TCS NYC Marathon Spotlight: Erika Tullberg

TCS NYC Marathon runner and Sanctuary team-member Erika Tullberg shares why she’s running this year.

For seven years now, Sanctuary has organized NYC Marathon teams and each year we’re amazed by the commitment, strength and mental fortitude of our incredible runners. This year, we’re proud to say, is no exception! When our team member Erika first started running three years ago, she claims she “couldn’t run more than a block.” Next month, Erika will run 26.2 miles throughout NYC’s five boroughs in honor of the families Sanctuary serves and those who have generously given on her behalf.

Erika is nearly 85% of the way to her goal of $3,000. Help her raise the remainder by donating through her CrowdRise page today.

A New Year’s resolution

I started running three years ago, somewhat on a whim. It was just after New Year’s, I was feeling out of shape, and I knew that getting another gym membership that I probably wouldn’t use was not the solution. Running seemed appealing, because you can do it whenever or wherever you want – so despite the fact that I couldn’t run more than a block without stopping, I gave it a try.

My initial goal was to run a charity 5 kilometer run/walk that I had walked for several years.  Those early cold, dark January mornings I walked far more than ran. Gradually, however, the balance flipped and I was actually running, which amazed me!  I did my 5k, and then another; and another after that. That fall I did my first 10k.

Support made all the difference

The following spring I convinced a friend to train with me for a half marathon – it seemed like a good bucket list challenge.  The race ended up going horribly for me, but the bad taste it left just gave me incentive to try again. The following year I signed up a training group. Having that support made all the difference, and I ended up doing three more half marathons over the subsequent year.

Still, I didn’t think of myself as a runner and never thought I could do a marathon. I didn’t think I could stick with the training, especially during the heat and humidity of the summer, and more importantly, I didn’t think my injury-prone body could take the pounding. Several friends from my running group had qualified for the 2016 New York City Marathon, however, so I figured that if I was ever going to try it, now was the time to do it. I had people around me to help me through the process and I still had the option of running with one of the many charities affiliated with the marathon.

Running for Sanctuary

I put a lot of thought into what organization I wanted to run with. I have always worked in social services, and most of my work has been with children and families that have experienced maltreatment, violence, and other kinds of trauma. Through my work I was familiar with Sanctuary for Families, and knew that the money I would raise would provide concrete help to women and children who have experienced unspeakable trauma yet often remain marginalized and forgotten by society. Running for Sanctuary has also given me additional incentive when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel because people are now depending on me – both Sanctuary’s clients and the people who have so generously donated on my behalf.

One thing that running has taught me is that as hard as it is physically, the largest part of the struggle is mental – to keep running when every fiber of your being is telling you to stop. It seems hokey to say that it’s a great metaphor for life, but it is true. Sometimes you just have to focus on the next step, and if you keep putting one foot in front of the other you will eventually get to where you want to, need to, and can be. Sanctuary for Families helps people to do that every single day.

Unfortunately I’m still not one of those people who feels the “runner’s high” when they are running. What keeps me going is the support of my running friends and the satisfaction I know I will have once I am done. So when I make my way through the city to Central Park on November 6th, I will focus on getting through the next step – remembering all of the people I am running for, and hoping that the strength I have unexpectedly found in myself will help provide strength to others.

Donate through Erika’s CrowdRise page to help her meet her $3000 goal!

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.

Former Skadden Associate Michael Van Hulle Honored for His Work with Survivors of Gender Violence

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring former Skadden litigation associate Michael Van Hulle for his pro bono work on behalf of six Sanctuary clients, all survivors of gender violence, whose lives were put on hold as they waited for years for their asylum office interviews to be scheduled.

michael-van-hulleAt this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is  honoring Michael Van Hulle, a former litigation associate at Skadden,  for his pro bono work on behalf of six Sanctuary clients, all survivors of gender violence, whose lives were put on hold as they waited for years for their asylum office
interviews to be scheduled. 

Fleeing gender violence, asylum seekers find themselves in limbo

In early 2015, Sanctuary for Families reached out to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP with a unique request –   a mandamus action against U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”).  Sanctuary had six asylum clients who had been waiting years for their asylum interviews.  The clients fled from various forms of gender violence abroad, from female genital mutilation (“FGM”) and forced marriage to domestic violence and trafficking, to seek protection from the U.S. government.

Although federal regulations require that USCIS grant interviews to asylum applicants no later than 45 days after the date their application is filed, backlogs at the asylum offices have led to an average wait time of two to three years for interviews in New York and New Jersey.

As a result of these significant delays, asylum seekers find themselves in limbo, remain separated from family members still at risk of violence overseas, and struggle to make ends meet due to ineligibility for public assistance, housing, and even Medicaid in certain states.

