Recruiting Lawyers to Help Trafficking Survivors

With the passage of New Jersey's exemplary new law to fight human trafficking, state officials expect great growth in the need for lawyers to represent survivors. So Assistant Attorney General Tracy Thompson joined with the head of a survivors advocacy group to train more than two dozen attorneys recently. They were interested in serving as pro bono (free) lawyers to victims of sex or labor trafficking, and they were there to learn about what legal services they might need to provide.

I applaud these efforts and others like them. They are proof that it takes an entire community -- lawyers, police officers, emergency medical technicians, social workers and regular citizens -- to create a safety net to lift up our neighbors, many of them minors, who have survived being trafficked.

Speaking to the group recently at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick, Ms. Thompson explained that victims do not usually identify themselves as being trafficked, in part because of the climate of fear they are made to work in, and in part because they feel ashamed and hopeless. They also tend to blame themselves for their victimization.

New Jersey is a hub for human trafficking, Ms. Thompson said, because of its location on the Interstate 95 drug- and gun-running corridor, and its many highways, seaports and air terminals. The state also has a high demand for cheap labor, including farm work.

More than many states, New Jersey has kept track of trafficking cases: There were 216 from Sept. 2005 to March 2014, with 93 labor trafficking cases, 85 sex trafficking cases and 26 cases that were both, she said. From 2007 to 2011, 533 New Jersey children were reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, with 34 suspected or confirmed to be involved in prostitution.

Some local law enforcement officials have paid close attention to the issue. Chief Harry Earle in Gloucester Township, who has been on the forefront of trafficking prosecutions under the new law, tracks every child who is missing or has run away from home in his jurisdiction, Ms. Thompson said, to look into what troubles the young person may be experiencing at home that would make him or her flee.

She also told the story of Marc Branch from South Jersey, who was arrested for running a male prostitution ring in Ventnor. He would allegedly spike the drinks of the young men he wanted to traffic, she said, then inject them with heroin after they passed out, so they would become drug-addicted and easier to sell and control.

Trafficking can't be stopped simply by arresting criminals -- new ones will take their place. "Law enforcement can't do it alone," Ms. Thompson told the lawyers. "We need to get victims to want to come forward. We need a safety net there, and you are part of that safety net." The state is training taxi and limousine drivers, emergency medical technicians and public defenders as well as private attorneys and police. Given that the law took effect only in July, it is likely that some of the attorneys in the room would be bringing precedent-setting cases.

The lawyers posed various questions about the work they hoped to take on. One asked about their own safety. The state would protect lawyers working on such cases, though pro bono lawyers should not take cases they did not feel comfortable with, Ms. Thompson said.

Attorneys could help victims would file civil cases for damages, pain and suffering and lost wages, after the completion of criminal cases involving their traffickers, and some victims would need assistance during a criminal trial, if they were filing a complaint with the Violent Crimes Compensation Office, for example.

"You might get a call that the state is doing a takedown, and we might need you at a secret location, to meet them here," said Noelle A. Connor, the founder of Free2Flourish, the advocacy group. "Sometimes someone will need an immunity agreement right on the spot."

One lawyer asked how to find services for victims if they needed them. Usually the state does so, Ms. Thompson said, but the Department of Children and Families, the Polaris Project, which offers translator services, and the Coalition for Battered Women could also help. She also gave the lawyer's the state's trafficking hotline, 855.END.NJ.HT (855-363-6548) and reminded them that they did not have to give a victim's identity to the state when seeking services.

Elizabeth Hampton, a litigator from the Fox Rothschild law firm, came to the training with about seven other attorneys from the firm. More had signed up as well, she said, after hearing a colleague had been deeply moved by hearing a survivor speak. "We heard that the attorney general was putting together a task force and looking for attorneys to assist," she said. "We asked, 'how can we help?'"

As a mother of a young daughter, she said she was moved because so many children are victims of trafficking.

"For children and victims who are not protected and have nowhere to go, we can help be their voice, and be there to help with whatever their needs are."

I am glad that young people like Rosa and the many trafficking victims we see at Covenant House will have well-trained lawyers to sit next to them as the fight for justice. Now let's help other states pass laws as strong as New Jersey's. (Check here for trafficking-related laws in your state.)

It's a long battle, but so worth fighting!