Recognizing Diana Steele: A Pillars of Change Honoree

Diana is a 2018 Pillars of Change honoree.

It’s National Volunteer Recognition Week! Every day this week we’ll be highlighting a Sanctuary volunteer who will be honored at our Pillars of Change Volunteer Recognition Event on May 10th. Learn More and register for Pillars of Change.

Diana Steele has been volunteering with Sanctuary’s Matrimonial/Economic Justice Project since 2014, when she was connected to Sanctuary through the Attorney Emeritus Program.

Diana’s goal had always been to work in public interest law. Prior to her long career in corporate taxation, she had worked in nonprofit organizations such as The Legal Aid Society and the ACLU.

It was this deep commitment to public interest that inspired Diana to dedicate her time to Sanctuary for Families upon retiring.

“I had always wanted to get back into doing something more consistent with my initial public interest goals, and Sanctuary’s mission clearly fit that goal”, she explains.

In her time as a Sanctuary volunteer, Diana has become an invaluable member of the Matrimonial/Economic Justice Project team, a group of attorneys and advocates who provide survivors of gender violence with legal representation to obtain divorce, child support, child custody, and other relief to which they are entitled.

“Diana does research and writing on complex legal issues that arise in our cases.  She has handled everything from researching details about service of process in foreign jurisdictions to drafting arguments for appellate briefs,” explains Amanda Norejko, Director of the Matrimonial/Economic Justice Project.

Diana’s skill and productivity was evident from the beginning and her research and writing has played a central role in supporting a wide range of clients’ legal needs. Some of Diana’s achievements include collaborating on winning briefs in cases before the Appellate Division, providing research for manuals used to train new attorneys in housing law, and stepping in to support time-sensitive case while the primary attorney was on vacation.

“Diana is incredibly productive, enabling us to meet tight deadlines on major legal briefs. We have come to rely on her consistently excellent work product and she never disappoints us.” – Amanda Norejko.

Diana’s commitment to Sanctuary is undeniable, “The most rewarding parts of volunteering at Sanctuary are working with the dedicated, bright, and hardworking legal staff and witnessing the tremendous courage and resilience of Sanctuary clients.”

Pillars of Change is an opportunity to honor extraordinary volunteers like Diana, who bring skill, experience, and passion to our staff and hope and opportunity to our clients.

We hope you will join us at Pillars of Change on May 10, 2018 to recognize Diana and four other incredible volunteers for their service. You can join us at Pillars of Change by registering now!

With pro bono support, Jennifer got her son back.

Sanctuary staff and pro bono attorneys took on the legal system to reunite Jennifer with her son Tommy.

By now, you’ve watched Jennifer share her story. Ben A. Schatz, a Sanctuary pro bono attorney who worked with Jennifer on her case, shares how they took on the legal system to ensure Jennifer and Tommy could find safety and freedom from violence.

Jennifer came to Sanctuary’s office at the Bronx Family Justice Center one afternoon last year in a panic. Her ex-boyfriend John had thrown a metal cooking pot at her, severely bruising her arm. Next time, he said, he’d kill her.

Then he left with their then two-year-old son, Tommy, and told Jennifer she’d never see Tommy again.

Reuniting mother and son

Dara Sheinfeld, Sanctuary’s Legal Director in the Bronx and Manhattan, acted fast. Working with law enforcement, she had John arrested for assault. Tommy was returned to Jennifer’s care the very same day. Jennifer said that when she woke up the next morning with Tommy by her side it was one of the happiest days of her life.

I joined Dara as pro bono counsel to help Jennifer take the necessary legal steps to ensure that she and Tommy could escape their terrible past with John and move on with their lives. Dara and I filed petitions in Bronx Family Court seeking an order of protection that would require John to stay away from Jennifer and Tommy and give Jennifer full custody.

As Jennifer and I waited in the gallery before each court appearance, I could feel her discomfort as John sat across the aisle only a few feet away.

We argued that the court should enter an order of protection based solely on threatening statements John made when he pled guilty to assaulting Jennifer. The court agreed and granted an order of protection for Jennifer. An issue remained, however, as to whether the order of protection could extend to Tommy as well. We were headed for trial.

A child’s safety, on trial

Jennifer took the witness stand and bravely recounted the terrifying details of the years of physical and emotional abuse John inflicted upon her in Tommy’s presence, and at times, while Tommy was in her arms.

John took the stand and insisted that he never laid a finger on Jennifer. It quickly became clear that the judge saw through his lies; our cross-examination was so withering that John’s lawyer interrupted the proceedings to protect him from further perjuring himself.

When we left court that day, we knew the worst was over. The court ruled fully in Jennifer’s favor, entering a final order of protection that would place John in contempt if he contacted Jennifer or Tommy for the next five years. Shortly thereafter, the court awarded Jennifer full custody over Tommy and denied John any visitation rights, a rarity in New York.

A new home and a new start

Our advocacy for Jennifer did not end with her legal victory. We worked to find her housing and helped arrange counseling for Tommy. And when Jennifer temporarily relocated to an apartment not far from my own, my wife and son joined Jennifer, Tommy, and me for a tour of her new neighborhood.

Jennifer was of course happy to have Sanctuary on her side, but I feel like the lucky one. Lucky to have learned so much from Dara about how to be a holistic advocate for my clients. And lucky to have met Jennifer, whom I have come to know as a caring mother, kind friend, and true survivor.

Sanctuary staff and pro bono attorneys assisted nearly 15,000 survivors like Jennifer and Tommy last year in reclaiming their lives after violence. When you make your gift, you ensure we can continue this life-saving work in 2016. Thank you.

Ben A. Schatz is a longtime Sanctuary pro bono attorney, and Co-Chair of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.