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February 7, 2013

Midyear Meeting Preview: Housing Critical to Human Trafficking Victims, Experts Say

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At an _ 2013 Midyear Meeting program on Friday, Feb. 8, lawyers and advocates of children and adult victims of human trafficking will discuss how homelessness and immigration issues are directly connected to recruitment of these victims into commercial sexual exploitation, and will highlight the benefits that safe harbor laws provide to victims of human trafficking.

“We want to recognize the fact that these girls who are being exploited, many times are coming out of specific challenges, like being undocumented,” says Richard Wayman, executive director of Hearth Connection and member of the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty. “They may be homeless, or they may come from poor neighborhoods. They may be addicted to drugs or alcohol, and/or they may have a history in their family of being sexually abused.”

The meeting, sponsored by the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, will specifically address the regulations — known as “safe harbor laws”— that aim to help protect victims of human trafficking from further abuse and guide them toward community supportive services.

Experts recommend that “in crafting policy, care should be given toward looking at both the spectrum of services delivered to the individual as well as access to safe and affordable housing,” Wayman says.

Panelists agree that as the legal community learns more about human trafficking and the need to treat victims as victims instead of as criminals, the focus should be on promoting community programs that support housing, education and counseling.

“In the past we used to treat young girls and the young boys who were victims of prostitution and sexual trafficking as criminals, and we would send them to juvenile detention or into jails,” Wayman says. “What the safe harbor laws do is they provide a shield from prosecution, and they also provide for supportive services so that these individuals can access life skills, education and employment, so that they don’t have to go back to that form of exploitation.”

Some states — such as New Jersey, Missouri and Ohio — simply provide information about services to victims. At least five states and territories — Connecticut, Florida, Guam, New Jersey and Texas — have combined these models by mandating formulating a plan for providing services for victims.

Few state statutes have combined the delivery of intensive supportive services, which address physical and psychological trauma and addiction issues, with stable housing referrals and maintenance services.

“Unless the person is also in stable housing, our ability to be successful or effective in delivering supportive services — education and employment — will not be as effective,” Wayman says. “Housing is a social determinant of both health and recovery.”

Kathryn Richtman, prosecutor for the criminal diversionary program for minor victims of commercial sexual exploitation of Ramsey County’s Attorney’s Office in Saint Paul, Minn., agrees.

“Without a viable alternative for housing, prosecutors with all good intentions who want to keep these kids safe are forced to choose between a nonsecure facility — from which these kids frequently run — and a locked juvenile detention center,” she says.

On the issue of human trafficking, ABA President Laurel Bellows — who has made combatting human trafficking one of her key priorities — has said that “the _ is marshaling the considerable energy and resources of our nation’s lawyers to change the way our legal system approaches human trafficking.”

As part of this effort, Bellows created the ABA’s Task Force on Human Trafficking to address modern-day slavery through public awareness, advocacy, training and education. On Human Trafficking Awareness Day, observed on Jan. 11, the ABA released a brief video about what lawyers can do to help combat human trafficking.

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