Is the US government turning its back on sex trafficking survivors?
A sudden decision by the Trump administration to cut all funding for legal representation for survivors of sex trafficking is under fire from anti-trafficking advocates across the US, the Guardian reports.
Under laws like Ohio’s safe harbor legislation, victims of sex trafficking have previously been able to request that criminal charges accrued while under the control of one’s trafficker be expunged from public record. This has allowed victims to seek employment, rent housing, and ultimately reclaim control of their lives.
But the cost of legal fees is out of reach for most survivors.
“Until now, OVC [the Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime] grant funding has enabled public service attorneys to help survivors navigate the complex legal process of expungement,” said Nat Paul, policy chair at the National Survivor Network, in an interview with the Guardian. “Now, the Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime has decided to eliminate critical funding that supports trafficking survivors who are working to clear their criminal records. It’s hard for me to think of a more effective way to undermine survivors’ efforts to recover their lives.”
More than 90% of human trafficking victims reported being arrested for crimes like prostitution, truancy, or drug possession when they are being trafficked, reports HuffPost, citing data released by the National Survivor Network.
“Criminal records are a barrier to federal financial assistance for higher education, employment with government agencies, and housing programs,” wrote more than 100 trafficking survivors in a letter to the Office for Victims of Crime, following the defunding. “When we have a lawyer help us with the difficult judicial process we are more likely to obtain justice and have our lives rightfully put into a place we can move past our victimization and be integrated back into society.”
An Administration that is dedicated to ending #humantrafficking would support the full range of services needed by survivors. We demand more. DOJ must lift this restriction and allow all trafficking survivors to access the full measure of justice. https://t.co/MKltPDZxl7— Freedom Network USA (@FreedomNetUSA) July 8, 2018
The Office of Justice Programs, which oversaw the changes to funding, has responded to the criticism by stating that resources were being diverted to other more immediate areas of need.
“In an effort to provide more essential services to a greater number of trafficking victims, the [human trafficking] solicitations were changed to focus resources on more immediate and less costly assistance, such as food, clothing, medical treatment, housing,” said a representative in an interview with the Guardian.
But Sasha Naiman, an attorney at the Ohio Justice and Policy Centre (OJC), who has represented and helped many survivors seek expungement, said the cuts showed a “fundamental lack of understanding of the situation facing trafficking survivors,” the Guardian reported.
“I find this decision so startling because there is no basic understanding that you can’t get access to many of these more immediate things like jobs, housing, good health care with a criminal record,” she said. “The first step has to be addressing the criminalization of survivors. Without this funding many victims will simply not stand a chance of getting someone to represent them through this process.”
Jean Bruggeman, the executive director of Freedom Network USA, one of the largest trafficking victim support organizations in the US, echoed that sentiment in an interview with HuffPost:
“It is incredibly important to address the injustice done to survivors and recognize that they are victims, not criminals,” Bruggeman told HuffPost. “Vacatur and expungement give survivors a real chance to move forward and provide safety and security for themselves and their families.”