August 10, 2019

As fight against human trafficking takes shape, panel urges lawyers to join frontline

Working as a sexual assault prosecutor in the 1990s, Nancy E. O’Malley recalled the case of a 12-year-old raped by a 50-year-old man in a motel room and sold by a 39-year-old man. When the girl explained what her life was like, O’Malley realized “we as a community, we as professionals, we in the legal community and we in the advocate community all have a role to play” in helping to prevent human trafficking. Since then, she said, “We have come a very long way,” although “there is still so much further to go.”

Now the district attorney for Alameda County, Calif., O’Malley was a panelist on 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,” held at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco on Friday, Aug. 9. Sponsored by the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and the Criminal Justice Section, the panelists discussed the wide range of legal needs, law and policy gaps in legal services and how attorneys can get involved full time or pro bono to advocate for survivors.  

O’Malley said more than 300,000 women and girls are estimated to be trafficked every year, and that human trafficking is modern-day slavery – “no doubt about it.”

She said there are many “hot spots” for human trafficking across the United States, and that San Francisco and San Diego are just two of them. “No community is immune” to exploitation and trafficking, she said.

Human trafficking is “the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world,” O’Malley said, and profitable than the drug trade. In 2018, a study estimated that sex trafficking brought in an estimated $810 million in San Diego alone.

The three components are the trafficker (formerly known by the more less-serious term “pimp”), the purchaser (formerly known as a “John,” which she said gives purchasers a pass) and the person being exploited.

The exploited are being lured by mothers, fathers, step-dads and step-moms; by illicit massage parlors and peer recruiters, among others. Human trafficking takes place at malls, schools, bus stops, beaches, parks, on the internet – any place where children are, she said.

In 2004, O’Malley started the HEAT Watch, which stands for Human Exploitation and Trafficking, a multi-pronged approach being adopted elsewhere that includes

  • Coordinated response from service providers to provide a safety net for vulnerable youth. They meet every week to share information about children who may be at risk for trafficking, and since 2011, they have created almost 6,000 safety plans for youth.
  • Training law enforcement to think of themselves as protectors of youth rather than enforcers.
  • Prosecuting traffickers. Since 2009, the county has prosecuted more than 600 people for trafficking minors.
  • Supporting and empowering community-based organizations, including DreamCatcher and trauma-informed trainings.
  • Changing state and national policies. “When you change policy you start driving resources,” O’Malley said.
  • Educating and engaging the public so trafficked youth are not invisible. O’Malley said the goals is to teach citizens “these are our children” going to our schools in our neighborhoods. The most successful effort has been a series of billboards put up in Alameda County that feature such messages as: “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A CHILD PROSTITUTE,” “THEY’RE NOT JOHNS, THEY’RE CHILD RAPISTS” and “HUMAN TRAFFICKING IS REAL AND IT’S RIGHT HERE.” The billboards are visible to those commuting into San Francisco and are now featured throughout California as well as in other states. 
  • O’Malley started the HEAT Institute to find gaps in data and research, one of which was the discovery that most hospitals have no protocol for human trafficking, so model protocols have been created for four local hospitals, with more on the way.

Nola Brantley, a human trafficking survivor who now trains advocates to create a community of support for girls and young women escaping the commercial sex industry, opened the program with a poem from her 15-year-old self about her experiences.

She noted that among those who are trafficked, there is an overrepresentation of LGBT and American Indian/Alaskan Native youth. Other at-risk youth include unaccompanied minors crossing the border and youth with intellectual disabilities.

Brantley emphasized that those working with traumatized youth – including volunteer attorneys – need to practice self-care. “Thrive in your life so we can model hope,” she said.

For almost 20 years, DreamCatcher Youth Services at Covenant House California 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. The program’s director, Amba Johnson, said lawyers serve invaluable roles:

  • Lawyers can ensure that youth get the entitlements they qualify for, by getting agencies to “step up.”
  • Having a lawyer sit in automatically “expands the bandwidth” of case managers and makes them more skilled at recognizing legal issues.
  • Homeless young people often feel powerless to change their circumstances, Johnson said, but being able to say “I’m going to call my lawyer” gives them a sense of autonomy and possibly their first positive view of lawyers and 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.

Lucia Murillo, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center of California’s Los Angeles office, spoke of LA County’s DREAM (Dedication to Restoration through Empowerment, Advocacy and Mentoring) Court, a specialized courtroom for hearing commercial sexual exploitation of children cases. All staff, she said, including the judge, attorneys, bailiff, clerk and court officers, are specially trained and trauma-informed to handle these cases.

Murillo advised lawyers wanting to volunteer in this area to become trauma-informed, become a mentor to this population and plan and host empowerment events, such as those that Brantley offers.

Palmer Buchholz, a lawyer with the Youth Justice Unit of Bay Area Legal Aid, said her group, which works closely with DreamCatcher, prioritizes collaboration to wrap a client in services, including those to address physical and economic security, restraining orders and barriers to housing and employment.

Among the ways pro bono lawyers can provide assistance to these clients, she said, include

  • Legal research and writing
  • Immigration assistance
  • Taking part in weekly drop-in clinics
  • Research and development of resources. She pointed to the recent publication of a Homeless Youth Handbook produced by, among others, attorneys at Baker McKenzie.

After the program, attendees were invited to take part in a community service project assembling toiletry kits for DreamCatcher Youth Services.