Human Trafficking Survivors Are Often Criminalized. Free to Thrive’s Jamie Beck Is Providing Legal Support

Human trafficking is increasingly identified as an insidious societal problem. The statistics are staggering: Human trafficking is estimated to be a $150 billion industry that profits from 25 million victims worldwide. Estimates suggest that, internationally, only about .04% of survivors of human trafficking cases are identified, meaning most cases of trafficking go undetected.

And this is a problem that hits close to home for those in the U.S.: More than 100,000 children are sold for sex in the U.S. each year, and 83 percent of sex trafficking victims in the U.S. are U.S. citizens, according to Polaris, an organization that collects statistics on HT.

Ms. Q&A: Jamie Beck on Providing Legal Support to Survivors of Human Trafficking
A protest against human trafficking in New York City in 2019. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

Many efforts are underway to communicate and alleviate this enormous problem.

One important initiative is legislation at various levels, which would make it easier to prosecute the johns and create more punitive actions against the traffickers. There is also funding for victims’ remediation, such as support for job training and criminal records expungement. There are also compensatory funds available in some instances.

Community education initiatives take the form of mandated training for societal members who might have heightened interactions with traffickers/or victims. These include training for the police, hotel staff and licensed professionals.

There are also many organizations founded with the goal of alleviating the suffering caused by human trafficking. One such group is Free To Thrive, directed by Jamie Beck. Located in California—the number one state for human trafficking—Free to Thrive provides legal services to victims of human trafficking and partners with other organizations to provide other social services for victims. Free to Thrive is also teaming up with numerous cosponsors in California to enact legislation allowing resentencing for victims of human trafficking.

Ms. Q&A: Jamie Beck on Providing Legal Support to Survivors of Human Trafficking
“A lot of people have the image of a trafficking survivor as somebody who’s being held hostage against their will,” said Beck. “The reality is that trafficking survivors are among us every day, all the time.” (Courtesy of Jamie Beck)

Ms. writer Helen LaVan spoke with Jamie Beck in a recent interview about Free to Thrive and human trafficking.

Helen LaVan: What is the mission of your organization?

Jamie Beck: Our mission is to empower human trafficking survivors to be free from exploitation and thrive by providing them with legal services and connections to other supportive services. We do this primarily through our legal clinic that we operate, providing direct legal services to survivors of human trafficking. We also do community training, and we have a lot of community partnerships where we help our clients connect with other non-legal services.

LaVan: What sort of community training activities do you do?

Beck: Prior to COVID, we did a lot of training in the San Diego community, which is where we’re based out of, but also nationally, training people who reach out to us and ask for training, and also training at national conferences. Since the COVID outbreak, we took our trainings online, and we’ve done at least 12 different trainings, with over a thousand people during COVID, on legal topics and also trauma-informed practices.

For example, working with trafficking survivors in family law cases, helping trafficking survivors clear their records, and other legal needs our clients have, especially in domestic violence cases. Also, talking about Social Security benefits, which is a huge need for our clients, and landlord/tenant issues, which everybody is impacted by during COVID. We also do a lot of training for stakeholders, so for judges, prosecutors, public defenders—anybody who might encounter trafficking survivors. Today, we trained a nonprofit on human trafficking and how to identify them among their client population. That’s something we do regularly, as well.

LaVan: How would a concerned citizen recognize that someone is a victim of trafficking? What typically would I look for if I’m out and about?

Beck: That’s a very good question. I want to be very mindful of my answer because the reality is, a lot of people have the image of a trafficking survivor as somebody who’s being held hostage against their will, and assume that you’d be easily able to spot somebody who’s being trafficked if you knew where to look for them. The reality is that trafficking survivors are among us every day, all the time. They’re workers at the restaurants we go to. They are domestic workers in people’s homes. They are mothers and children and fathers and brothers, and the reality is, is that even with training on human trafficking, you probably may not even be able to spot them.

Ms. Q&A: Jamie Beck on Providing Legal Support to Survivors of Human Trafficking
“Our mission is to empower human trafficking survivors to be free from exploitation and thrive by providing them with legal services and connections to other supportive services,” Jamie Beck told Ms. (Courtesy of Jamie Beck)

LaVan: What is your role in the Justice For Survivors Act legislation that you’re trying to get passed?

Beck: Even people who do know about basic facts about human trafficking often don’t know that trafficking survivors are very often criminalized, and survivors who are Black, Indigenous, people of color are more often criminalized than white survivors. And what that means is that, one, there are a lot of people in our criminal justice system who are survivors of human trafficking, but also crimes like domestic violence, childhood abuse, sexual assault, who are in our criminal system, in jails and prisons around the country. There are also many survivors who have been released and have criminal records still.

