Vacating Convictions: Two Clients’ Experiences

On a daily basis, survivors of human trafficking face a multitude of barriers which can hinder recovery from the traumatic experience. The Client Services office in New Jersey is finding that past convictions on clients’ criminal records is one of the largest barriers.  Some states, such as New York, have recognized this and passed legislation that allows the vacation, or removal, of convictions which occurred while a victim was being trafficked. This legislation  means that survivors  will no longer be denied housing, higher education, or promising careers because of criminal records. Trafficking will cease to become a lingering and ever-present obstruction in survivors’ lives.

The following stories demonstrate just how important this is to a survivor’s recovery. Both Cindy and Nina are sex trafficking survivors and clients at Polaris Project New Jersey. Cindy was arrested and charged with prostitution and illegal weapons possession in New Jersey. After her arrest and conviction, she read an article about human trafficking and realized that she had endured a similar experience. She called the toll free number at the end of the article, which connected her to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline. She was then referred to a Case Manager at Polaris Project, who worked with her to create an individualized plan for recovery.

During her time at Polaris, Cindy completed a job readiness program, received educational assistance, and attended survivor-led support groups.  She always possessed a strong interest in the medical field, which then led her to apply to numerous medical assistant programs in the area.  However, Cindy was repeatedly told by admissions officers that due to her past criminal record, she could not be admitted to the programs. The constant rejection dramatically hindered Cindy’s ability to not only obtain sustainable employment, but to pursue a professional career and life interest. Although Cindy works incredibly hard to regain some sort of control over her life, her minimum wage pay check serves as a constant reminder that her trafficking experience will never allow her to regain complete control.

Alternatively, Nina was a New Jersey native forced into commercial sex while working at a strip club in New York City.  Law enforcement arrested Nina after conducting a raid at the club and charged her with solicitation and other related charges.  After a friend referred her to Polaris Project, she began receiving services such as individual counseling, educational tutoring, job preparations, and empowerment workshops. Polaris Project further connected Nina with a pro-bono attorney in New York, who worked to remove her past convictions from her criminal record. Nina was then able to receive a teaching certificate and now works as a teacher at a local Montessori school.

A trafficking victim’s location should not determine his or her   ability to truly gain independence.  Both clients described above dedicated so much time and effort to overcoming their trauma. Yet, only one of these two women was able to bypass the hurdles to fulfill her life aspirations.

This is just one example of why Polaris Project is advocating and supporting comprehensive state legislation that supports survivors and punishes traffickers. These laws can  allow clients like Cindy to fully recover and gain real freedom.

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