Trafficking survivors are victims, not criminals.
Naomi is a composite character whose story reflects the struggles of survivors with criminal records that prevent them from finding housing, getting a job, receiving government benefits, or simply rebuilding their lives. Naomi’s story is based on in-depth interviews with four human trafficking survivors and informed by research and conversations with service providers and trafficking experts.
Naomi sat quietly, hands folded, as the store managers reviewed her application. She had been here before. She had applied for dozens of jobs over the past several years. Each time, the interview would go well until they reached the part about her criminal record.
This was Naomi’s third interview in a month, and she needed the job. Debt collectors were calling her for overdue legal fees, doctors’ bills, and moving costs from abruptly leaving her last apartment. She couldn’t afford to go much longer without a job, and her desperation was starting to show. She was 31 years old with useful work experience, but the gaps in her resume were hard to explain.
After describing her retail experience on the job application, Naomi checked “yes” next to the question: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” She said she was charged with disorderly conduct in Ohio and shoplifting in Pennsylvania. Now, when the store manager asked her to explain, she told him that she was a victim of human trafficking, that the charges came from a traumatic time in her life, and that she was working to clear her record.
The manager ended the interview soon after that. He thanked her for coming in and said he would be in touch. The following week, as usual, she was told that the job had been filled by someone else.
Thirteen years earlier, when she was 18, Naomi had moved to Pittsburgh.
Compared to her hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, the big city felt promising—a new start after her parents’ ugly divorce. One morning as she waited for a bus to take her downtown, she met Ron and Joe, two locals in their twenties. They said that the buses always ran late and asked where she was heading. By the time the bus arrived 30 minutes later she had made her first friends in Pittsburgh.
Ron and Joe offered to treat her to dinner. Over drinks, and in high spirits, Naomi told them how she had landed in Pittsburgh. She had terrible fights with her mother. She had to get away to somewhere new.
Ron and Joe asked lots of questions about her life, laughed at her jokes, and seemed to like her. The three of them started hanging out a few nights a week.
Naomi knew that the men ran some type of business together. They traveled a lot and kept odd hours, but she wasn’t sure what they did. One night they told her to dress up—they were taking her out to celebrate a new business deal. Naomi was excited. It had been a while since she felt like celebrating. They took her to a hotel bar and ordered a round of drinks, then another. The last drink was stronger than the others and she struggled to keep up with the conversation.
Ron and Joe grew coarse as they drank, and Naomi started to feel uncomfortable. They made crude jokes about the women in the bar. They left the table and came back several times. Ron yanked Naomi’s arm, pulling her next to him, and said she could make a lot more money if she gave up her job and came to work for them. When she asked what they did, they laughed.
A strange man came to the table and sat down beside her. She doesn’t know what happened after that.
When Naomi woke up the next morning, she was in a hotel room. Her purse and phone were gone. Her clothes were ripped and she had a pounding headache. Ron and Joe were no longer the nice guys she met at the bus stop. She tried to leave, but the door was locked. She was about to scream for help when Ron showed her a gun. She collapsed on the floor crying. Joe told her to pull herself together and to get used to her new job.
Over the next several days, it got worse. Ron guarded the hotel room door while Naomi was forced to have sex with multiple men.
Sex trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline* in the U.S. since 2007
Naomi was told she had to make $300 a day—Ron and Joe would bring the buyers. They told her that she was worthless, that her family didn’t miss her, and that no one would be coming to look for her. They reminded her constantly that she had no one to turn to and nowhere to go. That they were her only friends. If she tried to run, they would kill her.
During the four years that Naomi was trafficked, she was moved from state to state, and she had several encounters with law enforcement. Once, when she was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for prostitution, Ron and Joe threatened to kill her if she ever told the truth. They’d been violent with her before, so she had no reason to doubt them.
She was terrified of Ron and Joe ever thinking that she was ratting them out, so Naomi often went out of her way to be combative toward the police. This only engendered more hostility in return. No one saw her as a victim. The more bad encounters she had, the more she distrusted anyone in uniform.
One night, an officer arrested Naomi as she was getting into a car with a man. At the station, the officer asked her if she liked being a whore.
The word seared her. How could she even begin to answer the question? Did her response even matter to him? If she said “no,” would he see her as any less of a criminal? She didn’t think so.
She ignored the comment, fearful of saying too much. The officer eventually let her go. Ron sat in a car outside the station, waiting.
Several months later, police raided a motel where Naomi was staying. As officers entered her motel room, they apprehended the man who’d been there with her, while other men scattered from nearby rooms. Naomi crouched in a corner, shaking. She expected to be grabbed by the officers, as she had been before, and braced herself for the violence.
