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Justice for All

A UB alumna strives to give even the most vulnerable victims of gender-based violence their day in court

Vivian Huelgo.

VANTAGE POINT: Vivian Huelgo, chief counsel of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence. Photo: Grant Gibson

By Karen Taylor

“The most marginalized are at the center of our work. That is something I am very proud of. ”
Vivian Huelgo

Vivian Huelgo (BA ’94) works out of a small, cluttered office in Washington, D.C., a stone’s throw and a world away from K Street’s swanky law firms and lobbyists. In these modest surroundings, the work she does can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

As chief counsel of the American Bar Association’s (ABA’s) Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Huelgo and her staff of six train and advise some 3,000 professionals every year—judges, lawyers, law enforcement, local officials—to ensure that victims of domestic and sexual violence receive effective legal representation. Though she doesn’t work directly with the victims, it is their circumstances, and their right to have access to the levers of justice regardless of their circumstances, that drive her.

“The most marginalized are at the center of our work,” says Huelgo. “That is something I am very proud of.”

Obtaining justice for victims of domestic and sexual crimes is a tough job. In recent months, it has been made even tougher by the government crackdown on immigration. Across the country, the reporting of incidents among naturalized immigrants, legal permanent residents and the undocumented is down, driven by the fear among these populations of being deported or losing their children.

“It’s a very scary, stressful time,” Huelgo says. “We spent years trying to educate communities that they shouldn’t be afraid, that they could go to the authorities and ask for help, that resources are available for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Now that law enforcement often cooperates with ICE, all of that has been turned on its head.”

Lawyers who work with the victims are affected as well. “Many are exhausted, stressed, depressed, suffering from vicarious trauma,” Huelgo says. “We encourage them to limit caseloads, to engage in self-care. We all need to pace ourselves—it’s going to be a long road.”

Huelgo—who is also of counsel for the ABA’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, has consulted for the State Department on domestic abuse issues, and is a member of the Biden Foundation’s Ending Violence Against Women Advisory Council—has been an advocate for nearly as long as she can remember. Born in Brooklyn, she recalls interpreting for her parents, immigrants from Colombia, while she was still a child. “I talked with the housing authority for them, read their mail; you could say they were my first clients.”

Her introduction to social injustice also came early. She often witnessed discrimination against immigrants and women, and was herself subjected to catcalling and men exposing themselves on the subway. As a UB undergrad, she would occasionally commiserate with fellow students about their respective encounters with sexual harassment and assault.

“Back then, the media didn’t talk about it,” she remembers. “Women would just say privately, ‘I had this bad experience.’ That didn’t seem right.” During her senior year, she volunteered at UB Group Legal Services, putting together a guide for victims reporting rape. “Soon after, I knew I wanted to become a lawyer.” She attended Fordham Law School, where “that vague sense of ‘this isn’t right’ finally became ‘this is what I can do about it.’”

After graduating from Fordham Law in 1997, Huelgo dedicated her career to seeking justice and refuge for the vulnerable. She worked as a Manhattan assistant D.A.; director of legal services for Safe Horizon, the largest victim services nonprofit organization in the U.S.; director of the City of New York’s Family Justice Center; and community law director for Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit dedicated to aiding victims of domestic violence and their children. Of her many accomplishments, she says she is proudest of her ongoing work defending the least protected victims of gender-based violence, from LGBTQ people and Native Americans to immigrants and the disabled.

Huelgo took her current post with the ABA in 2010 and expanded the commission’s purview from domestic violence to all gender-based violence, as well as human trafficking. The commission disseminates news, studies and resources to the lawyers and officials it advises, but its main focus is on continuing education and training.

“The result is that lawyers change how they litigate, how they interact with clients, how they argue with the opposing counsel, how they pre- sent and advocate in front of judges,” she says. “That’s huge, especially for experienced attorneys. One told me that on the eve of a trial, she completely changed her strategy based on what she had learned from us, and she thought that was why she won.”

“You wouldn’t want an orthopedic surgeon to treat your cancer,” Huelgo adds. “And you don’t want a lawyer without specialized training defending you in a case of domestic or sexual violence. The stakes are just too high.”