When the Defendant Is a Victim

New Court Offers Hope to Victims of Sex Trafficking

She wants help.
    She’s a heroin addict.
        She’s motivated.
            She’s expecting a grandbaby.

These phrases are tossed around a Nashville judicial library as a carefully crafted group decides if a woman picked up for prostitution is eligible for the innovative program instead of going to prison.

General Sessions for Division X of Davidson County Judge Casey Moreland sits at the head of the table listening to the debate over a 30-something woman, whose job as a stripper eventually resulted in her becoming the victim of sex trafficking. His experience on the bench of the county’s drug court landed him the role of the only man in the new Davidson County Human Trafficking Intervention Court.

“This crime is not a respecter of ZIP codes,” he says.

Human trafficking — defined in part as the illegal movement of people for commercial sexual exploitation — is getting more attention in Tennessee and particularly in Nashville, where the city’s business climate and proximity to Atlanta make it a popular trading hub for traffickers. Nashville had more than 600 adult prostitution arrests in 2015, and Moreland says that statistic is an indication of the number of victims living in the city.

“Trafficking victims need the kind of resources and services that can transform and save their lives,” Moreland says. “When these victims arrive in our courts, even as defendants in criminal cases, it gives us an opportunity.”

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Creating ‘the Least Intimidating Atmosphere’

Moreland says he can never say “no” to Davidson County Assistant Attorneys General Tammy Meade and Deb Smith. So when Meade contacted him while the women were attending a conference in New York learning about the state’s human trafficking court, he took notice. She texted that the program needed to come to the Volunteer state and she thought that Moreland should lead the court. It would be only the fifth of its kind in the country. Similar specialty courts are also operating in New Orleans, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio.

“He has a big heart and a wealth of understanding,” Meade says when describing Moreland. “But he’s firm with their participation in the program. He’ll make them follow the rules.”

The program, called Cherished H.E.A.R.T.S. (Healing Enslaved and Repressed Trafficking Survivors) of Nashville, went into effect in February. The initiative offers rehabilitation resources for victims, while encouraging police and prosecutors to work harder to identify trafficking victims during prostitution arrests.

“In the past, victims have easily passed through our criminal justice system without ever being identified as victims of trafficking,” Moreland says. “This new initiative will stop the cycle of shuffling ‘prostitutes’ through our courtrooms without addressing the underlying reasons why they are there in the first place.”

The court — where Moreland is joined by female law enforcement, attorneys, advocates and treatment providers — hardly resembles a traditional courtroom when it meets on Tuesdays in the Justice A. A. Birch Building. For one thing, Moreland’s robe is left in his chambers. Members of the panel — seasoned advocates for female victims — lay out their reasons why the women on Moreland’s docket should be considered for the voluntary program. The victims have been pre-screened for drug, alcohol or mental health issues. One woman was paid by her mother’s boyfriend for sex. Another’s boyfriend posted an online ad for her while they lived out of a hotel room.

“My goal is to do intervention for women in the middle of the continuum so that they are not doing self-prostitution to support habits,” Shelia Simpkins McClain says. She brings a unique voice to the court: she is a former trafficking victim. McClain now works as the director of survivor services for End Slavery Tennessee, a nonprofit agency.

After the cases on the docket are considered, the panel whittles down to just a few: Moreland, the district attorney, the caseworker and a victims’ advocate.

This is when the victims come face-to-face with those deciding if they are eligible for the program that will offer them more than just a jail sentence.

The victims file one-by-one into what Moreland describes as “the least intimidating atmosphere” in the Judicial Library. Some crave the program’s stability and offerings – like drug treatment, counseling, housing, education and job training, he says. Others are reluctant to give up their addictions — and livelihood.

“We take away every excuse that the ladies have to be back on the street,” Moreland says. “Trust me, a lot of them are professional when it comes to manipulation, but because of our expertise in our fields, we’ve heard it all.”

Moreland says he quickly decides what role to play when working with these women, many of whom have experienced severe trauma. He says that sometimes he’s a stern father, sometimes he’s a loving big brother. Derri Smith, executive director for End Slavery Tennessee, describes Moreland as “a man who knows when to be gentle and when to be steely in resolve and motivating (the) survivor.”

The panel lays out the rules to the women, often under the age of 30 and facing numerous charges from prostitution to theft in an effort to support their addictions. Participation requirements can include treatment, breaking contact with a boyfriend/suspected pimp and living in a halfway house.

Then the victims decide if they will enter the free program.

McClain describes the experience: “She is offered a myriad of services and is assured by the intervention specialist, who will build trust like no one else can, that she has long-term options. The outcome is far more likely to lead to life changes, healing and even cooperation in prosecution of traffickers.”

Indicators to help you identify victims of human trafficking:
•        Chronic runaway/homeless youth
•        Lying about age/false ID
•        Injuries/signs of physical abuse (that they may be reluctant to explain)
•        Has STDs, HIV/AIDS, pelvic pain/inflammation, rectal trauma, urinary difficulties, abdominal or genital trauma
•        Carries hotel keys/keycards
•        Inconsistencies when describing and recounting events
•        Unable or unwilling to give local address or information about parent(s)/guardian
•        Talks about an older boyfriend or sex with an older boyfriend/man
•        History of abuse and/or trauma (rape, violent crime, etc.)

— End Slavery Tennessee


 

 

A Statewide Problem

Since the court’s first session in February, a victim has already aided in the arrest of a trafficker. Prosecution of the traffickers is becoming easier for Tennessee law enforcement, thanks to a bundle of laws passed by the state’s legislature toughening penalties for trafficking. Seven laws went into effect in 2015, preceded by five in 2014, including a measure that makes prostitution punishable as trafficking.

One of the leaders in this effort is Sen. Douglas Overbey, R-Maryville, who has sponsored several pieces of legislation in recent years that target sex offenders and human trafficking.

Ryan Dalton, Memphis resident and chief executive officer of Rescue Forensics, had a hand in writing 29 of the anti-trafficking laws introduced since 2011 in the state’s General Assembly. Dalton says this court is welcome news because it shows that agencies across the state are communicating about the seriousness of the problem.

“Human trafficking is reported in every county in Tennessee. Every county should have a court like this,” Dalton says. “The legal system has a tremendous opportunity to help people who have endured serious exploitation for a very long time.”

Moreland says while his court is located in Davidson County, he is open to accepting cases from outside his jurisdiction. He also says the court is open to transgender victims and is willing to offer its services to minors. (The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reports more than 100 cases in Nashville in 2014 involved children being trafficked for sex.)
The court, funded in part by the Davidson County Drug Court Foundation, was also intended to combat Tennessee’s growing prison population.

“One way to address [trafficking] is to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” says Meade, who heads the DA’s Grace Empowered prostitution intervention program. “But if you’re the victim, you shouldn’t be sent to jail. You shouldn’t be treated like a criminal. You may have been arrested for a criminal act, but you shouldn’t be treated like them.”
Moreland adds, “In this situation, the victim and the defendant are the same.”

Back in the judicial library, Moreland picks up his phone and makes a quick call to a fellow judge. He sternly and rapidly negotiates a woman’s probation in order to make her eligible for the program. He gets what he wants: help for the victim.


Amelia Ferrell Knisely AMELIA FERRELL KNISELY is the Tennessee Bar Association’s communications coordinator. Prior to coming to the TBA, she was a reporter and producer for WOWK 13News in Charleston, West Virginia. She had also served as an adjunct faculty member at Marshall University, where she earned her masters degree in communications studies. Her undergraduate degree in political science and communications was earned at Shepherd University.

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