I advocated for a law that helps survivors clear their records after the fact, once they’ve served their time. That was what helped launch Free to Thrive, doing that particular work once we passed the law. And then, we realized that there are so many more survivors who aren’t out yet, who are still serving time. We actually got a letter from one survivor who basically said, “I’m in prison, and I’m a human trafficking survivor, is there anything you can do to help me?”

And in her case, she shot a sex buyer who was trying to rape her. The sex buyer had absolutely no criminal liability for the attempted rape/sexual assault or buying sex, which is not legal in California, but she’s still in prison. We were so compelled by her story that we started looking to see if there’s anything we can do to help her, and there wasn’t anything in existing law that would help her. So, we decided to advocate for a bill to help not just her but many like her. We brought together a statewide working group that’s been advocating for this bill, and the bill involves two main parts. One part is resentencing.

So, those who’ve already been sentenced to crimes that are related to their trauma, whether it’s interpersonal violence, human trafficking, sexual violence, child abuse…If you’ve experienced any of those things, and you’re currently serving time, you could bring a motion to the court to be resentenced and have the court take into account your trauma and try to get released early. So, it’s essentially amending California’s resentencing law to have these specific areas that would allow people to get resentenced.

And then, there’s a whole other piece about taking this into account at the time of sentencing these crimes. Right now, the bill is mostly focused on resentencing. We’re trying to add a lot more to it so that our clients don’t have to wait to get sentenced to get this relief, but like any piece of legislation, it’s still in the works.

Even people who do know about basic facts about human trafficking often don’t know that trafficking survivors are very often criminalized, and survivors who are Black, Indigenous, people of color are more often criminalized than white survivors.

LaVan: Do you have any success stories of people you’ve helped?

Beck: Sure. A lot of our work is helping survivors clear their records so that they can move forward, and we’ve had a number of stories of survivors whose records we’ve helped clear. One in particular, when she first came to us she had open warrants for her arrest in two counties in California, and she had a criminal record in three counties. She was scared to leave San Diego because she was worried if she went anywhere, she could get arrested. We got the warrants recalled. We got her record vacated in all three counties, and now, when you run her criminal background, it is completely clean. And in the interim, she’s moved. She’s gotten a new job, and at each juncture, she would’ve had to disclose her criminal background had it not been for our work.

We also do a lot of family law cases, and our cases often involve our clients’ trafficker, abuser or sex buyer. We have one case that we’ve been litigating for several years, where our client’s sex buyer is the father of her child and has been fighting her in the family law system since we first met her. At the beginning of the case, our client had no custody, and the father had actually moved out of state and was refusing to communicate with our client.

We discovered, after taking on her case, that he had moved back to California and was living in the same city as her and had never even let her know that he was there. We were able to first get supervised visitation for our client, and then unsupervised visitation, and then legal and physical custody. She had to establish to the court that she was a safe and stable environment for her child, and over the years, she’s actually gotten to the point where now she has primary physical custody of the child.

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LaVan: How did you come to do the work you’re doing?

Beck: When I first learned about this issue as a concerned citizen … once you learn about this issue, you can’t unknow it. You can’t unlearn that this is an issue impacting your community. When I first learned about it, I was on the board of San Diego’s feminist bar association, the Lawyers Club of San Diego, and I said, “If anybody can help, feminist lawyers should be part of the solution to help with this, so what can we do to help?” And so I reached out to those who were already working in the space, and they said, “We need lawyers to help survivors. They have all kinds of legal needs, and they need help.”

And so, we ended up launching a number of different programs, including a mentorship program with a local safe house, and I started mentoring a survivor there. One day I got a call from the safe house that this particular survivor has been arrested. She had outstanding criminal charges from when she was first trafficked, and she went to court, thinking that she’s safe now, she’s in a position where she can deal with the criminal cases against her, and she went to court saying, “I’m here, I’m ready to take care of this.” But she had warrants out because she hadn’t appeared in court because she was being trafficked, and so she was immediately taken into custody.

The nonprofit that was serving her contacted me and said, “Our client’s been arrested; is there anything you can do to help?” And I ended up helping her with those outstanding criminal charges. She had drug charges and theft charges from when she was trafficked, and when we were all done helping her, the charges were essentially dismissed or expunged because she did everything she was supposed to do. She graduated from the program. She went off to college, and she started looking for a job, and she couldn’t get a job because of her criminal record. She said, “Can you expunge my record?”

And I said, “Actually, we already did expunge your record,” and she’s like, “Well, why is it coming up on my background? Every time I get a job offer, they run my background, and then they revoke the offer.” Most people don’t know that even if your record has been expunged, it doesn’t go away. It’s not like a magic eraser. It’s still there for employers to see, and oftentimes, they don’t understand from reviewing their record that it’s been expunged, which means that most people who have a background have a very hard time getting a job, getting housing, getting public benefits, and going back to school.

