N.Y. Bill to End Statute of Limitations on Sex Crimes Could Help Survivors Seek Justice

For survivors of sex trafficking, exiting the trade, healing and rebuilding is often a lengthy and non-linear process. In New York, a new bill could afford survivors seeking legal recourse for the crimes committed against them a real chance for justice.

A coalition of women’s rights organizations, service providers, faith-based community leaders, and victims of sex trade held a press conference on the steps of City Hall in New York City to denounce proposed legislation by the New York Assembly which would decriminalize prostitution. (Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Over 30 years after being kidnapped from her home in Queens, N.Y., and sex trafficked at 12 years old, Gabrielle Prieto came to terms with the realities of being a survivor. And now, nine years into her healing, Prieto is challenging the stigmas surrounding survivors of sex trafficking and advocates to end sex trade.

“We have to crawl our way out, even though we tripped our way in,” said Prieto.

Survivors who make it through the perilous process of exiting the trade need time to heal.

“[Survivors] need 24 months of just sleep, eating, not having the fear that they are going to get kidnapped or someone’s going to get hurt in their family, dealing with their medical,” continued Prieto. “Then they can return to their childhood to get an education.” 

We have to crawl our way out, even though we tripped our way in.

Gabrielle Prieto

Survivors also need time to find safe housing and a source of income while evading the sex traffickers often in their neighborhoods. They often struggle to make money while coming to terms with all the money that went through their hands. They need around seven years in order to restabilize and rebuild, said Prieto. In the state of New York, the five-year statute of limitations on sex crimes is a major obstacle to survivors seeking to prosecute their offenders. 

New York advocates and officials are pushing to pass a Senate bill to remove this five-year statute of limitations on sex crimes in this legislative session. The bill, S349A, passed in the Senate on June 5.

The bill has passed the New York state Senate and is working its way through the Assembly.

If signed by the governor, it could provide the opportunity to seek justice for some of the 639 victims involved in 404 identified cases of human trafficking in New York in 2021, recorded at the National Human Trafficking Hotline

The seed of manipulation was planted long before I even had a chance to understand what that meant.

Gabrielle Prieto

Prieto grew up in Queens and lived in a variety of neighborhoods from Sunnyside to Jamaica. She met her first trafficker at 15 years old when a friend discovered a male gay theater around 42nd Street in Midtown, an area known as “The Deuce” for its adult theaters. He started stalking, recruiting and eventually abducted her from her home, convincing her to drop out of high school and emancipate herself at 16 years old.

“The seed of manipulation was planted long before I even had a chance to understand what that meant,” said Prieto.

Prieto said she was born into a life of domestic violence, with an explosive stepfather who molested her and a babysitter’s husband who coerced her into unwanted acts by threatening to harm her baby cousin. Her family removed her from opportunities to connect with her Puerto Rican customs and culture so she could be raised in a white, privileged community and attend an all-girls Catholic school.

But instead of protecting her, it made her an “exotic treat”––she said she felt like the “little brown lamb.” Prieto said from the time she was born to the age of 45, she had nothing but predators and abusers who branded her as a victim—to be manipulated and exploited. 

Chantal La-Fon, an immigrant from Trinidad, was also 15 years old when a trafficker started grooming and stalking her—even showing up at her school in New York City. Being so young, she thought, “This was my boyfriend.” She was 17 years old when she was trafficked. 

Her trafficker created a mirage of glamour and success and capitalized on her desire to feel loved and seen, using manipulative romance to entice her, promising a life of love, money and opportunity. And La-Fon’s life did look flashy from the outside––she was dressed in expensive brands like Polo, picked up in expensive cars, taken on out-of-state trips and she stayed in nice hotels.

While she may have appeared taken care of by her trafficker, that was far from reality.

“They don’t see when you’re giving oral sex in the car or carrying coke in your vagina to go over state lines,” said La-Fon.

You start associating molestation with love or people caring for you.

Chantal La-Fon

There were internal barriers that kept her from leaving toxic cycles. La-Fon said she was molested starting at the age of 3 by her grandmother’s brother and by her cousin, who was being molested by the same man. “You start associating molestation with love or people caring for you,” she said. 

