Dorchen Leidholdt ’88 is the director of Sanctuary for Families’ Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services, the largest dedicated legal services provider in the U.S. for domestic violence victims. While she and her team of 25 lawyers have often grappled with complicated cases, a recent success in a particularly tangled case made the front page of the New York Times.

The precipitating event occurred in January. An American citizen with a history of spousal abuse invited his wife and two-year-old daughter to visit him that month in Beijing, where he had been teaching English. Shortly after their arrival, he kidnapped the child and vanished, leaving his wife, Olivia Karolys, in a strange country where she knew neither the language nor where to turn for help. Further complicating matters was the fact that Karolys, her parents, and her siblings were illegal immigrants from Mexico living in Staten Island.

Karolys’s family risked deportation to enlist the help of the State Department and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, as well as the Mexican consulate in Beijing. But their relief came from Sanctuary for Families, a New York nonprofit headed by Laurel Eisner ’84 that helps domestic violence victims and their children.

Six different legal matters were in play simultaneously in the case: an order of protection against Karolys’s husband and an order of sole custody, both in Staten Island family court; two immigration matters, one a request for a grant of humanitarian parole so that Karolys could reenter the U.S. from China, and the other a Violence Against Women Act self-petition for lawful permanent residence; and, finally, legal advocacy on Karolys’s behalf with both the Staten Island district attorney’s office and the FBI.

Winning the custody case was necessary before the authorities would begin efforts to find the child, but the proceedings were complicated by the fact that Karolys was unable to legally reenter the U.S. Fortunately, Leidholdt said, the court allowed Karolys to testify by telephone, and ultimately ruled in her favor in May. With custody awarded to the mother, the legal team still had to get her back into the U.S., a goal they did not achieve until August. In the meantime, the Beijing office of Sanctuary for Families’ pro bono partner Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton offered Karolys shelter, assistance with her remote testimony, and other services; Lei Wang (LL.M. ’07) is a leader of Cleary Gottlieb’s pro bono team there. Karolys’s self-petition for a green card was granted after her return to the U.S.

All told, Karolys’s daughter was missing for nine months. Diligent communications with authorities throughout the vast country finally bore fruit. A tip led Karolys to a remote Chinese orphanage hours away from Beijing where her daughter had been abandoned by her father. Reunited on October 25, both mother and child are now back in Staten Island.

Leidholdt said that it was common for U.S. citizens who batter their spouses to refuse to pursue legal immigration status for them as a means of controlling their partners. Another way of asserting control, she said, was through custody of children, as in the Karolys case: “We see it frequently used by batterers when the victims are immigrants and afraid to turn to the legal system for protection and assistance. In this case our client, who is very courageous, and her family, who is equally courageous, did take that risk by turning to the legal system for help. They really got the protection and assistance that they needed. At every level, I think, the system responded.”

Posted on November 2, 2009