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August 2013

A Way Out for Trafficking Victims

Sanctuary for Families is breaking the cycle of sex trafficking through:


  • Educate law enforcement, nonprofit, and criminal court staff about the emerging rights of victims
  • Steer vulnerable youth clear of traffickers; teach them how to find help

Direct Services

  • Help victims apply for special visas for undocumented sex-trafficked immigrants
  • Provide criminal defense and get prostitution charges vacated
  • Connect victims with public benefits, job training, and safe housing


  • Change laws to stop charging trafficking victims with prostitution
  • More funding for state efforts to prosecute traffickers

Consider 16-year-old Ilana, lured to New York City with the promise of a restaurant job, who soon finds herself locked up, fearing for her life and forced into prostitution. Or consider 14-year-old Jackie, abused at home, then offered affection and shelter by a man she thinks is her boyfriend, but who coerces her into the sex trade.

Law enforcement historically treated these young people as criminals. In New York, 16- and 17-year-olds are tried as adults. As a result, young sex-trafficking victims are more likely to have prostitution on their permanent record. Too often they end up in a downward spiral because a conviction decreases their chance of getting housing, a job, or legal immigration status.

During the past five years, laws have increasingly recognized trafficking victims while penalizing those responsible. But officials have not fully enforced the laws: Last year there were more than 2,000 arrests for prostitution in the City, compared to 62 arrests for sex trafficking. The state agency charged with helping trafficking victims has served fewer than 200 people in five years.

A $75,000 grant to Sanctuary for Families will help reduce the number of victims of sex trafficking in New York through advocacy to improve laws; education workshops about legal rights and spotting sex-traffickers; and representation for victims in legal matters, including immigration and vacating prostitution convictions.

“Sanctuary’s advocacy and education is strongly influenced by the direct legal, housing, and immigration support they provide,” says Shawn Morehead, Trust program officer for human justice. The group’s legal center is staffed by 25 lawyers with expertise in family,  immigration, asylum, and public benefits law. Morehead expects the lawyers will set important precedents.

Sanctuary for Families and other advocates have successfully moved a bill forward that will assist, not criminalize, 16- and 17-year-old trafficking victims. “We think this is a great first step, but for victims 18 and older, there is still work to be done,” says Sanctuary for Families staff attorney Emily Amick. “We also believe if you are victim of trafficking of any age, you should not be convicted of prostitution and then have your sentence vacated.”

Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds facing other charges should also be given a second chance and not a permanent record. In February, The Trust made a $200,000 grant to Public Interest Projects and M&R Strategies to manage a campaign to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 18 in New York State. In short: Young teens should not be tried as adults, and victims shouldn’t be treated as criminals.

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