By Jason Grant
August 26, 2020
It was early June when Philip Katz, a Family Court practitioner who works via the court system’s assigned-counsel program for the indigent, got the call about a battered 18-year-old woman who needed emergency protection from her boyfriend.
The COVID-19 pandemic still had New York City in its grip. And Katz and dozens of his assigned-counsel colleagues, private attorneys who usually get paid $75 an hour for their Family Court lawyering, had been working extra hours since April to help their clients navigate a new pandemic-driven, virtual court process. Day after day, they’d been trying to win for the abused emergency court orders aimed at keeping their violent partners away.
The amount of domestic abuse they and victim-advocates in New York City had been seeing was only growing as COVID-19 kept people holed up inside, they and advocates said in recent interviews. Wives and girlfriends and elderly parents, they said, had been quarantined in small apartments with their abusers for weeks and months, making more and more of the victims desperate for protection.
And as Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered state courthouses shuttered in March due to the virus, the lawyers grew worried about whether the courts would be accessible enough for wives, girlfriends and others needing emergency help. Then, when they learned that remote court operations would get up and running, they also figured out that they would need to walk their clients through the virtual court process step by step, from filing emergency petitions for them via the internet to appearing with them, or for them, at Skype-held hearings, in order to get the victims the protections they needed.
So when Katz, who runs a two-lawyer firm in Manhattan focused on family and criminal cases, got the call in June from Safe Horizon, a nonprofit organization, about the 18-year-old woman, he moved quickly.
Within minutes of receiving word, he rang the woman and interviewed her for more than an hour about her abuse. What he learned, he said, was highly disturbing, even for a lawyer who has been working as an assigned counsel for 10 years: According to the woman, her live-in boyfriend had recently taken her to a hotel, where he hit her in the face until one of her eyes swelled shut and the other became bloodied. Then he grabbed onto her face so hard it made her teeth cut open the inside of her mouth. He allegedly choked her next, with so much force that she wondered whether she’d live, and then when he was done beating and choking her, he allegedly forced her to stay inside the hotel room with him for several days.
Just an hour or two after getting the woman’s interview, Katz wrote the narrative portion of a Family Court petition that sought both a temporary stay-away order and a full protection order against the boyfriend, according to Katz and a copy of the petition provided to the Law Journal. Later that afternoon, he said, Safe Horizon, the city nonprofit that since 1978 has been helping the abused, filed the petition in Manhattan Family Court and got an emergency hearing scheduled for the same day. Hours later, one of Katz’s colleagues appeared with the woman at a Skype hearing before a judge, winning an immediate temporary stay-way order against the boyfriend.
That case and the week in June, said Katz, are emblematic of what he says 60 or 70 assigned counsel Family Court lawyers in the city have been doing, sometimes while working many extra hours for free, since the pandemic descended and dozens of the lawyers felt compelled to make sure the work they do, and the people they represent, would continue to get court-ordered protection from the Family Court.
“We were alarmed,” said Katz in a phone interview. “Because we were just imagining people trapped in their homes and being abused and not having anywhere to go for help.”
The state courts in the last two weeks of March, after Cuomo ordered them shut down because of the coronavirus, “were trying to find their way, and it was not even clear at that point what they could do,” he said.
So by late March, said Katz, several leaders from the state’s Assigned Counsel Association, including him in Manhattan and others from Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn, connected by Zoom video feed to discuss what they could do to make sure domestic-abuse victims got heard efficiently and quickly in Family Court.
The city’s courts, in the first few weeks after the March shutdown, had only “minimal operations,” said Katz, who is the Manhattan Family Court panel president for the Assigned Counsel Association. In April, more virtual court operations opened up but there were still only two virtual family courtrooms running, and so he and other assigned counsel reached out to the Office of Court Administration, which administers court services, to find out how the remote court process worked and how best to use it.
Sarah Tigary, the Assigned Counsel Association’s statewide president and a Queens Family Court panel leader, said it was clear to her and other assigned counsel that the people they represent weren’t going to access the virtual court on their own, and “we needed to help make it easier for them.”