The New York Police Department (NYPD) handles a lot of “Romeo pimps”  who promise their victims a life and opportunities that never come, said Lieutenant Amy Capogna, commanding officer of the NYPD Special Victims Unit. Traffickers often prey on vulnerable people who are looking for some form of stability, but their reality is controlled by manipulation and abuse. One survivor believed that a McDonald’s meal was the most luxurious treat in life, recalled Capogna.

The removal of the statute of limitations is essential to survivors seeking justice as they have experienced trauma that takes time to heal, said Capogna.

“Maybe they never heal, but at least the opportunity is there if they want to seek justice,” said Capogna. 

Prieto took on a lot of violence for the sake of other younger girls. When the other girls said they wanted to get their GED, Prieto would take them to the library after their shifts at the strip club to study, then go out and hustle herself. One of the other girls was only 12 years old and was being passed around by multiple pimps. Prieto created a safety plan for her: doing extra work to get her enough money, putting together a suitcase, calling the officials and eventually putting her on a bus home to the Northwest. 

“I took an extreme beating for that,” said Prieto.

Years later, the girl found Prieto on a human trafficking awareness social media page and thanked her; today, she has her own children and runs a nonprofit. 

The typical Manhattan District Attorney’s Office human trafficking case is a woman of color, said Melissa Martinez, clinical director of the DA’s human trafficking unit. Out of all of the populations she has worked with, this group is the most vulnerable.

Prieto underscores this reality, stating that the removal of the fixed timeline for survivors seeking justice is essential to mitigating the inequities perpetuated by historical and systemic racism, classism and sexism.

Traffickers and Emotional Manipulation

Martinez believes the bill to end the statute of limitations is not only about addressing and healing decades-old wounds, but also preventing future trafficking by increasing opportunities to catch traffickers. 

The survivor can sometimes feel attached to their trafficker due to trauma bonds and brainwashing, said Martinez. Survivors have said, “I thought they loved me,” or, “I only was going to have to suffer for a current amount of time before it would get good.” Breaking through a fantasy that was drilled in through violence is a delicate process, said Martinez. 

Martinez worked a case with a woman who was married to her trafficker and had been trafficked for over a decade. She did not know how to use the subway system. She did not have any resources or social support in the city. She had no family in the city, but she had a child. She was navigating all that on her own, so even when she came to the DA’s office, it took her a long time to trust people. It has taken over five years for her to land on her feet. 

“You have to face your demons,” said Prieto.

Prieto attempted to exit the trade in her early 30s when, over and over again, the promised life from her second trafficker turned out to be a lie. But challenges arose in leaving the toxic cycles that trafficking had reaffirmed and ingrained. After leaving her pimp, she was sold into a brothel on a random Thursday night by girls who were not being trafficked, but still associated with independent agents that were familiar with her trafficker through escorting and strip clubs. But by Sunday morning, she had escaped—running out in her underwear.

A month later, she took 150 sleeping pills with a bottle of Hennessy and NyQuil, leaving her in a coma for three days.

Her experiences with exploitation and abuse at the hands of men did not end when she exited the sex trade—years later as she was rebuilding her life, she was date raped by a fellow college classmate. She continued to come across people who were targeting and attempting to exploit her, even being sexually harassed and abused in spaces where she was advocating for survivors.

“It is in the home, in the neighborhood, in the school, it’s at different places of profession, it’s normalized. Every time I was coming around an adult, there’s an abuser,” said Prieto. 

In the NYPD’s initial interaction with the victims, very few held their arms out saying thank you, Capogna said. Part of the problem is that some people do not understand at first that they are a victim.

Detective Liam O’Hara of the Special Victims Unit thought he was going to be a hero when he worked a rescue operation. But when one survivor spit in his face as he approached, it became clear to him that she had been living in fear for her life and would not easily trust people, he said at the Radical Optimism Conference with the National Organization for Women in New York City in January.