One of them crouched down next to her, looked her calmly in the eye, and extended a hand to help her up.
First responders, law enforcement, legal, health care, and social service providers can be trained to recognize and respond to potential victims and survivors of human trafficking through screening tools such as the one developed by the Vera Institute of Justice.
“I’m Officer Roberts,” he said. “What’s your name?”
Jade. Kira. Sally. She readied the fake names Ron and Joe made her use. But his subtle kindness was disarming.
“Naomi,” she answered, her voice breaking. She couldn’t remember the last time she had used her real name.
He told Naomi she would need to come with him to the station. She would have a chance to speak with someone before they decided what to do with her.
Her mind raced. Did Ron and Joe know about the raid yet? Were the police taking in other women? How much should she tell them? Should she try to run?
At the police station, Naomi was taken to a special unit for trauma victims.
She was confused. She had never considered words like “trauma” or “victim” to describe her situation.
Officer Roberts introduced Naomi to Officer Jones, a female officer trained in trauma. She spoke with a gentleness that Naomi had not experienced in a long time. Naomi eventually told Officer Jones about Ron and Joe and the horrors of her last four years.
Officer Jones connected Naomi with a women’s shelter in a nearby town. There, she met and talked with women who had similar experiences to hers, and she was encouraged to enroll in a support program for survivors of trafficking. It took Naomi a long time to comfortably describe herself as a trafficking survivor and to label Ron and Joe as pimps. Stepping away from her experience and defining it was an excruciatingly slow process.
Naomi began to rebuild her life. She got a part-time job working with other trafficking survivors, and she also worked at a local home goods store. After several months, Naomi decided she wanted a fresh start and moved to live near a friend in Florida.
Number of U.S. communities with “Ban the Box” policies barring employers from asking about criminal records on job applications for greater fairness in hiring.
But Naomi’s criminal record followed her, making the transition much harder than she had hoped.
In job interviews, she experimented with different explanations, but none of them seemed to work. She tried using the words “victim,” “survivor,” “trafficking,” “coerced.” The words gave her strength, but interviewers winced, nodded without eye contact, or ended the interview abruptly.
Renting an apartment proved just as difficult. Twice she signed a lease and paid a deposit only to be rejected before moving day. She suspected that the background checks had revealed her criminal record. She ended up renting a bedroom from friends in her support program.
Despite the challenges, Naomi slowly recovered other parts of her life. She didn’t panic when suddenly touched by a friend. She no longer shuddered when she heard a police siren. However, she could not control the fact that society viewed her as a criminal. She was continuously punished for being a victim of abuse. It felt unbelievably cruel.
States with procedures for trafficking survivors to expunge, vacate, or seal criminal records related to being trafficked.
Naomi embarked on the long legal journey to clear her record. She hoped to take advantage of vacatur laws, which enable survivors in some states to expunge criminal charges, as long as they can prove in court those charges were the result of their victimization.
Each charge required a separate filing process. The prostitution charges on her record were more straightforward to tackle, as it was easier to prove that she had been a trafficking victim at those times. The shoplifting charges she incurred when she was desperate for food and necessities were more complicated. Judges were skeptical about the connection between being trafficked and stealing from a deli.
Despite mounting debt and legal battles, Naomi still felt power in calling herself a survivor. But each rejection made it clear to her that employers did not see her story as she herself had come to understand it.
Naomi’s story is not unusual. The National Human Trafficking Hotline* has received reports of more than 25,000 sex trafficking cases inside the United States since 2007.
Sex traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage, and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. And in many instances, traffickers force or push victims to commit other crimes as a means of control. As in Naomi’s case, victims of sex trafficking may be involved in a wide range of criminal activity. Survivors are commonly convicted of crimes such as drug possession and theft, and in the case of minors, truancy and running away.
A criminal record can prevent survivors from finding housing, getting a job, or receiving government benefits. It can put them at risk for deportation or financial ruin.
To address these challenges, states have begun to use a variety of solutions, such as vacatur laws and fair-hiring ordinances, but much remains to be done to ensure that trafficking victims are seen as survivors and not criminals.
*Data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline constitutes one of the largest data sets on human trafficking, but it is not intended to represent the full scale or scope of human trafficking within an area or population. Hotline statistics are generated from information communicated to the National Human Trafficking Hotline via calls, emails, or online tip reports. The National Hotline evaluates information for evidence of potential human trafficking but cannot verify the accuracy of the information reported. Statistics are accurate as of June 30, 2017 and are subject to change as new information emerges. Public awareness and advertising of the hotline, and an understanding of who human trafficking victims are, affects utilization of the hotline by a community or victims themselves and may lead to over or under reporting.