An aspect of that, said Tigary and Victoria Padilla, the director of Safe Horizon’s Manhattan office, was first making sure the nonprofit and assigned counsel worked closely together to find abused people in need, since during non-pandemic times, they’d often simply walk into courthouses looking for help. As Safe Horizon started getting more victim phone calls and referrals about victims, it began pulling in assigned counsel earlier in the process, said Padilla, including by asking them to draft initial petition narratives, a process that had typically been done by court clerks or Safe Horizon nonlawyer employees.
The result, said Padilla, is that petitions for emergency relief for the allegedly abused are stronger. And she said in a recent phone interview that in all of the “major” domestic abuse cases she’s seen filed in recent months, “the [allegedly victimized] person has gotten the relief they wanted.”
Now, say Katz and Tigary, some Family Court judges and court administrators have zeroed in on the stronger petition narratives drafted by lawyers and have indicated that going forward, even after the pandemic ends, they’d like to see the early-stage lawyer work continue.
The Office of Court Administration did not respond to a request for comment asking for confirmation of what some judges or personnel have said about the use of lawyers in drafting the petitions.
In an email Wednesday, an OCA spokesman said that from the time some initial virtual state court operations began in March, “the New York City Family Court has ensured that petitioners in all family offense matters have access to the court for the filing of applications seeking orders of protection.”
Spokesman Lucian Chalfen also said that “organizations such as Safe Horizon, have also been working to provide assistance to [Family Court] petitioners with the actual filing of their applications,” and that once petitions are filed and the parties to a matter make court appearances, nonprofit groups such as Sanctuary for Families and the New York Legal Assistance Group “work with petitioners on family offense matters and provide services.”
Chalfen further said that ”the assistance being provided” by assigned-counsel panel members is “welcome assistance.” OCA did not provide further comment on extra work put in by many assigned counsel during the pandemic.
Tigary and Katz, meanwhile, point out that the number of abused filing for stay-away orders and other protections kept growing through May and June and into July, as did the numbers of assigned counsel giving up more of their time to help in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.
“In the beginning of April,” said Katz, “we were talking about maybe one or two [emergency-protection] cases filed a day,” but by May “it was probably triple that,” he said, “and by July it was not uncommon to have a dozen or more cases in a day.” Now in late August, he said Tuesday, the number of cases has grown to 15 or 20 daily as more court services have opened and as more alleged victims have learned that they can get through the virtual process.
For Tigary, who in the last decade went from practicing law privately to focusing mostly on assigned-counsel work, she said these last several months of “helping people during these desperate times is probably the highlight of my career.”
“I do this not to make a lot of money,” she said, “but because I have a passion for this type of work, based on personal reasons.”
She’s seen a large “spike” in abuse cases during the pandemic, she said, adding that she’s been amazed and frightened by “how many people have sheltered in with their abuser.”
“They sometimes call us from their car, or from a supermarket” trying to find help, she said. “And they say ‘you can’t call me, I have to call you, because I’m living with my abuser, and they can’t know I’m talking to you.’”
“We never knew about this aspect of their lives until COVID,” she added, “because now they have no outlet. They can’t go to a hotel to live. They can’t come into a courthouse to find us.”
“They’re scared,” she said, “and if they go to the police precinct, chances are they’re going to be sent home.”
But for the 18-year-old woman who was allegedly choked inside the hotel room, life is looking up now that her ex-boyfriend has had the protection order leveled against him, a close relative of hers told the Law Journal on Tuesday. (The relative remained anonymous, and the woman’s name has not been disclosed, in order to preserve the woman’s identity.) The relative said by phone that the woman is living with her mother now and has freed herself from a man who had long abused and terrorized her when they lived together.
Of the assigned-counsel lawyers who stepped in to help the woman, the relative said, “I think they were amazing. They were helpful, detailed and efficient.” The 18-year-old “needed a lawyer,” said the relative, “we needed a virtual lawyer to walk us through the steps.”