Many survivors do not recognize that they are victims, La-Fon said. It is hard to know your self worth while your norm is damaged and toxic.

“Our worth was based on a dollar, so you have to realize you are worth more than that,” she said. 

La-Fon recalls having to make $500 a night or risk not having a place to sleep, and being abused and beaten. Some women were even pregnant by their traffickers. 

“My lack of knowledge and understanding of what love is, what true unconditional love is, made me so susceptible to looking and seeking for the wrong stuff,” La-Fon said. 

Nonlinear Healing for Survivors

La-Fon also voiced that healing is not linear, nor does it have a timeline, saying that everyone is different and therefore has a different timeline. She considers healing her inner self and finding the power in forgiving herself for her past essential to preventing her from reentering broken cycles.

“I love mental health,” said La-Fon.“What was supposed to destroy me, I have to use to help people understand that this is serious and real.”

At the age of 45, Prieto realized her true narrative. She was training to be a human trafficker certified watcher with a faith-based coalition in New York. When running through a trafficking scenario, she corrected them: “It doesn’t happen like that.” 

One of the founders, who was a doctor and a reverend, pulled Prieto into the other room to hear more about her life. The reverend said, “I have something to tell you. You’re a victim of domestic trafficking.”

Prieto said she must have looked at her blankly because the reverend placed her hands on Prieto’s head. “The chains came off,” said Prieto, giving her light. 

In New York, bills are not just a matter of legal technicality. They represent the fundamental shift towards justice and protection for survivors of exploitation and abuse.

Gabrielle Prieto

Even today, after Prieto’s first trafficker returned from Florida, “He knows where I go and how I go, so I come across him all the time,” she said. He even knows where her family lives.

With only nine years of healing and understanding it wasn’t her fault, Prieto doesn’t know if she is yet in a place where she would even be able to charge him. 

Providing Relief for Survivors

“In New York, bills are not just a matter of legal technicality. They represent the fundamental shift towards justice and protection for survivors of exploitation and abuse,” said Prieto. 

“There is no one-size-fits-all, and listening to our clients, to survivors, to victims of crimes is not just listening to them with your ears, but it’s listening with all your senses,” said Renée Modesto-Jones from Safe Horizon, an anti-trafficking program that emphasizes building a rapport with clients until they are comfortable to work with the providers.

Safe Horizon’s services are multi-disciplinary, including immigration protection, legal advice and representation, social work, working with the NYPD, counseling centers and shelters. Established in 1978, it is the largest non-profit victims’ services agency in the United States, working with more than 250,000 people throughout New York City each year. 

The DA’s office’s services include therapy, safety planning, relocation, housing and immigration relief. In one case, where a survivor returned to New York from Florida to testify against their trafficker, the prosecution helped her bring her therapy dogs.

After the rescue operation, the NYPD helps victims access child services, therapy, temporary housing, medical treatment or whatever they may need.  

“My detectives are holding their hand the entire way and just keep in constant communication with them,” said Capogna. 

Capogna has worked for the NYPD for 16 years, joining the human trafficking squad in 2020. It was the first time she felt she was truly making a difference, she said. She finds the work rewarding, especially when seeing a trafficker go to jail and seeing a survivor feel relieved.

From her experience, the report of sex trafficking usually comes from self-reporting or a person missing a family member. Their work also includes going undercover, monitoring trafficking sites for underage victims and handing out care packages with contact information of providers to sex workers.

The unit reaches out to around 250 migrant shelters in coordination with The Salvation Army to spread awareness and demonstrate that “we’re out there to help,” emphasizing there is help regardless of immigration status. 

Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx) is carrying the bill to end the statute of limitations on sex crimes in the Assembly and hopes it will be passed this month. To him, it is a powerful tool for prosecutors to try and charge offenders.

Dinowitz has long been a leader and an advocate for criminalizing sex trafficking and changing the opportunities for survivors to seek justice. Back in 2006, he and other members of the Assembly introduced the bill creating criminal penalties for human trafficking crimes. The bill defined what human trafficking was and became a model that other states used to make their own bills. 

“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery and should not be tolerated. We must enact the strongest possible law in New York to combat human trafficking,” said Dinowitz at the bill’s announcement.

Dinowitz points to the bill passed in 2022, the Adult Survivors Act, which eliminated the time limit of one year for survivors of sexual assault that occurred when they were over the age of 18. He said New York has changed the statute of limitations on sex-related abuse before and, therefore, can do it again.

A federal prosecutor for over 15 years, adjunct NYU Law professor Liz Geddes prosecuted R. Kelly, the Grammy award-winning R&B singer sentenced to 20 years in prison for convictions of sex trafficking and minor sex abuses. In her seminar on human trafficking at NYU, Geddes instills in her students an understanding of the importance of giving survivors the autonomy to decide what justice means for them. She teaches her students how the coercive elements of trafficking have a large impact on a person’s desire and ability to share their story. 

“Victims of trafficking have neurological changes to their brains because of the trauma that they’ve endured,” said Geddes. “And so when they recount what happened to them, to the untrained person, it may just not sound credible because they can’t talk about certain things or can’t recollect it in a chronological order.” 

It takes time for someone to recount their traumatic experience to a complete stranger, especially a lawyer or some form of law enforcement, explained Geddes, emphasizing the importance of removing the statute of limitations on sex crimes. She said that people have trouble even believing these crimes really happen in the United States. 

When La-Fon was 18 years old, she went to jail in Virginia for intent to distribute. She knew she did not belong there. Her trafficker called the prison to make sure she was still there. “Jail woke me up,” she said. 

After being released, she started hiding—changing up her schedule because her trafficker knew everything about her life and could threaten her family. She had to stay strong, even while washing away the illusion that she had thought she was in love. 

As an immigrant, she was unable to work and could not get a driver’s license, especially charged with the crimes that she was, describing herself as “handicapped and disabled.”

“I had to be the change I wanted to see,” La-Fon continued. 

The Sex Trade Survivors and Equality Act

The Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act, introduced by state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and Assemblymember Pamela Hunter (D-Syracuse) on Jan. 25, 2021, would decriminalize people in prostitution and provide comprehensive services for them. Once passed, the law will also penalize sex buyers and continue to criminalize pimps and traffickers. Half of the fines collected under this bill from offenders will be distributed to the survivors of sexual exploitation and the other half will be allocated to 40 jurisdictions, decided on by the task force of human trafficking. The bill was created in partnership with survivor leaders and currently sits in committee in the state Senate. 

Survivor leaders—including Prieto—were critical in creating this bill. Both Prieto and La-Fon strongly advocate for survivor leaders to participate in coalition-building and consulting law enforcement and legislation. These survivor leaders show that they made it out—so others can, too.

“It is the job of the government to protect vulnerable and marginalized people against the systems of exploitation that seek to harm and take advantage of them and to do so by following the facts and the data and the lived experiences of those who are most impacted,” said Justin Flagg, Krueger’s communications director. 

There is not one lifestyle, country, religion or culture that does not have sex trafficking. It comes from centuries and centuries of skin capitalism and caste systems, according to Prieto. 

“That girl that’s walking with a see-through blouse and a thong in your neighborhood, she’s an escort. And she’s about to visit your neighbor’s husband,” she said. 

Shandra Woworuntu was kidnapped from JFK airport at 25 years old while immigrating from Indonesia. She worked as a banker and trader there but fled political unrest. Being an immigrant scares people from seeking help; they are told that they are the ones who would be arrested, not their offenders, said Woworuntu. 

When she first escaped her trafficker, she thought she was a survivor of a kidnapping, but learned she was also a survivor of sex trafficking. Our systems are responsible for educating and explaining to survivors that they were trafficked, she said. 

“The exploitation is people’s income, but it comes with abuse. … They choke you, penetrate your vagina, call you names, curse at you,” said Woworuntu. “How is it work if there is abuse?”

Woworuntu, now an inspirational speaker, differentiates between partial and full decriminalization of sex crimes. Full decriminalization empowers survivors by funding their ability to leave the trade—in addition to the decriminalization of sex crimes. 

