by Meena Jagannath, Policy and Direct Services Intern
The Obama Administration’s recent move to reinstate a gender-based asylum remedy reopens an important legal avenue for domestic violence survivors worldwide. In a Department of Homeland Security brief filed in April 2009, the Administration expressed its position that the United States could indeed grant asylum to those fleeing abuse at the hands of their domestic partners in their home countries. The outlined policy remains narrow, where the abuse must rise to the level of persecution and the asylum-seeker must have a “well-founded fear” of future persecution. Additionally, the asylum-seeker must prove that government protection in the home country was not forthcoming and that relocation to another part of that country would not reduce or eliminate the threat of future persecution.
This new development underscores the importance of legal remedies and legal partnerships in order to serve the needs of Sakhi for South Asian Women’s survivor community. While Sakhi provides culturally-sensitive services on a number of other fronts, including court accompaniments, emotional support, economic empowerment workshops, and support groups, legal partnerships are an essential part of addressing the many family or immigration law concerns that arise in the domestic violence context.
Brian Dworkin of Queens Legal Services (QLS) underscored the importance of community advocacy organizations such as Sakhi to facilitate greater access for legal service entities to specific communities. As part of QLS’s Asian Battered Women’s Law Project, Sakhi provides QLS an essential link to the South Asian survivor community. Brian observed, “Many Sakhi clients would never seek out QLS services directly. Sakhi clients only place their trust in QLS because Sakhi has already paved the way and created a feeling that help is possible—and that QLS can be relied on to provide quality representation and support throughout the legal process.”
As Sakhi’s partners will attest, the relationships Sakhi has built with various legal entities are truly collaborative endeavors organized to deal with each survivor holistically. In that vein, Emily Ruben of the Brooklyn Neighborhood office of the Legal Aid Society of New York (Legal Aid) commented, “The benefit of the relationship to us is that Sakhi takes care of the [emotional support] part…We sign releases for each other so that we can exchange information on the client and work collaboratively, looking at the client as a whole person.”
This referral-based system is the primary way in which the Legal Aid-Sakhi partnership works, where the client is referred to the Legal Aid borough where the case is pending. Upon receiving the referral, Legal Aid immediately does an intake with the client and sees every client referred to them, unless there is a conflict of interest or the client does not pass the income requirements in the preliminary screening. While this process captures many of Sakhi’s survivors, there are still others who do not meet the income requirements to qualify for Legal Aid representation but still cannot afford to hire counsel.
This is where Sakhi’s relationship with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP (STB), Sakhi’s law firm partner, has proven valuable. In late 2007, an STB associate who had heard about the need for additional representation among Sakhi’s survivors organized with other associates at his firm to formalize a partnership. The relationship formally began in March 2008 and has already made a difference for several survivors.
Erin Bradrick of STB expressed what the partnership has meant for her, saying, “This experience has been incredibly meaningful. Through this partnership, I have gotten the chance to work with truly incredible women, both in terms of the clients and those who work at Sakhi as well.”
Erin recounts one experience working with another associate on a matter in which a trial was scheduled for a date almost immediately after STB was retained: “The client was very nervous. We had worked hard all week to get the adjournment, so the experience of coming out of the judge’s chambers and seeing the relief on her face when we told her that the trial was adjourned—that was an incredible experience….It was rewarding to see that something so small made such a great impact.”
The survivors that seek out Sakhi’s services are gratified precisely because Sakhi takes into account the concerns that may arise in all facets of their lives including via partnerships with mental health professionals and legal service providers to whom survivors can be referred as needed. As legal support is central to handling many survivors’ cases, Sakhi works collaboratively with each legal partner to fashion a relationship that maximizes the resources available to best meet the survivors’ legal needs.
For example, at STB, the partnership initially followed a clinic-based model, where STB attorneys visited Sakhi’s office every four months to hold a day-long clinic with intake sessions, at which time STB would determine whether to take on a case. However, together having noticed that the clinic model was not effective enough in meeting the needs of the most urgent cases, STB and Sakhi have recently decided to change the model to a referral-based system so that the service provision is efficient in addressing survivors’ needs.
In other ways, the clinic model has been helpful in providing advice to those who are not ready to pursue a legal case just yet. Every other month, attorneys from Legal Aid hold a legal clinic at Sakhi’s office and see up to four clients in an afternoon who have made appointments. During these clinics, Legal Aid attorneys often answer clients’ legal questions as to safety planning, economic safety, the custody of children, and clarifications of substantive law. Legal Aid also handles substantive cases in primarily the family law and immigration law contexts: the cases it takes on range from divorce and orders of protection to the filing of U-visa applications or a VAWA self-petition. As Emily mentioned, “The clinics give clients the opportunity to interface with attorneys, get advice and then figure out how to proceed.”
In speaking about how the partnership has been meaningful to her, Emily remarked that “the ability to deal with people holistically has made the representation of our clients that much more effective and impactful.”
Recalling one case in the past, Emily related a story about her involvement with a groundbreaking legal case involving abuse in a same-sex marriage. Emily was impressed with the support the client received from Sakhi as she worked with her. “Sakhi stayed with her the whole time,” she noted.
Likewise, Brian of QLS appreciated his experiences in representing Sakhi’s survivors. He mentioned that the partnership allows for Sakhi’s and QLS’s services to complement one another in making an impact both on the individual and in the larger community. For Brian, the personal interactions he has had in the course of working within this partnership have also been meaningful, noting, “It is heartening to meet warm and caring people who maintain their commitment in often difficult circumstances.”
Sakhi’s ability to provide culturally- and linguistically-appropriate services has been valuable to the legal partners in offering the proper legal support to the clients Sakhi refers to them. At Legal Aid, Emily expressed that she learned a lot from the collaboration, particularly in developing cultural sensitivity and an understanding of the South Asian community upon which their Sakhi-referred clients rely. Brian also described a case referred to him by Sakhi in which he noted how the client’s context affected how he chose to proceed with her legal case. To her, divorce was unfavorable while economic independence was important. Through her interaction with QLS, she was able to receive Employment Authorization, while she awaited approval of her VAWA self-petition.
The government has helped to support such collaborative efforts between community advocacy groups and legal service providers. QLS’s Asian Battered Women’s Law Project began in 2000 with Sakhi and another community partner using funding from a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Legal Assistance to Victims program. The program aimed to increase access to culturally and linguistically appropriate legal and support services for the Asian community.
In a similar manner, Sakhi’s partnership with Legal Aid began in 2002, following a new provision in the 2000 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which authorized more grants to be given to publically-funded organizations providing legal assistance to survivors of domestic violence. In 2002, Legal Aid signed a memorandum of understanding with Sakhi in order to write the partnership into their request for a VAWA grant. Last year, despite the incredible need and impact of Sakhi and Legal Aid, the grant was not renewed, and it is questionable whether funding will be forthcoming in the future. Still, Sakhi and Legal Aid have chosen to continue the partnership all the same, providing the same services as before. The hope is that funds from diverse sources will be forthcoming when the economy improves to ensure that this important work is sustained and grows.
Overall, as Sakhi’s partners have observed, relief through the legal system is but one kind of support that survivors of domestic violence require. While provision of legal services is an indispensible element in helping survivors to address their circumstances of abuse, Sakhi’s culturally appropriate support helps to fill the gaps in those areas that the available legal remedies cannot reach. As the pool of legal options increases, such as with the restoration of the gender-based asylum remedy, the importance of such partnerships will become all the more impactful.