And so, we learned about this, and I said, “There isn’t anything I can do to help you in the law,” and that’s actually when we started advocating for this vacatur law in California to allow survivors to clear their records. We passed the law. I called her up, and I said, “You’re going to be my first client; I have no idea what I’m doing, but we’re going to figure this out together.” And she was my first vacatur client, and we were able to vacate her record so that she could get the fresh start that she deserved. And that’s really what inspired me to do this work, this one survivor, but also knowing that there’s many, many others like her who needed this help.

“That’s really what inspired me to do this work, this one survivor, but also knowing that there’s many, many others like her who needed this help.”

LaVan: Do you have any experience with male victims of human trafficking?

Beck: Most of our clients are female-identifying. We have some nonbinary clients and some transgender clients who identify as female. We have a few male clients, but very few. I think that’s for a number of reasons. It doesn’t mean that men aren’t trafficked. It means, one, most of the social services available for trafficking survivors are geared towards women. Safe houses, for example, might be just for women, which means that oftentimes men are less likely to have services available, and those services are who we get a lot of client referrals from. There’s also even more stigma and shame around male victims than female victims, which means they’re even more likely to believe that this is something they chose.

We spend a lot of time with our clients, helping them understand their exploitation, because oftentimes, they believe that they were choosing to do this work, and they’ll say, “Well, you know, I didn’t have to do it, I chose to,” and we’ll say, “Well, who kept all the money when you were having sex with people every night?” And they’ll say, “Well, you know, this other person kept the money.” “Well, what would happen if you didn’t work?” “Well, they would withhold food, they wouldn’t let me sleep.”

When you start to ask those questions, they start to realize that it really wasn’t a choice. But with male victims, there often is this sense of “it’s something that I did to survive or something I did to get by, not somebody forcing me to do this.”

Another reason is that our services, right now, are a lot more about sex trafficking than labor trafficking. There’s a lot of male victims of labor trafficking. There’s male victims of sex trafficking, too, but I think sex trafficking does impact women more than men, but labor trafficking, it’s probably pretty evenly split or even more skewed towards men. We’re expanding our services to identify more victims of labor trafficking.

Ms. Q&A: Jamie Beck on Providing Legal Support to Survivors of Human Trafficking
(Courtesy of Jamie Beck)

LaVan: Do you have any recommendations to concerned citizens who’d like to get involved in preventing human trafficking other than giving money?

Beck: Look into your community and see who’s already doing work in this area and reach out and offer to help. We all have skills to offer. It could be that you do marketing, and a nonprofit really needs help with marketing or with their website or with training materials. It could be that you do HR or insurance, and nonprofits are businesses, and we need help with lots and lots of different things. If you have a business or services that you’re able to provide, donating your time and talents can often be as valuable or more valuable than donating money to the nonprofits.

It may just be saying, “I’m a volunteer, and I can donate my time, I can mentor survivors.” Every nonprofit has different needs, but really, just exploring what skills you have to offer and offering them up to those in your community doing this work. Maybe you don’t have a lot of money to give, but you can offer to help fundraise. If you did an online fundraiser, or a walk or a run, you could raise money to help out. I’ve seen a lot of young people do really successful fundraisers for causes that they believe in just because they got other people to care.

LaVan: Is there anything else you’d like the Ms. readers to know?

Beck: I think they should know what’s on the horizon for Free to Thrive, going forward. We are expanding. We started in San Diego, serving San Diego survivors, and the demand for our services has been so great that we’re expanding to support survivors throughout Southern California. We’re really excited about this, being able to expand and serve others, and we already are getting a lot of calls from other places. We’re doing our best to respond to the need, and we’re going to grow slowly so that we have the capacity to serve survivors, but the reality is that there’s entire states in the country who don’t have any services like Free to Thrive. My hope is that others are inspired to start something like this in other places because the need is so great that no one organization could do all the work alone.

And oftentimes, even in some of the big cities, there’s trafficking organizations, but there’s no legal services, specifically, or no holistic legal services. For example, I know Hawaii has some really great trafficking organizations that are serving survivors, but there’s no organizations like Free to Thrive that provide legal services to survivors. There are states that have vacatur laws that have never had lawyers actually use the law because they’re new or because they’re not trained to do the work, which means that survivors aren’t actually getting that relief. The law on the books, without lawyers that are using it, is just a law.

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Helen LaVan, Ph.D., LPC, is a Professor of Management at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. She is a licensed counselor, researcher on domestic abuse and participant in Illinois Religious Women Against Human Trafficking.