New York Responds to Sex Trafficking

New York Responds to Sex Trafficking

February 3, 2015 – Women in the Courts Task Force

Dorchen A. Leidholdt
Director, Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services, Sanctuary for Families

The Honorable Toko Serita
Presiding Judge, Human Trafficking Intervention Court

Rosemonde Pierre-Louis
Commissioner, NYC Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence

New York City Councilmember Vanessa Gibson
District 16 – Chair of the Committee on Public Safety

Lynn Savarese
Attorney/photographer, author of Refugee Girls: The Invisible Faces of War

Lori Cohen
Director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative, Sanctuary for Families

Councilmember Gibson highlighted that there must be a call to action, and we must make sure the government is investing in programs to make a difference in stopping sex trafficking. Sex trafficking must not remain in the shadows, and victims must know that they are not alone. We must work together to turn victims into victors. The New York City Council recognizes the need to promote anti-trafficking programs and has invested almost $6 million in domestic violence initiatives. Councilmember Gibson encourages community outreach and participation in council meetings to raise awareness and funds.

Ms. Cohen discussed how domestic violence victims often are being trafficked by their intimate partners. Sex trafficking victims frequently call their pimps their boyfriends. Some police officers are very sensitive to the trauma suffered by sex trafficking victims and very thoughtful in dealing with these victims. Other officers are less sensitive, arresting all women working in a “massage parlor”, while not arresting any of the men receiving their services. Ms. Cohen discussed the push to shift penalties so there are harsher penalties for patronizing a child, which would encourage law enforcement to arrest Johns.

Commissioner Pierre-Louis discussed the establishment of the New York City Family Justice Centers throughout the city. The Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence recognizes the need to promote anti-trafficking programs. New York is working on creating an infrastructure to deal with sex trafficking, viewing this issue through a lens of gender and equity. Commissioner Pierre-Louis’s plans include promoting community outreach and raising awareness of victims’ needs for counseling, financial assistance, and housing assistance (from emergency transition housing to permanent housing). Commissioner Pierre-Louis noted the incorrect perception that sex trafficking is a problem that is mainly occurring outside of the United States. Commissioner Pierre-Louis discussed the goal of being present in New York City communities where victims are found and working with community based organizations to stop sex trafficking.

Judge Serita discussed the Human Trafficking Intervention Court’s approach of viewing defendants as victims. Judge Serita’s courtroom has served as a model for other courts to follow in adjudicating prostitution cases, redefining the arrestees as victims instead of criminals, and finding “just resolution” in these prostitution cases. Prosecuting sex trafficking victims as criminals is a fundamental contradiction and injustice, as these are individuals whose human rights are being violated. The court’s approach does not work without service providers to help victims. Judge Serita attempts to link victims with services that offer victims housing and education. She realizes that women can be handicapped by criminal convictions, and prosecutors rarely ask sex trafficking victims to plea to a criminal conviction.

Ms. Savarese explained the New York’s New Abolitionist Campaign, which is not just a collection of photographs, but a collaboration among activists who seek to end the sexual exploitation of women.

Sponsored by: Women in the Courts Task Force, Rebecca Berkebile, Chair; Committee on Domestic Violence, Anne Ognibene, Chair; Committee on Juvenile Justice, Leroy Frazer, Jr., Chair; Council on Children, Meredith Kimmel Hamsher, Chair; Committee on Criminal Justice Operations, Risa Gerson, Chair; LGBT Rights Committee, Anna M. Pohl, Chair; Social Welfare Law Committee, Peter A. Kempner, Chair