Freedom Network USA

Human trafficking survivors are often convicted of the various crimes that their traffickers force them to commit during their enslavement. The resulting criminal records present on-going barriers to independence and healing as survivors struggle to obtain employment, and free themselves from the stigma and embarrassment of a criminal record. This issue led to the passage of the New York State Vacating Convictions Law in 2010 – the first of its kind in the United States – stating that if one can successfully connect a survivor’s crimes to their experience with trafficking, a motion can be filed to vacate such Following the passage of this legislation, 23 states have passed similar laws.

Human Trafficking Advocacy from The International Institute of Buffalo

The International Institute of Buffalo (IIB) Survivor Support Services Director Amy Fleischauer has been at the forefront of this issue in Western New York – helping to provide long-term support for survivors in, or locating to, the region. In August 2016, Fleischauer’s staff supported a client while a legal team successfully filed a motion to vacate a prostitution-related crime from the survivor’s record. This was the first case of its kind in Buffalo and a huge step forward for trafficking survivors in the area. The team, including University at Buffalo Law School Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic, Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo (LABB) and the Legal Aid Society in New York City, worked diligently to submit an exemplary motion given its precedent-setting status. IIB has identified at least 15 other survivors who may benefit from post-conviction relief, aiming to grow legal partnerships to have similar motions filed on their behalf.

“We discuss this process with survivors from the very beginning and make sure they know that IIB will be supporting them for the long-haul, not just a few days,” explained Fleischauer.

Addressing Challenges

Though vacatur laws have the potential to help many survivors, there are several challenges within the process. Fleischauer explains that some survivors are reticent to engage in this process and utilize this service. After years of involvement with the criminal justice system, as a witness against their trafficker or defendant based on being arrested on trafficking-related crimes, survivors are fatigued, traumatized and cautious of engaging with the justice system again. For most, , this would entails reliving the trauma of their victimization, Fleischauer explains that due to survivors’ skepticism of the service, many do not believe that successfully vacating a long list of convictions is even a possibility. In response, IIB and their legal partners provide intense education around the legislation and the process.

This service also presents the challenge of acquiring a probono or public interest legal team. Attorneys are identified based on their interest, resources, capacity, and preparedness for a time-consuming and sensitive process. Fleischauer explains that the Legal Aid Society in New York City continues to educate local attorneys on this legislation, pinpointing those who are able to take on these challenging, yet life-changing cases across the state and throughout the country.

Despite common challenges, IIB is committed to continue supporting survivors through this process. Fleischauer notes that survivors are enduring the fight for their independence and this legislation is changing that battle drastically. “We’re focused and committed to the persistence of evaluating survivors’ long-term needs. We continue to be proactive and constantly assess our clients for safety and stability,” she said.