Almost two years after COVID-19 began to disrupt daily life in communities throughout Maryland, survivors of human trafficking and other populations placed at increased risk of exploitation continue to face acute challenges related to the health crisis. During Human Trafficking Awareness Month this January, we invite you to learn more about the legal needs of survivors during these challenging times and ask you to consider offering your time to provide free legal help through the Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP) at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.
Since the pandemic began, the HTPP has seen the service needs of our clients shift. We continue to provide criminal record relief to many of our clients – a need that has only grown more acute as the pandemic caused waves of work disruptions and forced many people to change career paths. Criminal records pose a huge obstacle for trafficking survivors and others seeking new options for employment, and many fields – including health care, education, and childcare – are heavily regulated. Here in Maryland, accessing one’s criminal records has also become more complicated in the last year; however, recent changes expanding Maryland’s vacatur law and increasing access to expungement have provided survivors with new opportunities to address their records, ideally with the help of counsel.
The HTPP has also seen an uptick in requests for assistance with family law matters, particularly child custody cases. The pandemic has put an exceptional burden on families, and survivors and their children – who in some cases have been disconnected from school and other supports -are now at greater risk of future violence and exploitation. For some of our HTPP clients, safety concerns and closures have made it challenging to access the court system, and custody and child support issues remain unresolved.
Already marginalized communities also continue to be disproportionately impacted by the virus. Community drop-in centers and shelters have limited access or at times shut down their facilities over the last two years, making it difficult for those in need to connect with services and support. Some individuals grappling with PTSD and other forms of trauma have seen their mental and physical health symptoms compounded by the pandemic and face challenges accessing health care services due to the frequent surges in Covid cases. Vulnerable individuals have encountered hurdles when trying to access pandemic-related benefits, and they and their families are often struggling with unpaid bills and growing debt.
The Human Trafficking Protection Project remains committed to providing survivors and vulnerable communities throughout Maryland with access to free legal representation and other resources during these challenging times. With support from our staff and volunteers, HTPP clients have been able to vacate and expunge criminal records, resolve housing disputes, address debt and tax issues, and connect with needed resources throughout the pandemic. To help meet the diverse legal needs of our clients, the HTPP has created a resource library of webinars and tip sheets that dive into a range of legal issues impacting trafficking survivors – from family law matters to unexpected tax challenges to Maryland’s updated vacatur law. Volunteer attorneys can count on support from HTPP and MVLS staff throughout the course of their representation, as well as access trainings on trauma and client empowerment.
MVLS strives to provide holistic legal services to all HTPP clients and ensure they can connect with free services to meet all their civil legal needs. This is only possible thanks to our many MVLS volunteers around the state, and we encourage you to join us as we work to ensure access to justice for survivors. To learn more about the Human Trafficking Protection Project and volunteer for HTPP Pro Bono Panel, please visit: www.mvlslaw.org/ht or email HTPP Manager Heather Heiman at email@example.com.
Written by: Heather Heiman, MVLS Staff Attorney and Human Trafficking Prevention Project Manager