Dania Lopez Beltran (former Sanctuary attorney) and Sanctuary attorney Sayoni Maitra reached out to Skadden regarding the possibility of filing a mandamus complaint on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients. Dania and Sayoni had learned that Michael recently worked on a similar matter for Immigration Equality and therefore had the expertise needed for this particular lawsuit.  This was Michael’s first Sanctuary matter, and he was excited to get involved again on behalf of deserving asylum clients who needed legal representation.

Changing USCIS policy

Michael moved quickly.  He drafted and filed under seal a complaint seeking a writ of mandamus in the Southern District of New York against the New York and Newark Asylum Offices on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients.  The complaint alleged that USCIS was statutorily required to interview each asylum applicant within 45 days.

After the complaint was filed, Michael heard back from an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York.  Up until early 2015, USCIS had been utilizing a “last in, first out” system of scheduling asylum interviews.  This meant that applicants who had submitted their applications most recently were scheduled interviews before those who filed years before.

However, just around the time Michael filed the mandamus complaint on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients, USCIS switched to a “first in, first out” policy, so that those cases dating back to around 2012 would now be scheduled interviews at the New York and Newark Asylum Offices. While a welcome change, the policy shift did not reduce the average wait times facing asylum applicants, and those who filed after 2012 continued to languish in purgatory while their interviews remained unscheduled.

USCIS’s new approach to scheduling asylum interviews benefited some of Sanctuary’s clients.  Two of Sanctuary’s clients, however, remained in limbo after the policy change and could not afford to wait another year or two for an interview.  They were in particular need of immediate assistance, and it was on their behalf that Michael’s advocacy and perseverance paid off.

Campaigning on his clients’ behalf

The first client, Ms. A, had daughters back in her home country who were at an age when most girls in their community have already been subjected to FGM.  In 2013, after Ms. A’s husband and children went into hiding, Ms. A fled to the United States to seek asylum, hoping that she could then apply for her husband and children to join her.  As time passed, however, Ms. A feared more and more that her daughters would be located by her family and forced to undergo FGM.  Scheduling her asylum interview therefore became critical.

The second client, Ms. B, had been repeatedly raped for years by her trafficker until she was finally able to escape from him.  As a result of the sexual abuse that she was subjected to, Ms. B experienced medical symptoms that worsened over the years and required immediate medical care by the time she was in the United States in 2013.  However, in New Jersey, where she was located, individuals with pending immigration applications are ineligible for Medicaid, and without Medicaid, Ms. B remained unable to obtain the treatment that she desperately needed.

Michael diligently and passionately advocated on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients, through letters and phone calls, explaining the urgency that was now facing each woman.  He told each woman’s story, of why USCIS’s utter failure to abide by the 45-day rule was creating an increasingly dire situation. 

Eventually, his campaign led to settlement negotiations with the Assistant U.S. Attorney, pursuant to which all six Sanctuary clients, including Ms. A and Ms. B, were finally able to get what they’ve been fighting for:  their interview dates.  Having been granted asylum, Ms. A has applied for her children to join her as asylee derivatives, and Ms. B was enrolled in Medicaid to receive the health care she needed for so long.

Heroes among us

Reflecting on the phenomenal outcome of his negotiations and efforts, Michael stated that he was proud to have been able to make a real difference in the clients’ lives.  When he initially took on the matter, he read through each woman’s asylum application.  He marveled at the strength demonstrated by each woman, and the adversity that they had to overcome to escape their circumstances.  He remarked,

“There aren’t heroic people doing heroic things anymore; but here, I would read these affidavits, and think, ‘Wow, that is actually heroic.’ [It was hard to read through these applications without], getting a little teary eyed.”

The emotions became even more poignant when the settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office was signed in late 2015.  He felt “good,” remarking, “It really was difficult to beat the raw emotional impact of getting to do this type of work.”  His hard work brought about a positive change to the lives of six women who had survived – with a heroic level of grace and courage – acts of incomprehensible cruelty and horror.  His advocacy also held the government accountable for their decisions not to abide by a clear statutory requirement, by pointing out the costs and consequences that were at risk.  It was a touching end to his time at Skadden.

Being able to see the matter to conclusion was also an emotional victory for Michael on a personal level.  Steve Kolleeny, former Special Counsel and the head of Skadden’s pro bono asylum program, had been the person who reached out to Michael and encouraged him to take on the government to seek justice on behalf of asylum seekers.  He had been a personal and professional mentor to Michael, and a source of inspiration in his dedication to providing unparalleled advocacy on behalf of asylum applicants.

