In an effort to tear down boundaries for human-trafficking survivors, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service is joining forces with the University of Baltimore School of Law to offer expanded legal services to survivors and those at high risk of exploitation.
The effort expands upon the law school’s Human Trafficking Prevention Project clinic, which is made of mostly student attorneys and Baltimore-centric. By incorporating more staff and volunteer attorneys, officials said the project can take on more cases and expand its reach across the state.
The expansion is part of a two-year grant from Gov. Larry Hogan’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
“The goal is to train attorneys to handle these cases and train statewide,” said Laurie Culkin, the recently hired coordinator of the expanded Human Trafficking Prevention Project.
Culkin, a 2016 graduate of UB Law, has a background in victims’ rights and family law advocacy for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors.
The project is reaching out to bar associations and law firms raise its profile and get attorneys on board. Culkin and others said the project has been overwhelmed with responses and interest in an upcoming training for attorneys interested in pro bono work.
Under the Maryland law, sex-trafficking survivors can vacate prostitution convictions. With the expanded program, MVLS staff and volunteer attorneys will work with survivors on criminal record expungement, shielding and vacatur, enabling them to get access to employment, housing, public benefits and student loans.
Otherwise, the criminal records “keep the survivors trapped in the industry they’re trying to escape,” Culkin said.
MVLS’ breadth of civil legal services offerings will also be used to address other legal hurdles, including child custody, divorce, landlord/tenant disputes, tax controversy, among other challenges. The organization will partner with victim service providers and Human Trafficking Task Forces around Maryland to lead free trainings on human trafficking prevention and post-conviction relief.
“Employment hurdles on top of their emotional distress can be debilitating to survivors of human trafficking, especially as they try to better their lives,” said Bonnie Sullivan, executive director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “Our partnership with the University of Baltimore School of Law presents an opportunity to help survivors heal from their trauma by reducing the stigma associated with having a criminal record that resulted from a history of trafficking.”
As the project seeks to expand statewide, one of the challenges is getting hard data about the prevalence of human trafficking in different parts of the state. By working with victims’ services organizations, the project has been getting anecdotal evidence about human trafficking but wants to get hard data to identify high-risk areas. One approach is to look at places with high volumes of prostitution arrests, Culkin said.
The project is looking for attorneys, regardless of practice area, to get involved. MVLS will put attorneys through a training program, including an overview on human trafficking, what it does to the brain, post-conviction work and available legal remedies.
“We can train them to be sensitive to this issue,” Culkin said.
The next free training will be held on June 9 at UB Law. More information is available on the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service website.