable stories.

Coleen’s Story

Finding opportunity in every difficulty

“Just a few weeks into the program, I had the craziest thought, ‘What if I were selected to speak at graduation?’ ‘What would I say?’ Right there and then I commenced writing what I wanted to say. Today, here I am delivering [my speech] to you.”

Read on here.

Rebecah’s Story

Another chance at life

“Thinking [back on] a time when I sat in my unit at the shelter thinking to myself I am a single mother, jobless, and who the hell cares  I never thought I would be standing here basking in my own achievements. I didn’t want to constantly be a burden to people who had their own worries, so I shared a little and kept everything else to myself.”

Read on here.

Yijie’s Story

I am not a victim

“Even though I was free from abuse, my freedom was a harsh experience of shelter and struggle – I lost hope and wanted to give up. But I didn’t. I kept going. This program has allowed me to improve myself as well as my professional skills. I was a professional in my native country of China. Now I feel confident and ready to be a professional again in America. Most importantly, I feel human again.”

Read on here.

 

Yijie’s Story: I am not a victim

Yijie, a Sanctuary for Families client, shares how the Economic Empowerment Program helped her reclaim her humanity.

The following speech was delivered by Yijie, a Sanctuary for Families client, at the Spring 2016 Economic Empowerment Program (E.E.P.) graduation. Of the 43 graduates in this year’s spring class, four women were selected by class vote to share their stories with the audience.

This is Yijie’s story.

I am honored to have the chance to speak with you on this special occasion. I would like to start by saying thank you to Sanctuary for Families and the Economic Empowerment Program (E.E.P.) Department for this life changing opportunity. I would also like to give a special thanks to Angelo, Sarah, Maggie, Jessica, Saloni and Eve for their dedication to this program.

Above all, I want to say congratulations to my classmates in the Office Operations Workshop (O.O.W.) program. We have worked so hard and learned so much over these past five months. It has been difficult at times, but all of us here are no strangers to difficulty. All here have been victims of domestic violence.

My participation in this program was not only an opportunity for me to improve myself professionally as an immigrant in a new country, but also a necessary step I needed to take in the process of reclaiming my humanity.

After two years of being a victim of domestic violence, I finally found the courage to leave my abuser. This is difficult for anyone in this situation. It is even more difficult when you are a stranger in a strange land. I felt like I was at the mercy of a system and a city I did not understand. As a single woman with no children, managing the domestic violence system was a constant challenge.

Even though I was free from abuse, my freedom was a harsh experience of shelter and struggle – I lost hope and wanted to give up. But I didn’t. I kept going.

This program has allowed me to improve myself as well as my professional skills. I was a professional in my native country of China. Now I feel confident and ready to be a professional again in America. Most importantly, I feel human again. I am not a victim of domestic violence. I am a survivor of domestic violence. I have taken my life back. 

Again, I thank everyone at Sanctuary for Families for giving us this opportunity. Your work is so important to so many. I wish my classmates the best of luck in their personal and professional lives. Congratulations again to all of you!

 

Learn more about the Economic Empowerment Program’s success here.

The Supreme Court ruling is a blow for immigrant victims of gender violence

This is a heartbreaking decision for over 5 million undocumented immigrant.

This is a heartbreaking decision for over 5 million undocumented immigrants, including many of our own clients here at Sanctuary for Families.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced a 4-4 ruling in U.S. v. Texas, the case deciding whether President Obama’s 2014 executive action immigration relief programs can go into effect.

This decision holds deep repercussions for many of Sanctuary for Families’ clients, for survivors of gender violence seeking safety and freedom in the US, and for immigrants and their families throughout our country.

As a result of the tie, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA+) programs will not be implemented. These programs were a lifeline for many of the clients we serve every day.

This is a heartbreaking decision, especially for the roughly 5 million undocumented immigrants who were eligible for these programs. It is equally heartbreaking for their family members, including their U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident children, who are directly impacted by their parents’ ability to work legally and live without fear of deportation.

But mostly, this is a very sad day for all immigrant parents who have been in this country for years raising the next generation of US citizens.

Every single day, we meet them in our offices and see first-hand how their lack of work authorization and lawful status affect their families’ emotional and economic health, having a lasting impact on their families, their communities, and our country as a whole.

Despite today’s disappointing decision, we will continue fighting for the rights of all non-citizen survivors of domestic violence, gender based violence, and trafficking, as well as for the rights of all immigrants.

Today’s result brings with it many opportunities to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform that will benefit our clients, their families, and our shared communities. One of these opportunities, which we encourage you to attend, is a rally organized by the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) on Tuesday, June 28th at 6pm at Foley Square.

In the coming days and weeks, we expect more mobilizations and advocacy efforts, both here in New York City, as well as nationally, so please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and check back here to stay tuned.

Michael Shannon is an attorney and Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow with Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project.