CEO Corner: Judge Judy H. Kluger

 

Judge Judy H. Kluger served for 25 years as a judge in New York State, most recently as Chief of Policy and Planning for the court system. Kluger has been executive director of Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit that is “dedicated to the safety, healing and self-determination of victims of domestic violence and related forms of gender violence,” since 2014. The following interview is edited for content and clarity.

NYN: You have decades of legal experience with 25 years on the bench. What has that experience given you in approaching all domestic violence issues at Sanctuary for Families?

JHK: I was a judge for 25 years, and before that I served as a prosecutor. And when I started, the landscape for domestic violence victims was very different than it is now. Domestic violence was considered just a family matter by many judges and law enforcement. My career really paralleled the changes in societal views as well as law enforcement and judiciary views. 

I was the chief of the domestic violence and sex crimes bureau in the district attorney's office. When I became a judge, I was able to really work on a lot of issues for litigants who were in the court facing domestic violence and trafficking. So I had the foundation for the kind of work I'm doing at Sanctuary. But of course, as a judge you can't be an advocate in the same way one can when not a judge. 

And I at some point I felt I had done what I could to make an impact on how these cases were handled in the court system, and when Sanctuary for Families knocked on my door and asked if I would be interested in being their executive director, it was just a logical next step. I sometimes joke around that I was freed to say exactly what I thought, whereas a judge you can't do that. So, I was free to be an advocate. Actually, I've had a wonderful year and a half at sanctuary. 

NYN: I know you have a really interesting story with your parents’ background as Holocaust survivors. What is your initial inspiration for getting into this line of work and trying to really help people who are in need in society?

JHK: My parents were Holocaust survivors. My mother was in a concentration camp. My father lost many of his family members. They came to the United States not together—they met here. But they had a great love for the United States, for the opportunity it afforded them. They were victims of the worst kind of discrimination possible and build new lives here. They had such tremendous respect for this country and what it could do for people. I think it instilled in me a kind of love of public service and the desire to help people less fortunate than myself.

JS: As a leader of an organization with 200 employees and a $20 million budget, what is your overarching philosophy with regards to staying in touch with what is going on on the ground while also being able to see the larger picture?

JHK: When I came to Sanctuary the first thing I wanted to do is let people know who I was and learn about them. I met individually with every person in the organization. It took me a couple of months, but it was a great opportunity to hear about them, and for them to also learn about me. I've kept that going. My practice is to meet with every new hire and spend a little time with them. And not as an interview--they've already been hired, but just as an opportunity for them to learn a little about me and vice-a-versa. 

I also believe in having a strong leadership but not a--I won't say quiet--I don't raise my voice to anyone. I let everyone know my expectations and trust that the people on my staff, who are so committed—committed to Sanctuary's work and mission—will follow through. 

I believe in saying "please" and "thank you." I believe in saying "I made a mistake." I believe in listening to other people's opinions. You know, as a judge you have to sit on the bench and you have to hear both sides and decide, so I like to give everybody a voice. Everybody has a voice but not everybody has a vote. It served me well in my career both as a prosecutor and as a bureau chief there and as a judge. 

JS: In terms of advocacy, we were just talking about a big victory in the New York state legislature in terms of human trafficking in March. There was an act that was passed that I know the Sanctuary for Families had a lot of involvement with. Going forward, what are your advocacy aims for this year and further in the future to press on these issues?

JHK: Of course, Sanctuary was one of the lead proponents and advocates for the change in the law for the victims of trafficking. The Trafficking Victims of Justice Act was really a huge milestone. Now, we are making sure the implementation is as we hope it will be, and as always, listening to our clients and hearing what their needs are and addressing that both in terms of policy within the city and state and also trying to influence legislation. So, we will continue to work very hard in that area. 

JS: Sort of zooming out a little bit, too, I always find it interesting to speak to executive directors about trends overall in the nonprofit industry that you recognize. It's obviously a challenging time for many organizations to stay afloat, have grants and foundation support, and also in terms of working with government partners. How do you navigate Sanctuary For Families through this, with so many actors in this space?

JHK: Sure. First and foremost, we know what our mission is, and we are committed to the mission. We have to find a way to implement what our mission is talking about. So, at Sanctuary--first of all--we have a strong active board, who is very helpful in terms of both in terms of governance and fundraising as well. 

We have a balanced budget, and that's very important to us. We try to have a good balance between government contracts and foundation and private funding, and we are about 60-40 now, which is pretty much where we want to be--not too heavily reliant on the government. 

But on the other hand, recognizing that there is a lot of support that the government can give us. We work very closely with city administration. This year, we’ve worked particularly closely with HRA Commissioner Steven Banks. 

The de Blasio administration came in with a goal of assisting in terms of housing, not just for the homeless population but for our clients who are in shelters. I mentioned we have shelters, and the subsidies that were put in place and our work with HRA and the rest of the administration has really allowed us to navigate that in a way that's really very beneficial to Sanctuary's clients. We watch the bottom line but also make sure that we are serving our clients in the best possible way. 

JS: I know that housing is obviously a big hot topic right now. What are your specific advocacy aims for your population in terms of affordable housing in New York City, which very much impacts the population that you serve? How are you trying to push government in the right direction?

JHK: For Sanctuary's clients, particularly our clients in shelter, housing is key because they can only remain in shelter for a specific amount of time. So it was pushing the administration to implement the LINC Programs. They were primed to do that, but understanding that those are the needs that our clients have. 

We were able to secure more apartments in the NYCHA housing developments for our clients, which are very good options. We have housing specialists on our staff who work with clients to find affordable housing. Much of what characterizes affordable housing is not affordable to our clients, who are by and large poor, who have fled abusive situations, who need to become independent so that they can live on their own, support themselves and be able to afford the housing that is available. 

So between the subsidies that are now provided, our ability to place people in NYCHA housing development, as well as all work with economic empowerment—wwhat we do is teach real job skills to clients that we have so that they can get jobs that make a living wage, not just the minimum wage. We are on all fronts addressing the housing crisis.  

JS: How would you like to see the organization expand under your leadership in all the different areas that you're working on: housing, legal services, employment services?

JHK: So we just finished Sanctuary's strategic plan for the next five years. It's a really good time to talk about that. Our goal is to deepen our work as opposed to increase the number of people we serve. We serve about 12,000 clients a year now. We do outreach in education to about 20,000 more in terms of the public and some of our short-term touches to clients. 

What we want to do is make sure that we are continuing to work on the housing issues for our clients, to continue be able to have a situation where our clients are economically independent and stable. We want to look at our outcomes and our evaluations to measure—by the way that's important for nonprofits now, to measure outcomes and our work so that we can support what we know are successful outcomes. 

There are lots of ways we are looking to deepen our work with children and make sure that we are assisting the children of our clients who are so impacted by domestic violence. This is a great time for us because we have a five-year plan, and we are just starting to work on the implementation.

 
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