Shortly before Michael began working on the mandamus complaint for Sanctuary’s clients, however, Steve passed away.  Michael was particularly proud and honored to have had the opportunity to follow in the large footsteps of his mentor in his fight on behalf of deserving asylum clients.

 

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

Etienne Barg-Townsend is Senior Legal Counsel at KGS-Alpha Capital Markets, L.P., a New York-based institutional fixed income broker-dealer.  She was formerly a litigation associate at Shearman & Sterling LLP, Cahill Gordon & Reindel, LLP, and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.  She has worked on several pro bono matters with Sanctuary, and is in the process of developing a pro bono program at KGS-Alpha.  She is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and is Co-Chair of this year’s Above & Beyond gala. 

 

Akerman Attorneys Help Domestic Violence Survivor Win Final Protective Order

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Akerman associates Steven Cordero and Vanessa Garcia for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Ms. C.”

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Akerman attorneys for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Ms. C,” a survivor of domestic violence.  Akerman associates Steven Cordero and Vanessa Garcia worked tirelessly on a difficult family-court trial that lasted eighteen months.  In July 2016, they ultimately prevailed, obtaining for Ms. C a five-year final order of protection against her abuser. 

Securing the protective order

For years Ms. C has been struggling with a rare degenerative illness, while also suffering from on-going abuse by her husband.  Ms. C sought help after a particularly frightening incident in 2014, which culminated in her husband threatening to kill her. Her husband was arrested, but the criminal court only granted Ms. C a two-year protective order. Fearing what could happen to her after the order expired, Ms. C reached out to Sanctuary, and Sanctuary reached out to Akerman.

Akerman associates Steven Cordero and Vanessa Garcia met Ms. C in January 2015, and, with the assistance of Amanda Norejko, Director of Sanctuary’s Matrimonial and Economic Justice Project, immediately began preparing for a trial in Family Court to seek a five-year protective order so that Ms. C would still have an order of protection in place after the two-year criminal order expired.

Amanda nominated Steven and Vanessa to receive the Above & Beyond award because of their incredible dedication to their client:

“Steven and Vanessa devoted many hours to preparing for trial to ensure Ms. C received the longest possible order of protection.  They introduced compelling evidence and carefully prepared Ms. C. for her testimony. The client was extremely nervous about testifying, but they did an excellent job working with her to be able to present a very solid case.  They skillfully represented a very anxious client with incredible sensitivity and understanding. They took all the client’s concerns into consideration and answered her many questions with great care and patience.”

The family court ultimately granted Ms. C a five-year final order of protection in July 2016.  The team was thrilled with the court’s ruling—it is difficult to win a protective order of such length because it requires specific factual findings by the court that aggravating circumstances (for example, serious physical injury) exist.

Going above and beyond

In addition to their exceptional legal representation, Steven and Vanessa have truly gone above and beyond for Ms. C.  Domestic violence victims often have to wait around the courthouse for long periods of time following each court appearance, in order to get their temporary orders of protection from the court clerk.  This experience is made even more uncomfortable and scary for victims by the fact that their abusers are also present at the courthouse waiting for the orders. But Steven and Vanessa always went the extra mile to ensure that Ms. C felt safe, by waiting as long as two hours with her to receive her temporary orders of protection, and walking her out of the courthouse.  In addition, Vanessa is continuing to assist Ms. C. with her other legal needs.

Ms. C is incredibly grateful to Steven and Vanessa:

“I am so grateful for all the time, effort, and skill that Steve and Vanessa have put into my case over the past two years. Steve and Vanessa worked tirelessly to prepare me properly for my court appearance.  They also gave me the reassurance and comfort I needed throughout the process to persevere.  Thanks to their remarkable ongoing efforts before, during, and after each court appearance—not only from a legal point of view, but also in terms of their kindness, compassion, and sense of humor—Vanessa and Steve helped make this unpleasant process as pleasant as possible.”

Fighting for a worthy cause

Reflecting on his experience working with Ms. C, Steven explained that this case showed him that domestic violence is an issue that touches people of all walks of life, regardless of social-economic status.  He also appreciated that representing a domestic violence survivor in a case that would help protect her from harm gave him an opportunity to use his legal skills to fight for a good and worthy cause.

“It is very rewarding to have such a close client relationship, and to have someone like Ms. C put her trust in you,” Vanessa added.  In addition, “the pro bono work has given me the opportunity, even as a junior associate, to really get involved in a case and see it through.”

Both associates expressed their appreciation for Akerman’s support of its attorneys’ pro bono work, and their excitement about the firm’s recently expanded pro bono practice.

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

Emilie Winckel is a white-collar associate at O’Melveny & Myers LLP and currently represents a Sanctuary client in connection with a federal criminal case.  She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.