The Trump administration has removed legal representation from the list of social services the federal government provides to human trafficking survivors, a move that hinders their reintegration into society, many survivors argue.
The Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime sets federal funding aside to assist crime victims, including the victims of human trafficking. Up until this month, in addition to services like health care, education and employment, the funds also covered legal representation ― which human trafficking victims have used to get their criminal records expunged or dismissed. More than 90 percent of human trafficking victims are arrested for crimes like prostitution, truancy or drug possession when they are being trafficked.
But the most recent iteration of the Office for Victims of Crime’s budget, released on June 25, added new language:
“OVC funding may not be used for criminal defense services,” it reads. “Direct representation on vacatur or expungement matters through court filings or through other litigation services, is NOT an allowable cost under this cooperative agreement or with FY 2018 funds.”
Assistance in paying for legal aid is essential to victims’ recovery process, wrote more than 100 trafficking survivors in a letter to the OVC on Friday.
“Criminal records are a barrier to federal financial assistance for higher education, employment with government agencies, and housing programs,” they wrote. “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.”
“It is incredibly important to address the injustice done to survivors and recognize that they are victims, not criminals.”
While some states have their own separate budgets for legal representation under the Victims of Crime Act, it is still essential that victims not be treated as criminals for the rest of their lives, Jean Bruggeman, the executive director of Freedom Network USA, one of the largest trafficking victim support organizations in the U.S., told 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.”
On Friday, Freedom Network USA, along with several hundred other organizations, urged the Trump administration to rework the budget to include legal representation. The American Bar Association also wrote a letter condemning the change. But in a statement to HuffPost, the Office for Victims of Crime said it simply wanted to reprioritize where the money went.
“In an effort to equip service providers to meet victims’ most immediate challenges, OVC prioritized shelter, medical care and basic legal assistance, including legal counseling,” a representative for the office said. “Resources for legal representation of human trafficking survivors currently exist, including [Victims of Crime Act] funds that some states make available for that purpose.”
The OVC representative did not respond when HuffPost asked what the legal representation fees will be used for instead.
The move comes just two months after President Donald Trump signed FOSTA-SESTA, a bill that legislators and administrators praised as an effective way to combat sex trafficking. The legislation passed with an overwhelming majority in both the House and Senate, and Trump was celebrated across the political spectrum for signing it.
The legislation holds websites criminally liable for any sex-related content posted by third-party users ― an attempt to halt online sex trafficking. Yet critics say the bill puts voluntary sex workers at a greater risk of violence by forcing them to turn to street-based sex work, and makes sex trafficking victims more difficult to track down. Several groups, including Freedom Network USA, deeply opposed FOSTA-SESTA.