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Advocating for Women’s Rights: 2022 Fellow Audrey Hertzberg Shares Her Work in Observance of International Women’s Day

/ Blog Post

Headshot of Audrey Hertzberg
Photo of Audrey Hertzberg

By 2022 Fellow Audrey Hertzberg, who is hosted by Sanctuary for Families and sponsored by Latham & Watkins. Audrey authored this in observance of International Women’s Day, which aims to celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness for discrimination, and take action to drive gender parity.

International Women’s Day is traditionally a time of year when people share how they support women and girls in their day-to-day lives, companies, relationships, and more. This year, I’m hoping to elevate the voices of the countless women who come through the doors of the Sanctuary for Families EMPOWER Center, where I work as a trial litigator. EMPOWER is the first Medical-Legal Partnership in New York City to provide family law representation to survivors of sex and labor trafficking.  

During Women’s History Month, we have an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of women we look up to. But it’s just as important to talk about the challenges with which women are confronted. As reported by my host organization, almost three women are killed by their intimate partners every day in the United States. While men are more likely to be killed by shooting, women are more likely to be beaten, strangled, and stabbed to death—much more intimately violent crimes. The perpetration of violence against women is, unsurprisingly, closely related to other identities that have been so purposefully marginalized. Black women are murdered at rates three times higher—and Indigenous women six times higher—than their White counterparts. 96% of the trans individuals murdered in 2021 were trans women or transfeminine people.  

During Women’s History Month, we have an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of women we look up to. But it’s just as important to talk about the challenges with which women are confronted.

Audrey Hertzberg /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

A significant portion of male homicides by a female partner occur in the context of women acting in self-defense against abuse. In New York State, where I work, our legislature has passed the Domestic Violence Survivor’s Justice Act (DVSJA), intended to allow incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence to have the circumstances of their abuse taken into account for early release. The legal standards for proving abuse, however, are still prohibitively high. Among other things, this barrier regularly prevents incarcerated women, like my former client Abigail* who fought for her life during a brutal domestic violence attack, from seeking recourse through the DVSJA.  

Other women who have experienced gender-based violence include survivors of trafficking who are forced to navigate pervasive stigmas in Family Court. This is exemplified in cases pertaining to care and custody of children. It is common to hear advocates of the child welfare system talk about the importance of shifting attitudes towards formerly trafficked mothers. However, in many cases, mothers whose prior trafficking is revealed may unfortunately be treated as though they are unfit to parent. 

When Jackie’s* husband was arrested for domestic battery committed against her in front of their children, the Administration of Children’s Services opened a case against him, and Jackie was told she would be forced to share her story in a courtroom. Though she expressed her hesitation to re-live the abuse, she was issued a subpoena stating that she could be arrested if she did not come to court to testify. Because Jackie does not have immigration status, an arrest was particularly terrifying to her. Once in court, I was able to explain her background to the Judge. After thirty minutes of questioning about what proof I had that Jackie was trafficked and could substantiate her fear of testifying, the Judge finally excused her appearance. Jackie’s reception was not trauma-informed—she was treated like a liar. Most survivors of trafficking have no proof of their trafficking.

Exacerbating this problem, New York State does not provide a right to counsel for parents against whom the state has initiated a Child Neglect investigation. Many don’t know that the right to parent is codified by federal law. In my opinion, to terminate a person’s parental rights is one of the most extreme legal injuries that the government can inflict. 

Removing children from their families into foster system placements has been provably tied to later involvement in the juvenile criminal system and to further exploitation, such as labor and sex trafficking. It causes difficulty for children who lose access to the warm certainty that comes with growing up in a loving, safe environment, with access to their own culturally significant heritage. 

In my opinion, to terminate a person’s parental rights is one of the most extreme legal injuries that the government can inflict.

Audrey Hertzberg /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

It only takes one anonymous complaint to open an investigation. One complaint, true or false, from anyone, may lead to a Child Protective Specialist (“CPS”) standing in the living room. Take my client Diane*, whose 17-year-old child arrived late to high school even though his mother sent him out the door exactly on time, triggering an investigation for educational neglect. My client Emily’s* six-year-old daughter slept in bed with her at night, a common cultural experience for moms around the world, triggering a physical neglect investigation for failure to provide adequate shelter. In the event one of these accusations is “indicated” and found to have a basis, the mother would have a record with Albany’s Central Registry, potentially preventing them from working in a care-giving position or any that will request a background check from the Registry.

A parent can challenge an indicated finding, and even appeal them. The final appeal is called a “Hearing”, despite the fact that you should picture a trial, though the rules of evidence do not apply. Additionally, a parent is not necessarily joined a lawyer, but the government is always represented by one. Like in my client Laura’s* case, it can take over six months to find out if an appeal was successful in having a name removed from the Registry. 

The state’s failure to provide counsel to mothers facing repercussions in the child protective system, and by extension defending their right to parent their own children, is unacceptable. This is especially true when you consider that, in New York State, a Black mother is three times as likely to have her parental rights terminated as her White counterpart. This International Women’s Day, it’s important to acknowledge how far we have come in supporting survivors of gender-based violence. Taking it a step further, we should also focus on the many ways that survivors endure continued mistreatment, even years after escaping their abusive partners. The harsh realities of the legal system are nothing like what is depicted on television in high profile, Los Angeles courtrooms nor an episode of “Law and Order: SVU” where survivors are supposed to get the last word. On a day-to-day basis, hundreds of thousands of women are singled out and in many ways targeted for their status as survivors. It’s time to consider centering these women on the other 364 days in the year as well. 

To learn more about our Fellows working to advocate for women’s rights, click here. To learn more about Audrey’s project, click here.

This International Women’s Day, it’s important to acknowledge how far we have come in supporting survivors of gender-based violence. Taking it a step further, we should also focus on the many ways that survivors endure continued mistreatment, even years after escaping their abusive partners.

Audrey Hertzberg /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow