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August 07, 2019

Annual 2019: You can help trafficked youth get a fresh start

An estimated 4.2 million young people in the United States experience unaccompanied homelessness on an annual basis, and 800,000 of those are thought to be victims of sex or labor trafficking, according to research by the University of Chicago.  

At the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco on Friday, Aug. 9, a survivor, a Bay Area attorney and national advocates will discuss the trafficking of youth in the Bay Area and across the country in the program, Advocate for Survivors: Trafficking of Homeless/At-Risk Youth and Young Adults in the Bay Area and How Lawyers Can Make a Difference.”

Sponsored by the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and the Criminal Justice Section, the program will be held at the Westin St. Francis San Francisco at 12:30 p.m. The panelists will discuss the wide range of legal needs, related law and policy, gaps in legal services—and how attorneys can get involved full time or pro bono to advocate for survivors.  

According to the National Network for Youth, among the factors contributing to youth homelessness are family dysfunction, exiting the child welfare or juvenile justice systems and sexual abuse. The organization estimates that 28% of youth living on the street and 10% of those in shelters engage in ‘survival sex’ in exchange for food, shelter or money. And it cites a finding by a New York City provider of services to homeless youth that 48% of youth who engaged in a commercial sex activity did so because they didn’t have a safe place to stay.

Amba Johnson, director of DreamCatcher Youth Services at Covenant House California, will be one of the panelists. For almost 20 years, DreamCatcher has connected homeless and trafficked youth between the ages of 13-18 in Alameda County to stable housing, consistent resources and community and peer supports.

Johnson says having lawyers participate in programs like DreamCatcher helps in several ways:

·        Lawyers can ensure that youth (particularly underage youth, she notes) get the entitlements they qualify for, by getting agencies to “step up.”

·        Having a lawyer sit in with the case management team automatically “expands the bandwidth” and knowledge for everyone.

·        The time spent by youth in a shelter will be shortened because a lawyer can help move things along faster than a nonlawyer.

·        Homeless young people often feel powerless to change their circumstances, Johnson says, but having a lawyer as an ally in their cause can have “a therapeutic impact,” and supplies a stark contrast when that youth has only felt the punitive effects of the justice system.

·        Trafficked youth often carry a juvenile justice record from on-street violence or shoplifting when they were in survival mode on the street, and a lawyer can help expunge that record.

·        A lawyer can help prepare youth for a court appearance. Johnson recounted the story of a youth who had been running from arrest warrants from years on the street. A lawyer coached her on writing her statement to the judge and prepared her for what would happen in court. The judge ended up sending her to social services rather than to juvenile justice.

Another panelist, Palmer Buchholz of Bay Area Legal Aid, will speak about providing civil legal services to trafficking survivors, including safety planning (foster care advocacy, restraining orders, victim assistance) and record clearing (expungement, sealing and vacatur), as well as more general areas of representation such as public benefits, education and consumer issues. 

The moderator, Darla Bardine, is executive director of National Network for Youth, which provides CLEs and training around the country for lawyers looking to represent homeless youth, and together with the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University offers a Certificate on Human Trafficking.

The key for lawyers looking to work with trafficked youth is to remain patient and flexible, says Buchholz. “Developing trust can be challenging, and sometimes the chaos of life leads to changing one’s mind about goals, coming in and out of contact and making decisions that others don’t understand,” she says. “Communication and patience are key.”