In June, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Golan v. Saada that Narkis Golan, a domestic abuse survivor who fled Italy to the U.S. with her child, couldn’t be forced to return her young son to his allegedly abusive father, Isacco Jacky Saada. Four months later, on Wednesday evening, the 32-year-old mother was found dead in her home.
In a statement to Jezebel, the office of the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner of public information said, “There is no criminality is suspected [sic] at this time.” But the office of the chief medical examiner is still determining the cause of death, and the investigation “remains ongoing.”
Supporters of Golan have since expressed heartbreak, outrage, and suspicion about the circumstances of her death on social media—especially as her young son now faces the risk of being forced to return to his father in Italy. In the weeks before her death, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Golan’s favor, the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York still upheld its previous decision that Golan should return her child to Saada in Italy. (In 2019, the district court concluded that returning to Italy would “expose [Golan’s son] to severe and continuing domestic violence,” but it ruled in Saada’s favor nonetheless, due to a technical precedent set by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.) Golan, her supporters insist, was a “protective mother” who “would not leave her child.”
Golan’s sister, Morin Golan, told Jezebel via Zoom that those seeking to respect Golan’s family, her young son, and her legacy as an advocate should refrain from speculating about her death at this time. “We want to make sure the right information is shared, and that we’re all respectful about it, because the battle is not over. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and we don’t want anyone’s narrative to affect our ability to continue to protect her son,” Morin said.
Nicole Fidler, the director of pro bono services at the Sanctuary for Families, who worked closely with Golan on her case for years, told Jezebel that Golan should be remembered for her perseverance and her refusal to give up her fight to protect her young son—literally until her dying day. On the night of Golan’s death, Fidler said “she was on the phone with her attorneys, strategizing about the Second Circuit appeal, so she really was fighting until the very end. That’s the important thing to remember here.”
On Sept. 1, Golan responded to the district court’s most recent ruling in a Facebook post. “After winning at the Supreme Court, I had to yet again face the same unsympathetic judge who wants to force my son back to a country where I was tortured, raped and abused in every way,” Golan wrote. “There was never justice for me. All I can do is try to be the best mommy I can while fighting this battle that makes no sense. I just keep asking myself WHY??”
“Why does the system ENABLE such a person to continue to cause my son and I harm through the courts after surviving such abuse,” she continued, before making the chilling observation that “many women end up dead” in cases like hers. “People call me a survivor. What have I survived when I’m still fighting for my human rights that has been stripped away from me for so many years while the real criminal gets to live his best life knowing he still holds that power over my head?”
“Why must I be threatened and silenced by the system that’s meant to protect us? Why? I’m just trying to give my son the life he deserves,” Golan wrote. She concluded, “I probably won’t ever have those answers but one thing I know for sure is that I won’t stop fighting and from now on, I won’t be silenced either. I want the world to know the truth.”
Golas was found dead this week, a little over a month after her impassioned Facebook post. In an audio clip of a conversation between Saada and Golan shared with the public on Thursday, Saada can be heard telling Golan that he’s well connected to judges and courts in Italy amid their ongoing legal fight.
In Golan’s legal filings, she’d accused Saada of pushing, slapping, and grabbing her, often in front of their son, and even making threats against her life. When Golan took their son to the U.S. for her brother’s wedding in 2018, instead of returning to Italy, she took refuge in a local domestic violence shelter. Golan sought a “get,” or a Jewish religious marriage divorce, from Saada, her husband since 2014, but he refused unless she returned to Italy with their child. Legal representatives for Saada did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Golan’s death by phone and email.
Golan never gave in to Saada’s demands.
“The most admirable thing is that, no matter how exhausted she was, no matter how many times she called me, day or night, to cry about it, or just say, ‘It’s so heavy, it’s so heavy’—no matter how many times, she’d just continue,” Morin said. “She was trying to protect her son from a great evil. Giving up was never an option, for her family, for her child, and not only her child, but for all the women who were reaching out to her telling their stories. There is nothing she would not do for her son and the women and kids she was fighting for.”
Fidler told Jezebel that from the beginning, Golan insisted that she wanted to change the law for children and mothers like her, called “Hague Moms,” who flee their countries of origin with their children to escape abuse only to face legal retaliation from abusers, who weaponize the Hague Convention’s child abduction clauses. “She always would say, ‘We’re going up to the Supreme Court,’ and the lawyers on her case were always a little skeptical, because we knew the odds,” Fidler said. The Supreme Court accepts about 1% of cases. “But she knew this was a fight worth fighting, even if everything—financially, the whole court system—was stacked against her.”
“She was the survivor of such extreme abuse and control, and she’s a survivor of the court system too, which is a very difficult and challenging place for survivors of domestic violence,” Fidler told me. “Her legacy is the Supreme Court case.”
The Supreme Court ruling in Golan’s favor marked a crucial victory for domestic abuse victims like Golan and their children, who seek refuge in the U.S., moving forward. Previously, a precedent set by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit required that children should be returned to the country of their habitual residence, despite risk of facing abuse, if there are any “ameliorative measures” that can reduce the risk of abuse. Before Golan’s case went to the Supreme Court, a U.S. district court and the Second Circuit ruled that her son had to be returned to his father in Italy because measures could, theoretically, be taken to reduce the risk of harm to the child—namely, the district court ruled, Saada could be required to go to therapy, drop criminal charges against Golan, and pay her $20,000 for the return of their son. “What they did to her for the last five years of her life was just horrible, forcing her to experience such heaviness, such mental, emotional exhaustion, even after acknowledging the abuse,” Morin said.
In the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse these prior rulings, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “a court is not bound to order a child’s return if it finds that return would put the child at a grave risk of physical or psychological harm,” and that courts aren’t required to examine all possible ameliorative measures in order to deny a Hague Convention petition for a child’s return.
Robert Abbott, a Connecticut resident who knew Golan personally, wrote in a Thursday Facebook post that the two had “become good friends” over the course of her case. He acknowledged that “as of now… there were no signs of foul play” in Golan’s death, but said he’s “spoken to homicide detectives and asked them to look into it further.”
“She would FaceTime me at all hours of the day and night and I would just listen to her struggle and fight to keep Bradley,” Abbott wrote. “[Golan] wanted to be in my film on Hague Moms but was scared of what may happen if she spoke out. She helped me in so many other ways by connecting me with other moms.”
Indeed, Golan’s Facebook page features post after post lifting up the stories of mothers and survivors trying to protect their kids and how her friends and followers could help them. That, Morin says, was just who Golan was. “She was a warrior. She paved the way for all the people that are in that situation, for them and their kids to be safer.” It pains Morin that her sister “only had a moment to experience that freedom from the Supreme Court’s ruling.” And now, she never will.
“She didn’t get to stick around for the feeling of being free, of not being in misery, not feeling like her every move was watched,” Morin said. “She couldn’t take her son to Disney. She couldn’t do these things with her kid that she wanted to do.”
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