06:17, July 06 190 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-06 06:17:06
Trafficking and exploitation in focus  Outcry as Trump restricts funding for sex-trafficking survivors

Earlier this year, Amy, a sex-trafficking survivor who spent 15 years under the control of violent pimps, walked into a small courthouse in Cincinnati, Ohio, with 105 criminal charges on her record. An hour later, she left with all but two of the charges erased.

“For so long I’ve just been seen as a prostitute and a criminal,” said Amy. “Even though I managed to get clean and get away from my trafficker, I haven’t been able to get a job and struggled to find someone who would rent me an apartment and just [allow me to] provide for myself. It’s hard to describe the feeling that now I could get a second chance at life.”

Under Ohio’s safe harbour legislation – and similar laws across all states – Amy had the right to request that criminal charges she accrued while she was a victim of human trafficking were expunged from the public record.

Yet anti-trafficking advocates across the US are warning that a sudden decision by the Trump administration, effective immediately, to cut all funding for legal representation for survivors like Amy means that many other victims will now struggle to get their expungement cases into a courtroom.

In a series of urgent appeals to the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), the American Bar Association, members of Congress, survivors, advocates and law enforcement have called for a reversal of the decision they say will deny victims of human trafficking their legal rights.

Many victims are forced or coerced into committing criminal acts while under the control of human traffickers. A 2016 survey by the National Survivor Network found 91% of respondents had been arrested while being exploited, and more than 40% had been arrested nine times or more.

“It’s easy to think of criminal records in stark terms – right or wrong. You do the crime, you live with the consequences of having a record. But what if you are controlled by someone else and threatened with violence – or worse, harm to your family – if you do not commit the crime?” said Nat Paul, director at the National Survivor Network.

“Until now, OVC grant funding has enabled public service attorneys to help survivors navigate the complex legal process of expungement. 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.”

While the OVC has doubled its human trafficking funding to $77m (£58m) this fiscal year, it will allocate the majority of this money to the work of task forces and law enforcement.

The Office of Justice Programs, which oversaw the changes to funding, said that resources were being focused on other more immediate areas of need. It argued that while funding to direct legal representation was being cut, resources would still be available for victims to access legal counsel.

“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 an Office of Justice representative. “Only potentially costly direct legal representation services regarding vacatur [a ruling that sets aside a judgment or annuls proceedings] and expungement have been limited.”

Sasha Naiman, an attorney at the Ohio Justice and Policy Centre (OJC), who has represented Amy and many other survivors to seek expungement, said the cuts showed a “fundamental” lack of understanding of the situation facing trafficking survivors.

“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 healthcare with a criminal record,” she said. “The first step has to be addressing the criminalisation of survivors. Without this funding many victims will simply not stand a chance of getting someone to represent them through this process.”

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