Two Years into the Pandemic, Legal Services Continue To Be a Lifeline For Trafficking Survivors

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 hheiman@mvlslaw.org. 

Written by: Heather Heiman, MVLS Staff Attorney and Human Trafficking Prevention Project Manager  

UB School of Law and MVLS Receive Department of Justice Grant

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

UB School of Law and MVLS Receive Department of Justice Grant to Significantly Expand the Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP) in Maryland

The HTPP Supports Survivors of Human Trafficking and At-Risk Populations with Critical Legal Services to Create a Path toward Self-Sufficiency

BALTIMORE, December 21, 2021 – The University of Baltimore School of Law and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), the largest provider of pro bono civil legal services in Maryland, today announced new funding from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to significantly expand their Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP). The HTPP supports survivors of human trafficking and populations put at high risk of exploitation due to experiences with interpersonal violence, sexual assault, housing instability, and other types of trauma or systemic inequities with critical legal services that create a path to stability. The grant will provide nearly $600,000 over the course of three years to extend the reach of the program in Baltimore City and into more rural areas of Maryland, as well as increase the number of staff who will deliver free legal services and full representation to survivors.

“We are thrilled that the Human Trafficking Prevention Project, a partnership between the University of Baltimore School of Law and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, has been recognized by the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crimes as deserving of this generous grant,” said Jessica Emerson, director of the Human Trafficking Prevention Project. “The HTPP was founded to provide survivors of human trafficking with access to criminal record relief, which can dramatically shift a survivor’s outlook on life. The training, outreach and direct legal services the HTPP provides aids clients in improving their self-sufficiency and stability, which in turn assists in recovery from trauma and reduces the likelihood of continued exploitation. We look forward to growing this program throughout the state of Maryland, so that many more survivors can move beyond the trauma of their trafficking experience to build positive, empowering futures for themselves and their families.”

Created in 2015, the Human Trafficking Prevention Project provides criminal record relief to survivors of human trafficking and other at-risk populations to remove barriers to employment, housing, public benefits, and student loans caused by having a criminal record so they can move forward with their lives. In addition to criminal record relief, the HTPP, through its partnership with MVLS, provides access to a wide range of civil legal services, including legal representation for cases involving family law, tax and bankruptcy, landlord/tenant, name and gender marker changes, and consumer matters. The HTPP collaborates with victim service providers and Human Trafficking Task Forces around Maryland to lead free trainings on human trafficking prevention and criminal record relief.

“We are so proud of Jessica Emerson, a University of Baltimore law school graduate and a leader in the movement to protect victims of human trafficking,” said Ronald Weich, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law. “Her clinic offered students a chance to engage in this important social justice effort. And now this federal grant will enable her to take her vision to a new level, working with our longtime partners at MVLS.”

Since its creation, the HTPP has helped more than 900 survivors create opportunities for self-sufficiency through education and free civil legal services. With the generous funding, the HTPP will hire a paralegal and two staff attorneys to assist more survivors of trauma and exploitation and to grow the regional scope of the project.

“We are extremely grateful for the DOJ funding to build awareness of the HTPP among local human trafficking survivors – many of whom don’t realize there are free specialized legal services to help them reclaim and stabilize their lives,” commented Heather Heiman, Human Trafficking Prevention Project manager at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “We lean on a network of pro bono attorneys and tax professionals as well as community partners to remove barriers to employment and housing, making it easier for survivors to have greater agency and opportunities as they move forward with their lives. We look forward to continuing this important work in concert with the University of Baltimore School of Law.”

This project is authorized by the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 (18 U.S.C. § 3014(h)(2)) and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 (22 U.S.C. § 7105(b)(2)).

To learn more about the Human Trafficking Prevention Project, please visit www.mvlslaw.org/HT

About the University of Baltimore School of Law

Founded in 1925, the University of Baltimore School of Law provides a rigorous and practical legal education, combining doctrinal coursework and community-based learning to ensure that its graduates are exceptionally well prepared to practice law. The University of Baltimore is a member of the University System of Maryland and comprises the College of Public Affairs, the Merrick School of Business, the UB School of Law and the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences.

About Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS)

Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) removes barriers to justice through free civil legal help, community engagement, and advocacy for equitable laws. The organization matches clients with volunteer lawyers, tax professionals and staff attorneys who represent them in a wide range of consumer finance, family and housing situations, including foreclosure, bankruptcy, divorce/custody, deed changes, as well as income tax disputes, estate planning, and criminal record relief. MVLS advocates for racial equity in Maryland’s legal system and works in concert with community partners to move toward a fair legal system that is free of injustice and equitably serves underrepresented Marylanders. For more information about MVLS, please visit www.mvlslaw.org.

Media Contacts

University of Baltimore School of Law
Christine Stutz
Phone: 410.961.6467
Email: cstutz@ubalt.edu

 

Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service
Andrea Martin
Phone: 443.927.6183
Email: andrea@consultmartin.com

 

Human Trafficking Prevention Project Launches New Outreach Campaign

MVLS is excited to share new outreach materials and webpages for the Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP), a partnership between MVLS and University of Baltimore School of Law (Official). Thanks to a generous grant from the

Baltimore City Human Trafficking Collaborative and Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the HTPP has created a series of posters, contact cards, and brochures to raise awareness about human trafficking and to connect survivors and others made vulnerable to future exploitation with free legal services. Messaging and imagery for this project was selected in consultation with survivor leaders, and we hope that these materials will resonate with and be reflective of the diverse communities served by the HTPP. HTPP posters, brochures, and contact cards will be distributed for free to service providers, survivors, shelters, groups doing street outreach, medical providers, schools, and anyone else who would like to help raise awareness about this critical issue. For more information or to request a package of materials, please email htpp@mvlslaw.org.

In addition to our outreach materials, the HTPP now has a new online home where attorneys, advocates, survivors, and the public can easily access information about HTPP services, trainings, and volunteer opportunities. Visitors can use our new online form to request help or make a referral, or browse past trainings and other resources related to human trafficking prevention. Visit www.mvlslaw.org/ht to learn more!

Check out some of our new outreach materials!

Human Trafficking Awareness Month Reflection

Heather Heiman, MVLS Human Trafficking Prevention Project Manager, reflects on MVLS’ human trafficking prevention work in 2019 and shares her hopes for 2020:
 
As January is Human Trafficking Awareness month, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on 2019, which was a year of revitalization and expansion for the Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTTP) at MVLS. Throughout the year, MVLS worked diligently with our program partner University of Baltimore School of Law to increase community awareness of the unmet legal needs that put trafficking survivors and other vulnerable groups at further risk, and train and inspire pro bono attorneys to represent survivors in these cases. 
 
In 2019, MVLS launched a new series of quarterly webinars highlighting the intersectionality between human trafficking and various areas of civil law that can impact survivors’ ability to safely and successfully move forward with their lives. In addition to HTPP staff, these webinars featured attorneys from partner agencies as guest presenters, enabling MVLS to further develop relationships within the legal community on this critical issue and expand the network of resources available to HTPP clients. 
 
MVLS also focused on growing partnerships with local community organizations throughout Maryland to further expand the reach of the HTPP. Over the last year, MVLS provided on-site legal intake and counseling through eight different shelters, community outreach centers, and service providers, allowing potential clients who may have never reached out for legal help to first consult with an attorney at a familiar place they know and trust.
 
During these visits, I was able to connect with so many new clients – both trafficking survivors and others who are grappling with past trauma, housing instability, and other factors that put them at risk of future exploitation. By meeting them in person, giving them the opportunity to review their criminal records, discussing their legal needs, and connecting them with volunteer attorneys from MVLS, the HTPP provided access to critical legal services that will help them on their path to a safer and more stable future.
 
In this work, however, our most important partners are volunteer attorneys like you. MVLS volunteer attorneys have stepped up to provide legal representation in expungement, vacatur, custody, divorce, consumer debt, name and gender marker change, housing, and other legal issues for HTPP clients, but we always need more attorneys to help. We hope you will consider joining the HTPP volunteer panel and assist a client in need in 2020, to make the future a little brighter for trafficking survivors and other vulnerable clients in Maryland.
 
With Gratitude,
 
Heather Heiman
Human Trafficking Prevention Project Manager
 
For more information on the HTPP or to sign up for the HTPP volunteer panel, contact Heather Heiman at 443-451-4075.

Human Trafficking Prevention Project Published in What Weekly

The Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP), a partnership between University of Baltimore School of Law and MVLS, published an article in What Weekly. HTPP Director Jessica Emerson and HTPP Coordinator Laurie Culkin wrote about the most vulnerable populations who are at higher risk of being trafficked, common myths that need debunking, and how legislation like vacatur, shielding, and expungement law, can be utilized to decriminalize human trafficking in Maryland. The criminalized nature of human trafficking has created a hostile environment for trafficking survivors, who are often unable to find stable housing, employment, and other vital resources due to convictions on their record, even after they have cut ties with traffickers.

