SARASOTA – Victims of human trafficking in Southwest Florida will soon have more help as they face a justice system that, by design, is better at punishing them than helping them.
Gulfcoast Legal Services expects to double its efforts to represent domestic and foreign-born victims of labor or sex trafficking, thanks to a federal grant.
The $321,000 grant, awarded by a branch of the Department of Justice, will enable Gulfcoast, which provides free legal aid to poor residents, to hire another staff attorney and help twice as many victims, says Gulfcoast’s executive director, Kathleen Mullin.
It’s one of eight grants awarded across the U.S.
The money will help fill a void, Mullin said, and protect victims who are often revictimized by the common practice of charging and incarcerating prostituted adults and children instead of giving them the intense mental health services they need.
Often, victims are reluctant to speak with police, let alone become the prosecution’s key witness in one of the most difficult types of cases to prosecute.
A lawyer on the victims’ side, Mullin said, can help those victims know their rights and keep them from implicating themselves.
At the same time, lawyers can bridge the divide between police and the murky tangle of state and federal laws that can be used to help or hinder victims, depending on interpretations.
“When a victim is referred by law enforcement officers, they call us, and then we get involved to facilitate the communication with the victim,” Mullin said. “When these folks are identified, they are often very reluctant to speak to law enforcement about anything.”
That’s for good reason, says Angela Vigil, a director of pro-bono and community services for the global law firm Baker and McKenzie.
“With sex trafficking they’re not supposed to be a defendant; they’re not supposed to be a suspect,” Vigil said about the victims she has represented in the Miami-Dade area.
“But that doesn’t mean that law enforcement, in an effort to get to traffickers, can’t suggest that people could become suspects.”
Often, victims of the sexual, physical and emotional abuse associated with sex trafficking are immersed in criminal activity such as credit card fraud, theft or involvement with drugs. These are crimes they might have been forced to engage in by pimps.
Thus, victims are often hard to distinguish from criminals, and the law offers few clear-cut protections.
Under the Federal Victims of Trafficking Protection Act, for instance, a child found in prostitution is clearly defined as a victim, but Florida law still allows for such children to be charged with prostitution.
“It’s not illegal to charge a sex trafficking victim as a prostitute,” Vigil said.
The task of sorting through such nuances ultimately falls to local police, who must decide if this is a case of criminal or victim.
Vigil says sometimes a lawyer needs to be in the room just make sure the answer is “victim.”
“Anybody who is being treated as a witness and a defendant or a suspect should have a lawyer to help them navigate between those two things,” she said. “It’s critical.”