The Start Act

The Start Act (Survivors of Trafficking Attaining Relief Together), signed in 2021 by ​​Gov. Kathy Hochul, allows trafficked individuals to file a motion asking a court to vacate all criminal convictions where their participation in the offense was a result of having been a victim of sex or labor trafficking or compelling prostitution under New York law or trafficking in persons as defined by federal law. It was previously limited to prostitution and loitering for prostitution. 

However, Martinez reported that of the 30 cases her office has reviewed most of them occurred outside the five years statute of limitations, so it is not making the waves it could or should. 

Martinez points out that rape in the third degree has a limitation of 10 years and criminal procedure (CPL 3010) has no limitation. It does not make sense to her that human trafficking has a five-year limitation.

Nora Hennick, the communications director for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), said that the bill to end the statute of limitations would send a message to exploiters that there are consequences and they will be held accountable. CATW is one of the oldest international organizations working to end the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls, fighting for a world where no women are bought and sold. Their work centers around listening to survivor’s stories and supporting survivor leadership because survivors are uniquely equipped to develop protection and prevention policies. 

It can take a long time for victims not only to come forward but also for them to exit the trade. Traffickers and offenders target the most marginalized among us—Black and brown women, queer and transgender youth, houseless youth and houseless immigrants. There is a misconception that trafficking only happens to white girls snatched off the street, but in reality, it is on our streets and in our neighborhoods—someone’s boyfriend could be their trafficker, continued Hennick. 

Sex Trafficking and the Feminist Movement

Sex trafficking does not get a lot of attention in the feminist movement and can be misconstrued under sex positivity and the modern view of sex workers. But the system of prostitution is a manifestation of the patriarchy. People focus on the woman’s “choice” but rarely consider that she might have ended up there due to lack of choice, continued Hennick.

La-Fon says the trafficking trade is only going to get worse with growing exploitation online with little boundaries. But the bill to end the statute of limitations on sex crimes will make offenders think twice. “No one is exempt anymore,” she said. 

Prieto and La-Fon address the cycles of abuse born from our broken systems that provide the foundation for exploitation.

“Prevention goes both ways,” La-Fon said, referencing that her traffickers had also been abused. 

As a mother of a 10-year-old boy, La-Fon advocated educating your children in order to protect them, teaching her son that bullying can come from something happening behind closed doors. “[Motherhood] made me wake up even more,” she said. 

She is currently getting her broker’s license and studying for her credit counselor certification and Chartered Financial Analysis exam, focusing on empowering underserved communities. “Taking that power back to win,” she said. 

Currently, Prieto serves as the senior peer care navigator at Sanctuary for Families’ EMPOWER Center, New York’s leading service provider and advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence. She works with clients who are 12 years old to 70 years old, transgender, and non-English speakers from all over the world. In January 2020, she received an honorary reward for her survivor leadership work from the Brooklyn DA’s office and Safe Horizon.  

[Removing the statute of limitations] gives them a chance to have somebody to be accountable for their actions. It gives them a chance to see that it’s not a game anymore.

Chantal La-Fon

Prieto instills in them, “You stand on your own because you was doing it on your own. You don’t know how much power you have. You just gave it to everybody else. You gave it to the weed. You gave it to the cocaine. You gave it to the rainbow store because you bought the outfit. You gave it to the man. Give it to yourself.”

Removing the statute of limitations gives people a chance to get victory, said La-Fon. “It gives them a chance to have somebody to be accountable for their actions. It gives them a chance to see that it’s not a game anymore. You can’t get away with certain things.”

To learn more about the experience and advocacy work of survivors, check out the Exit Wound podcast.

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Ally Dickson was an editorial intern at Ms. for summer 2023 and a senior at New York University, majoring in international relations and journalism. For Ms., she has covered the dangers of fake abortion clinics and threats to democracy. Previously, she wrote for Bay City News, completing a capstone on how nursing students, professors and nurse practitioners are fighting for abortion training in California. Check out more of her work on LinkedIn.