Pennsylvania Courts Host Webinar on Human Trafficking and the Court: The Survivor’s Perspective

In recognition of January’s National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the Pennsylvania Courts hosted a free, virtual panel with survivors of human trafficking in Pa to discuss how victims and survivors interact with the court; connections with domestic violence, trauma and substance use; and victim-centered approaches to address human trafficking.

Human trafficking, which includes exploiting persons for forced labor and/or commercial sex, occurs throughout Pennsylvania’s urban, suburban and rural communities.  It is a type of human rights abuse where people profit from the exploitation of others – through the use of force, fraud or coercion to manipulate victims into engaging in sex acts or labor/services in exchange for something of value.

More than 600 participants attended the webinar which was open to all Pennsylvania judges, court managers, supervisors, staff, and justice- system partners, including all employees in filing offices, domestic relations, adult and juvenile probation, sheriffs, police, victim services, district attorneys and more.

Through the panelists, audience members heard candid discussion from survivor leaders about their experiences engaging with justice systems and the collateral consequences of human trafficking victimization, such as sustaining criminal convictions and having their driver’s license suspended. The vulnerabilities that can increase the likelihood of someone being trafficked, such as familial sexual abuse as a child, poverty and unstable immigration status, were also discussed.

While there is much wider awareness about sex trafficking in the U.S., human trafficking also encompasses labor trafficking. In a labor trafficking situation, persons are exploited for cheap or unpaid labor and are sometimes forced to take on unreasonable debt as a condition of employment.

By far, the most recognized belief about human trafficking is that it always involves kidnapping or otherwise physically forcing someone into a situation. In reality, most human traffickers use psychological means such as tricking, defrauding, manipulating or threatening victims into providing commercial sex or exploitative labor.

In order to best help potential victims, it is important to pay attention to the people who interact within our family, workplace and community. Understanding the vulnerabilities that can pave the way for victimization and being aware of situations that may raise red flags is key. Anyone can be trafficked, but it is no coincidence that traffickers recognize and take advantage of people in vulnerable situations. One suggestion offered by panelists to improve interactions with the justice system is to ask, are you safe?

“Trafficking victimization is complicated, and victims do not always self-identify. The fear, shame, trauma, isolation and manipulation inherent in human trafficking can prevent a victim from seeking help or attempting to leave an exploitative situation, no matter how dangerous,” said Amy Kehner, AOPC Judicial Programs administrator.

In Pennsylvania, trafficking survivors can petition the court to vacate convictions for prostitution, criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, loitering and prowling at night, obstructing highways and other public passages, and simple possession of a controlled substance if their convictions were sustained because of trafficking victimization.