University of Baltimore law students help trafficking victims escape their past

The Prince George's County woman still remembers the night a man in a black SUV stopped as she and a high school friend waited for a ride to a party. He told them he was a modeling agent, gave them his cell number and drove off.

A chronic runaway, the then 19-year-old soon met up with him, only to be cut off from family and later whisked to a hotel out of state where she was forced to work as a prostitute.

She eventually escaped after contacting a guardian in Maryland who called police. But in some ways, her ordeal was only beginning. As she sought a new life, she now had a record with a prostitution conviction.

Hoping to help survivors of trafficking, student lawyers at the University of Baltimore School of Law are working with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service to expunge or vacate such convictions. The goal is to pave the way to employment for victims and end a cycle of control and abuse.

"For a survivor of human trafficking who has a criminal record, it is more likely that they are going to be re-exploited if their record keeps them from getting a job, access to housing and getting benefits," said Jessica Emerson, an attorney and director of the Human Trafficking Prevention Project at the law school.

Trafficking is defined by federal and state law as using force, fraud or coercion to compel someone to engage in commercial sex or labor. Under a 2011 Maryland law, people who were trafficked at the time they were convicted of prostitution can ask the courts to vacate the conviction. The law applies only to prostitution charges, but remedies for other charges include expungement and shielding,both of which generally prevent public access to the record.

Since its inception in August 2015, the law school clinic has helped vacate, expunge or shield records for 32 clients. Among them is the Prince George's woman, now 23, who spoke to The Baltimore Sun on condition she not be identified. Getting the prostitution charge dropped from her record, she said, will allow her to "hopefully work somewhere I want to work and not settle for a place because of my conviction."

Susan Francis, deputy director of the volunteer lawyers service, said she believes hundreds more survivors can use such help.

The number of trafficking victims seeking help in the state nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014, when nearly 400 adults and children sought services, according to the latest available survey by the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force.

Human trafficking has become the second highest grossing global criminal enterprise, with between 600,000 and 800,000 people trafficked across borders worldwide each year, according to 2014 estimates from the U.S. State Department. About a third of the annual profits in the $150.2 billion forced labor industry come from labor trafficking with the rest from sex trafficking.

Trafficking does not require movement of victims — some 200,000 people are at risk for trafficking within the United States, some within their own communities, according to government estimates.

Maryland has become a "hot spot," a destination for traffickers using Interstate 95 to connect victims to Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and New York, the state task force says. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center says about 70 percent of the nation's trafficking incidents occur in truck stops.

By working with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, which has some 1,500 volunteer attorneys at its disposal across the state, the University of Baltimore clinic hopes to broaden its reach from mostly city clients.

Two dozen lawyers gathered this month in a UB classroom for the joint project's first training session. Besides covering the nuts and bolts of expungement and vacatur laws, Emerson and Laurie Culkin, the initiative's project coordinator, prepared attorneys for clients who had suffered trauma. Those clients, they said, might feel guilty or ashamed and might not identify as a victim of trafficking or even view their trafficker as a bad person.

"It's really important as you go into this work, to know that we don't define peoples' experiences for them," Emerson told the group. "We can tell them the legal definition of something, and we can say, "Look what you're describing to me meets the legal definition of trafficking... Because of that, I can help you access a different form of relief having to do with your criminal record."

Project organizers hope to reach more clients such as the Prince George's County woman, whose case the clinic took on a couple years ago. The woman entered foster care as a teen after she started running away from home. After the initial encounter with her trafficker, he texted with photos of cars and money and promises of modeling work.

Eventually, he convinced her to leave with him. One night, she packed her bags, jumped out of her bedroom window and got in his car.

"He takes my cell phone, says I can't have any communication with my family," she said. "He starts giving me all these rules. I was scared. He has my phone. There's nothing I can do but go along."

For several weeks, she said, she worked as a prostitute in hotels, including some outside the state, along with other women and girls. She said she saw some hit with a belt and kicked.

Though all victims fall under a trafficker's control, that control can take many forms, said Emerson, a former social worker. Traffickers can use physical or sexual abuse, false promises of employment, education or romance, threats of harm to the victim or their families or withholding or supplying housing, clothing, food or other basic needs. But coercion is difficult to prove when it comes to clearing records in court.

"I once had a prosecutor say to me, 'I have to help a jury understand why someone would walk out of an apartment alone, not being dragged by handcuffs, and take a left to go sell sex instead of a right to go the police station,'" Emerson said. "People naturally are like, 'Well, why didn't you just leave?'

"But the reason coercion is so effective is because the traffickers pick up on exactly what the person needs," she said. "If they need housing, they've got housing. If they need a boyfriend, they can be a boyfriend. If they need a job, they've got a job. It's targeted to that person."

The Prince George's County woman said she was sexually abused as a child and had a strained relationship with her mother.

"If you're missing certain things, you're going to go looking for them in other places," she said. "I felt, I guess, like someone loved me, maybe not in the best way, but at the time I didn't know any better."

Once she was sent back to Maryland and foster care, she began putting the pieces of her life back together. She got a high school diploma, then completed a nursing assistant program.

She recently learned from Emerson that the court vacated the prostitution conviction. She hopes to pursue nursing school in the fall.

Wiping out charges and convictions can be life changing, said another trafficking victim, a 54-year-old Baltimore native whom The Sun also agreed to not identify. Raised by a grandmother after her father was murdered, she got pregnant as a teenager and spent years addicted to drugs and being homeless.

"I had a lot of grief and sadness and a lot of different kinds of abuse," she said. "It kept me in a dark cloud. I had an emptiness. I went through a lot of things, but I still kept trying to keep my head above water."

She met a man who seemed to offer a lifeline.

"He said, 'Come on I'll help you, and we can make it through this together,' " she said. Instead, he exploited her, and she worked as a prostitute in exchange for shelter and drugs. "To me, it was a lot better than being outside."

One day, he didn't return, and she fled. With the help of homeless shelters and church programs, she got off drugs and off the streets. Still, prostitution and drug charges made it difficult to move out of a low-wage job.

About two years ago, she began working with law clinic attorneys to clear her record. Her prostitution convictions, tied to trafficking, were vacated by a court last August. Soon after, she was hired full time to work with senior citizens. Today, she rents a house with a friend and feels confident about her future.

"I'm a person of faith," she said. "I pray a prayer, and I just walk through the rest of my day as if it has already happened. I feel great."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
81°