Grief-stricken colleagues of Theresa Gorski, a 47-year-old Legal Aid Society attorney who devoted the last decade of her career to advocating for children, met with counselors yesterday in the aftermath of what was described as a domestic violence-related death.
“She was a hard worker who cared about children and every day made a difference in their lives through her passionate advocacy,” said Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of Legal Aid. “She was a passionate advocate for the children that she represented over the course of 11 years at The Legal Aid Society. She was a beloved colleague of staff in our Bronx Juvenile Rights Office and she will be sorely missed by the entire juvenile rights staff and Legal Aid Society across the city.”
Gorski died Jan. 9 when she was removed from life support at Phelps Memorial Hospital, a short distance from her home in Sleepy Hollow, Westchester County. According to law enforcement, she allegedly was choked early on the morning of Jan. 5 by her husband, Christopher Howson, in the home they shared with their 5- and 8-year-old daughters.
Howson, 49, was charged with second-degree attempted murder and first-degree strangulation. Additional charges are pending now that Gorski has died.
Banks said Gorski was “driven by the importance of making a difference for children so they would have a chance in life.” He said grief counseling has been offered to staff struggling to deal with “a feeling of tremendous loss.”
Legal Aid’s Juvenile Rights Practice represents about 90 percent of the children appearing in Family Court on child protective, juvenile delinquency and termination of parental rights cases, according to Legal Aid’s website. Its lawyers serve as attorneys for the children to protect their interests.
Banks said Gorski, who was admitted in 1991 after graduating from Columbia Law School, joined Legal Aid in 2001.
Jessica Brenes, an assistant advocate for the New York City Police Department and former attorney with the Administration for Children’s Services, described her sometime adversary as a “champion for children” who was extraordinarily well prepared, and whose low-key, soft-spoken nature was left at the doorstep when she went to court.
“Theresa was not particularly outgoing or aggressive, but when it came to her clients, Theresa was there for her clients and nobody else,” Brenes recalled. “She was passionate about her work, passionate about the things they were going through. It was amazing to me that, even having small children at home, she found the time to put as much work as she did into her cases.”
Brenes said Gorski rarely spoke of personal matters and she never heard of or saw any indication of domestic violence.
One of the crimes initially charged against Howson, first-degree strangulation, has been on the books for only two years. It was created to fill a gap in the Penal Law after authorities and advocates complained that domestic violence victims were often choked to the brink of death and, absent a visible physical injury, district attorneys could charge nothing more serious than harassment, a mere violation. Until November 2010, strangulation was not a crime in New York State.
Johanna Sullivan, counsel to the state Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, said that law enforcement began charging under the new statute from the day it took effect. Now, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), about 1,000 strangulation arrests are made every month.
“From the very first day, [law enforcement authorities] were charging it,” Sullivan said. “The law enforcement community, the prosecution community, thought there was a gap in the law and there was a need to address it. This statute has provided them with a tool to hold abusers accountable.”
Sullivan said strangulation is a common way for abusers to exert power over their victims, bringing the victim to the very edge of death.
“Someone can strangle someone almost to the point of dying, and will use that over and over again as a way of gaining power and control,” said Sullivan. “They threaten the victim by almost killing them.”
Sullivan said studies show that victims who have been strangled in the past are almost 10 times more likely to be killed through domestic violence.
State statistics show that the New York City Police Department accounts for more than half of the statewide strangulation arrests, with the bulk of those in Brooklyn, according to a September DCJS report. But Westchester County, where Howson was charged, is also among the top 10.
Howson is expected to face homicide charges when he returns to court on Jan. 14, according to sources close to the process.
Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore declined to discuss the case.
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