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Joe Surkiewicz: New program removes stigma for sex trafficking victims

Jessica Emerson, an advocate working with human trafficking victims, calls a prostitution charge on the rap sheet of a sex trafficking victim the “mightiest misdemeanor.”

“Individuals forced into prostitution are treated as criminals as a result of their victimization, which hurts their opportunities for obtaining safe housing, gainful employment, and access to education,” explained Emerson, who is heading a new project at the Women’s Law Center to help victims of sex trafficking.

“Plus, a prostitution conviction has societal stigma,” she added. “This is the real power of that charge on someone’s record. It hammers home the point that they are to blame — and they think ‘I must have done something to deserve this.’”

Emerson, a recent University of Baltimore School of Law graduate and a newly minted lawyer, will be helping victims under an underutilized Maryland law that can vacate prostitution charges. “It’s my dream job,” Emerson said.

As a social worker in New York City, she saw first hand how important a lawyer’s assistance can be. Nine months after graduation from social work school, she was working with a program helping young women victims of sex trafficking.

“I knew very little about the issue,” she recalled. “Call it fate or luck or both, but I walked in and fell in love with the resilience of these young women. After the woman I was filling in for came back from maternity leave, I refused to leave and ran an adolescent substance abuse group there. I also individually counseled some of the girls.

“I’ve stayed involved ever since,” Emerson continued. “I really found my passion.”

Seeking safe harbor

The pivotal moment was watching young survivors of sex trafficking work with Legal Aid Society lawyers on New York’s Safe Harbor law, which decriminalizes prostitution for minors so they’re not treated as criminals.

“I watched these young survivors work with the attorneys to craft and pass the legislation,” she recalled. “And it dawned on me that social work and the law are a good combination. So I decided to go to law school.”

The summer after starting law school, she worked with LAS, which was piloting a new way to handle prostitution cases in New York County.

“The majority of these arrests were funneled through a single defense attorney who added a level of trauma-informed services, as well as assessed for sex trafficking,” Emerson said. “That summer I worked with a survivor of trafficking who had three arrests for prostitution and wrote a motion to vacate her convictions — and she had all three convictions vacated. As a result, she realized she was not to blame for what happened to her.”

Knowing that Maryland had recently enacted a similar law, Emerson created a legal internship focused on assessing and implementing Maryland’s “vacating convictions” law.

“I got legal supervision from the Women’s Law Center and during the second semester of my second year I identified a survivor who could benefit from the relief available,” Emerson said. “With the pro bono help of a large firm in D.C., we’re working to have her convictions vacated. She was trafficked in several states starting at the age of 14.”

Fellowship program

Emerson, with the help of the Women’s Law Center and several of her UB Law professors, put together a proposal for funding, which resulted in a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship sponsored by the David Stern Equal Justice fellowship. She graduated in May and set up the Trafficking Victims Post-Conviction Advocacy Project at the Women’s Law Center in September.

“The focus is to implement a Maryland law that allows survivors of sex trafficking to vacate their convictions,” Emerson said. “It’s a very progressive law. Maryland was the second state in the country to pass one, and now 14 states have it. But it’s woefully underutilized. People working with survivors of trafficking don’t know much about it.”

The federal definition of sex trafficking applies to anyone who engages in commercial sex acts (for money) brought about by force, fraud or coercion. It also applies to minors 17 and younger without regard for the presence of force or coercion.

“Certain groups are at higher risk, especially young people,” Emerson noted. “Then add histories of abuse, neglect, and involvement in the child welfare system, and you have people who are more susceptible to someone saying to them, ‘I can make it all OK.’ They’re at a high risk for exploitation.”

For unaccompanied youth living on the streets, sex can pay for what they need to survive, she added. After arrest, they must endure the societal stigma of a prostitution charge.

And without opportunities for housing and employment, the cycle of victimization and arrest often repeats. “It can make people give up on themselves,” Emerson added. “It’s the ultimate injustice. This project can help open up their lives and heal from the trauma they’ve experienced.”

When talking about her clients, Emerson said she prefers “survivor” over “victim.”

“Being a ‘victim’ has a specific meaning within the law,” she said. “But these are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met. It’s important to talk about them from a strength-based perspective.

“While it’s clear that these individuals have faced victimization, I choose to emphasize their resilience,” Emerson added. “We have to respect anyone who goes through hell and continues to survive.”

For more information or to volunteer, call Emerson at (410) 321-8761 or email her at [email protected]

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is [email protected]