“Lawyers must commit themselves to the fight for trafficking victims’ fundamental human rights.”
Amber used to pass the time watching Tom & Jerry cartoons when she was not being forced to have sex with countless men day and night.
The Maryland teenager eventually escaped from her life as a sex trafficking victim, after she had been sold by a pimp to men attending conventions and sporting events at hotels along the I-95 corridor.
Like many underage victims of human trafficking in Maryland, Amber had a troubled childhood – she was in foster care when she was lured into sex trafficking.
“A lot of times they think they are loved, that they are being taken care of and oftentimes they are running from something,” said Aaliyah Muhammad, an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore City. “The pimp gives them what they aren’t getting at home.”
Muhammad is still pursuing Amber’s captor – piecing together a path that took Amber through a blur of hotel rooms from Miami to Canada. However, together with TurnAround, a local nonprofit that helps victims of human trafficking, she has been able to provide Amber with the services she needed to start a new life.
Human trafficking, also known as modern-day slavery, is one of the fastest growing and most lucrative crimes in the world. According to the U.S. State Department, 27 million people are held involuntarily as modern-day slaves across the globe. Eighty percent are women and children.
Thousands of those human trafficking victims, like Amber, are in the United States. More than 100,000 U.S. citizens are forced to provide sex and labor services for their captors’ profit. TurnAround says, in Maryland, 95 percent of the victims it helps are women and children who are U.S. citizens.
As the ABA President, the battle against human trafficking has bee made a priority for this Bar year.
As a young lawyer, I handled prostitution cases and helped women who were victimized by traffickers, prosecuted in the courts, and denied their freedom. These women were also left without services – such as job training or housing placement that would have provided opportunities for their recovery and self-sufficiency.
Fortunately, awareness of human trafficking in this country is growing, as are the programs to combat this crisis. Lawyers must commit themselves to the fight for trafficking victims’ fundamental human rights.
The ABA is working to combat trafficking by urging courts and police to screen for victim abuse and exploitation, and by encouraging lawyers to provide pro bono legal assistance. But this work is far from complete.
The ABA’s new Task Force on Human Trafficking has launched several initiatives to strengthen pro bono networks to address the civil legal needs of trafficking victims. The task force recently conducted two of three national training sessions for individuals in the legal system to learn how to treat victims as victims and not as criminals, and the third training is coming up in Washington, D.C., on April 19. These trainings have been attended by medical personnel, social service agency employees, prosecutors and judges, nonprofit representatives, volunteer lawyers interested in helping trafficking victims, and policymakers.
The goal of these training programs is to help those likely to come into contact with trafficking victims understand the reality and impact of this growing problem – from showing how trauma affects victims, to illustrating the barriers they encounter in accessing help and resources. This also has been a focus in Maryland, where there is an effort to raise awareness and train judges and police officers, according to Muhammad.
Under the leadership of the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force, formed in 2007 by the Attorney General of Maryland, the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Maryland has made great strides in raising awareness and combatting human trafficking.
Currently, the Maryland legislature is considering three bills that would strengthen the ability for victims like Amber to get help. Two of these bills in particular, Senate Bills 215 and 654, would change the way underage victims are treated and their captors punished.
Earlier this year, President Obama issued a proclamation celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln courageously declared that “all persons held as slaves shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
As President Obama noted, the historic moment was meant to mark the beginning of the promise for all people to be united in “freedom that knew no bounds of color or creed.”
Today, in 2013, this promise is yet to be fulfilled.
The time is now to unite and abolish modern-day slavery in Maryland and across the U.S.
Laurel G. Bellows is president of the American Bar Association for the 2012-13 Bar year and a principle in The Bellows Law Group, P.C., based in Chicago, IL.