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Martina Vandenberg
Martina E. Vandenberg, center, gave the keynote address on human trafficking at the Maryland Partners for Justice Conference on Thursday. She is flanked by Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Cathy Hollenberg Serrette, left, and PBRC Executive Director Sharon Goldsmith. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Little progress seen in quest to end human trafficking in U.S.

Partners for Justice conference hears from center's founder

The founder of The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center is issuing a report card.

Martina E. Vandenberg highlighted the lack of progress to eradicate human trafficking in the U.S. in the keynote speech at the 2014 Maryland Partners for Justice Conference in Baltimore on Thursday.

“What is going wrong?” Vandenberg asked. “We are not making an enormous amount of headway.”

The day-long conference at the Baltimore Convention Center was hosted by the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland Inc. and featured panels and seminars on topics like “Serving Our Servicemembers” and “The Changing Landscape of LGBT Family Law.”

“The goal is to learn more about the variety of barriers and challenges to assisting low-income clients in the community and share with one another to get an idea about how to address some of those issues,” said Sharon E. Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center.

Vandenberg said one of the key problems in handling human trafficking in the United States is a discrepancy between federal and state laws. Under federal law, a person under the age of 18 who is coerced to commit a sex act is considered a victim, while under state law, the child may be considered a criminal, Vandenberg said.

“We are falling down on the job,” she said.

Vandenberg’s speech came at a time when nations around the world are advocating for the return of a group of more than 200 girls who were kidnapped a month ago from a Nigerian school by Boko Haram Islamist militants and, many fear, sold to human traffickers.

“The human trafficking issue has become much more of a prevalent problem,” Goldsmith said. “We have become much more aware of it.”

Vandenberg said there are also very few prosecutions of human traffickers countrywide. In 2012, she said, 128 people were prosecuted under federal criminal trafficking laws in the United States; in 2011, the total was 125.

Plus, few victims are given protection by the federal government and little is given to them in restitution — money the victims’ traffickers earned from them. Though restitution for victims of human trafficking is mandatory under federal law, Vandenberg said only about 36 percent of victims actually receive any restitution.

“How is that ‘mandatory’?” Vandenberg said. “How are we taking care of victims?”

But, some progress has been made, she said, citing a 2003 law that gives victims the right to sue traffickers in federal court on their own if the government drops the case.

“Pro bono attorneys are how we are making enough difference in the human trafficking world,” Vandenberg said.

Vandenberg graduated from Columbia University in 2002 and has been working against human trafficking for almost 20 years. In 2012, she founded The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center in Washington, D.C., with the help of the New York-based Open Society Foundations Fellowship Program, where she previously worked. She also worked for Jenner & Block LLP before leaving to work as a “full-time pro bono lawyer,” she said.

“The powerful people should be on the side of the trafficking survivor in the United States,” Vandenberg said.