Sanctuary for Families provides legal, counseling, shelter, and economic empowerment services to survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender-based violence in New York.

Nicole Fidler (Director, Pro Bono Program) and Romy Felsen-Parsons (Pro Bono Project Assistant) shared a bit about the organization’s critical work and how pro bono attorneys can provide legal advice and representation to survivors.

What you should know about Sanctuary for Families:

Sanctuary for Families provides legal, counseling, shelter, and economic empowerment services to survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender-based violence in New York. Every year approximately 1,000 pro bono attorneys partner with Sanctuary to offer legal advice and representation to survivors. We have several Legal Projects that partner with pro bono attorneys, including our Family Law Project, Matrimonial and Economic Justice Project, Anti-Trafficking Initiative, Courtroom Advocates Project (which trains and mentors summer associates and new law firm associates not yet admitted to the Bar), Immigration Intervention Project, and Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative.

Our message to potential pro bono volunteers:

Sanctuary prides itself on our mentorship model of pro bono partnership, which covers both subject matter expertise and the basics of engaging in trauma-informed lawyering. Each case we place is assigned a Sanctuary supervisor to review drafts, answer questions, and provide guidance. If a case is litigated in court, we provide an experienced staff member to co-counsel with the pro bono team. Additionally, our password-protected Pro Bono Portal houses an extensive amount of training manuals, recorded trainings and training slideshows, sample legal documents, and much more. We also onboard each pro bono team with resources around trauma-informed lawyering and how to sensitively and effectively work with gender-based violence survivors and linguistically-diverse clients.

“We recognize that our law firm partners might not be subject matter experts or have experience working with trauma survivors. We are ready and excited to be able to provide guidance in order to reach the most clients with effective, trauma-informed legal assistance.”
Romy Felsen-Parsons Pro Bono Project Assistant; Sanctuary for Families

How we’re driving innovation in pro bono:

One example is the Asylum Pro Se Clinic that we piloted last summer in partnership with the law firm Latham & Watkins LLP. We had been thinking hard about how to provide legal aid to as many asylum seekers as we can, given the high need for assistance in this area and the capacity restraints at non-profit legal services organizations and law firm pro bono partners. Sanctuary screened a number of asylum seekers in need of legal assistance and placed four clients with teams of attorneys at Latham & Watkins. After a training session, the Latham teams met with their clients and began gathering information to complete their Form I-589s, compelling client affidavits, and country conditions that demonstrate the unwillingness or inability of their home countries to protect them.

Over the course of approximately seven weeks, the teams worked with the pro se clients and Sanctuary immigration attorney mentors to finalize the asylum application documents, which they provided to their pro se clients along with step-by-step guidance on how to continue their asylum journey pro se. We were excited about this opportunity to respond to an immediate need, and have since repeated the clinic and are now slowly expanding it to other firms.

Pro bono case and outcome we are most proud of:

There are so many outcomes we are proud of! One that comes to mind immediately is Saada v. Golan, a case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court last summer after over four years of litigation. The outcome of this case set a critical precedent that has changed the law for the better for survivors seeking safety and stability in the U.S. for themselves and their children.

To explain the case briefly, Sanctuary for Families referred Ms. Golan to the law firm of Paul, Weiss, in September 2018 after she fled Italy and her abusive husband, Jacky Saada, with her two-year-old son. Mr. Saada filed a petition for return of the child under the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

A large trial team from Paul, Weiss headed by Karen King, now partner at Morvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Anello PC, put on Ms. Golan’s defense, including a chilling record of violence and abusive behavior by Mr. Saada. Ultimately, the District Court found serious and persistent domestic violence and determined that Ms. Golan’s son would be at grave risk of exposure to physical and/or psychological harm if returned to Italy, but the court nonetheless granted the return petition subject to certain “ameliorative measures.” It became evident that the exercise of crafting ameliorative measures despite the grave-risk finding sourced to domestic violence was deeply problematic, and it was ultimately litigated before the U.S. Supreme Court and argued by Ms. King.

Sanctuary for Families and the entire domestic violence advocate community were ecstatic when the Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision on June 15, 2022, authored by Justice Sotomayor, vacating the return order, overturning the Second Circuit’s ameliorative measures rule, and providing guidance that will help other victims of domestic violence and their children in similar situations. Due to extraordinary circumstances the case is still being litigated on remand in the lower courts, but the important legal holding established in the Supreme Court victory has been incredibly helpful for survivors in Hague cases brought after the Supreme Court’s ruling. We are so grateful to the firms of Paul Weiss and Morvillo Abramowitz for their deeply devoted pro bono representation and advocacy on this case.

Collaboration across the pro bono community:

I love seeing the increased collaboration within the pro bono community between different legal service providers, community-based organizations, law firms, and other access to justice stakeholders. We all need to work together to support each other and find new and creative ways to close the access to justice gap. I think that’s been happening more and more.

"The possibilities of a truly multi-dimensional approach to providing critical pro bono legal assistance to traditionally underserved populations is very exciting."
Nicole Fidler Director, Pro Bono Program; Sanctuary for Families