Human Trafficking Survivors Are Often Criminalized. Free to Thrive's Jamie Beck Is Providing Legal Support

Human trafficking is estimated to be a $150 billion industry that profits from 25 million victims worldwide. Jamie Beck, director of Free to Thrive, provides legal services and support to survivors of human trafficking.

5/16/2021 10:04:00 PM

Human trafficking is estimated to be a $150 billion industry that profits from 25 million victims worldwide. Jamie Beck, director of Free to Thrive, provides legal services and support to survivors of human trafficking.

The statistics are staggering: Human trafficking is estimated to be a $150 billion industry that profits from 25 million victims worldwide. Jamie Beck, director of Free to Thrive, provides legal services and support to survivors of human trafficking.

Beck:When I first learned about this issue as a concerned citizen … once you learn about this issue, you can’t unknow it. You can’t unlearn that this is an issue impacting your community. When I first learned about it, I was on the board of San Diego’s feminist bar association, the Lawyers Club of San Diego, and I said, “If anybody can help, feminist lawyers should be part of the solution to help with this, so what can we do to help?” And so I reached out to those who were already working in the space, and they said, “We need lawyers to help survivors. They have all kinds of legal needs, and they need help.”

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And so, we ended up launching a number of different programs, including a mentorship program with a local safe house, and I started mentoring a survivor there. One day I got a call from the safe house that this particular survivor has been arrested. She had outstanding criminal charges from when she was first trafficked, and she went to court, thinking that she’s safe now, she’s in a position where she can deal with the criminal cases against her, and she went to court saying, “I’m here, I’m ready to take care of this.” But she had warrants out because she hadn’t appeared in court because she was being trafficked, and so she was immediately taken into custody.

The nonprofit that was serving her contacted me and said, “Our client’s been arrested; is there anything you can do to help?” And I ended up helping her with those outstanding criminal charges. She had drug charges and theft charges from when she was trafficked, and when we were all done helping her, the charges were essentially dismissed or expunged because she did everything she was supposed to do. She graduated from the program. She went off to college, and she started looking for a job, and she couldn’t get a job because of her criminal record. She said, “Can you expunge my record?”

And I said, “Actually, we already did expunge your record,” and she’s like, “Well, why is it coming up on my background? Every time I get a job offer, they run my background, and then they revoke the offer.” Most people don’t know that even if your record has been expunged, it doesn’t go away. It’s not like a magic eraser. It’s still there for employers to see, and oftentimes, they don’t understand from reviewing their record that it’s been expunged, which means that most people who have a background have a very hard time getting a job, getting housing, getting public benefits, and going back to school.

And so, we learned about this, and I said, “There isn’t anything I can do to help you in the law,” and that’s actually when we started advocating for thisvacatur law in Californiato allow survivors to clear their records. We passed the law. I called her up, and I said, “You’re going to be my first client; I have no idea what I’m doing, but we’re going to figure this out together.” And she was my first vacatur client, and we were able to vacate her record so that she could get the fresh start that she deserved. And that’s really what inspired me to do this work, this one survivor, but also knowing that there’s many, many others like her who needed this help.

“That’s really what inspired me to do this work, this one survivor, but also knowing that there’s many, many others like her who needed this help.”LaVan: Do you have any experience with male victims of human trafficking?Beck:Most of our clients are female-identifying. We have some nonbinary clients and some transgender clients who identify as female. We have a few male clients, but very few. I think that’s for a number of reasons. It doesn’t mean that men aren’t trafficked. It means, one, most of the social services available for trafficking survivors are geared towards women. Safe houses, for example, might be just for women, which means that oftentimes men are less likely to have services available, and those services are who we get a lot of client referrals from. There’s also even more stigma and shame around male victims than female victims, which means they’re even more likely to believe that this is something they chose.

We spend a lot of time with our clients, helping them understand their exploitation, because oftentimes, they believe that they were choosing to do this work, and they’ll say, “Well, you know, I didn’t have to do it, I chose to,” and we’ll say, “Well, who kept all the money when you were having sex with people every night?” And they’ll say, “Well, you know, this other person kept the money.” “Well, what would happen if you didn’t work?” “Well, they would withhold food, they wouldn’t let me sleep.”

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When you start to ask those questions, they start to realize that it really wasn’t a choice. But with male victims, there often is this sense of “it’s something that I did to survive or something I did to get by, not somebody forcing me to do this.”Another reason is that our services, right now, are a lot more about sex trafficking than labor trafficking. There’s a lot of male victims of labor trafficking. There’s male victims of sex trafficking, too, but I think sex trafficking does impact women more than men, but labor trafficking, it’s probably pretty evenly split or even more skewed towards men. We’re expanding our services to identify more victims of labor trafficking.

(Courtesy of Jamie Beck)LaVan: Do you have any recommendations to concerned citizens who’d like to get involved in preventing human trafficking other than giving money?Beck:Look into your community and see who’s already doing work in this area and reach out and offer to help. We all have skills to offer. It could be that you do marketing, and a nonprofit really needs help with marketing or with their website or with training materials. It could be that you do HR or insurance, and nonprofits are businesses, and we need help with lots and lots of different things. If you have a business or services that you’re able to provide, donating your time and talents can often be as valuable or more valuable than donating money to the nonprofits.

It may just be saying, “I’m a volunteer, and I can donate my time, I can mentor survivors.” Every nonprofit has different needs, but really, just exploring what skills you have to offer and offering them up to those in your community doing this work. Maybe you don’t have a lot of money to give, but you can offer to help fundraise. If you did an online fundraiser, or a walk or a run, you could raise money to help out. I’ve seen a lot of young people do really successful fundraisers for causes that they believe in just because they got other people to care.

LaVan: Is there anything else you’d like theMs. readers to know?Beck:I think they should know what’s on the horizon for Free to Thrive, going forward. We are expanding. We started in San Diego, serving San Diego survivors, and the demand for our services has been so great that we’re expanding to support survivors throughout Southern California. We’re really excited about this, being able to expand and serve others, and we already are getting a lot of calls from other places. We’re doing our best to respond to the need, and we’re going to grow slowly so that we have the capacity to serve survivors, but the reality is that there’s entire states in the country who don’t have any services like Free to Thrive. My hope is that others are inspired to start something like this in other places because the need is so great that no one organization could do all the work alone.

And oftentimes, even in some of the big cities, there’s trafficking organizations, but there’s no legal services, specifically, or no holistic legal services. For example, I know Hawaii has some really great trafficking organizations that are serving survivors, but there’s no organizations like Free to Thrive that provide legal services to survivors. There are states that have vacatur laws that have never had lawyers actually use the law because they’re new or because they’re not trained to do the work, which means that survivors aren’t actually getting that relief. The law on the books, without lawyers that are using it, is just a law.

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