To learn more about this issue, read the full article here.

MVLS & University of Baltimore Law School Partnership

Article Written by Nasim Chatha, MVLS Communications and Community Relations Officer

Human trafficking is the act of moving people by threat, coercion, violence or deception in order to exploit them. According to the United Nations, people are trafficked for prostitution, forced labor, slavery and removal of organs. Hundreds of victims of trafficking are identified in Maryland every year, mostly women and girls, many found near interstate and international transit hubs.

Identifying and getting help to victims of trafficking is important, but survivors need a path to independence. For a survivor of coerced prostitution, getting a cleaner criminal record may be the difference between moving on in life and staying in sex work. Criminal convictions can keep someone from qualifying for housing, and they can cause employers to immediately disqualify job applicants. Survivors may see sex work as the only feasible way to get by, even if they would like very badly to stop.

This year, Maryland passed a bill allowing the vacatur of the criminal convictions that easily accumulate for a victim of sex trafficking. Prostitution was already eligible for vacatur, and now related convictions like trespassing and drug possession may also be vacated, and thus removed from criminal records. (Depending on the county, police may actually use the charge of prostitution very infrequently, instead relying on other charges like “disorderly conduct.”)

Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) recently formed a partnership with the University of Baltimore Law School to expand the capabilities of the already existing Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP) clinic. HTPP helps survivors of trafficking get the legal services they need to address the collateral consequences of their criminal justice involvement. MVLS will be leveraging our staff and volunteer capabilities to help HTPP take full advantage of all that the law can do for victims of sex trafficking, including expungement, shielding, and vacatur.

To take advantage of the vacatur rule, survivors will need to demonstrate to judges that they have been trafficked. Those who stand to benefit include very young people as well as people who have been living with trafficking-related charges on their records for decades. They are people of all genders. Some come from here in Maryland, and others from different states and countries.

Casey*, a 24-year-old woman who was drugged and manipulated by her first trafficker in her early teen years, succeeded in getting a Maryland judge to grant her the vacatur of her criminal record. She told NPR reporters, “I’m not ever going to forget what I’ve done or what I’ve gone through.” Even though her clean record won’t erase her troubled past, she suggests it will ease her path forward. “I don’t want it thrown in my face every time I’m trying to seek employment,” she said. “I don’t want to have to explain myself every time.”

Casey was represented by Jessica Emerson, the professor who runs the HTPP clinic at the University of Baltimore law school. Emerson and her partners in Maryland’s legal services organizations have been pushing for vacatur laws to be expanding for years, resulting in the 2016 bill allowing victims of sex trafficking to vacate not just prostitution, but related charges for crimes which they may have been coerced into committing. Under the new partnership, MVLS volunteer attorneys will be tapped to put this new law to work, and to greatly expand number of people that HTPP is able to help.

Ultimately, this project may be helping to rid pimps and traffickers of one of their main tools of control. Bradley Myles, Director of the Polaris Project, says that “Traffickers use the criminalization of a victim as another way to gain power over that victim, and remind them of the hopelessness of their road back.” HTPP gives people with histories of coerced prostitution reason to start hoping. Casey is now attending college and living with family in Texas. “I want to provide my son with a good life,” she said. “It might not be the most extravagant. I don’t want to be rich. I just want to live a better life than I have lived.”

*Not her real name

Interested in volunteering with the Human Trafficking Prevention Project? HTPP is building a panel of volunteer attorneys who can help with expungement, shielding, vacatur, and federal and state pardon. To join, please contact Susan Francis or (443) 451-4084. HTPP will be holding a volunteer training in the spring of 2017, more information to come.

Oct. 28 – MVLS to Partner with UB School of Law on Human Trafficking Project

The University of Baltimore School of Law’s Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP), led by clinical fellow Jessica Emerson, has been awarded $465,757 from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention of Maryland.

The HTPP and its student-attorneys will partner with MVLS to create a statewide pro bono program designed to provide post-conviction legal services to survivors of human trafficking. It will also help those populations most vulnerable to exploitation.   Continue reading “Oct. 28 – MVLS to Partner with UB School of Law on Human Trafficking Project”