Regent University is taking an active role in the fight against human trafficking by helping survivors get a fresh start. Regent Law School’s Center for Global Justice is providing human trafficking victims in Virginia legal help to clear their records thanks to a new state law Regent helped get passed in the state.
While some victims of human trafficking may eventually find freedom from their traffickers, the legal charges of prostitution – and many other crimes they were forced to commit – follow them for the rest of their lives. CBN News recently sat down with one survivor named Olivia who shared her story of how she became a sex trafficking victim and the legal woes that followed her as a result.
“I had to do drugs which meant I had to possess drugs which is illegal,” explained Olivia. “I had to steal, I had to hurt other people, sometimes other women, because if I didn’t – I didn’t know what he would do to me.”
Olivia told CBN News she first became a trafficking victim at 18 years old when her boyfriend turned abusive and demanded she make money by selling herself for sex.
“On an average, I probably saw 20 ‘dates’ a night,” she recalled. “There was a quota I had to make, a certain amount every day, and if I didn’t make it there was no food, no sleep, no nothing until I made it.”
Olivia says he then tried to kill her when she got pregnant with his child. Feeling desperate, she called her mom from a Boston hospital. That led to a train ticket to Virginia to escape her abuser, however, her freedom was short-lived.
“My first trafficker made me believe I wasn’t good for anything else,” she recalled. “You’re never going to get a real job, nobody’s going to ever want to hire you, you’re a prostitute. Nobody’s going to want you. And I believed it, so even when I was on my own I still prostituted.”
Vulnerable, homeless, and addicted to drugs, a new trafficker found Olivia and promised to take care of her as long as she did what he asked.
“When you have a trafficker you got to give them everything. There is no, ‘Oh, I get to keep a little for myself’ or control my own money,” said Olivia. “So I felt like I was gonna leave but there’s, there’s other people involved, so there technically was no leaving.”
Olivia tells CBN News she often hoped to get arrested for prostitution so she could get out of her situation. While that wish eventually came true, it resulted in a four-year prison sentence on charges including prostitution and drug possession.
“I’m not a prostitute, really I’m a human trafficking victim, and I didn’t know that for a very long time, very long time,” explained Olivia. “I thought because I did it on my own sometimes that it was because I wanted to or that was just how I had to live, but I was trained in my brain to think that way, to think that there was no other way to live.”
Two years ago, Regent University helped get a vacatur law passed in Virginia that agrees with the reality of trafficking, viewing Olivia and others like her as victims, not criminals.
“Many people don’t realize that victims of human trafficking are forced to commit an array of crimes and from the legal perspective they do not have the intent to commit the crime,” explained Meg Kelsey from Regent’s Center for Global Justice. “Human trafficking by its nature is using force, fraud, coercion, manipulation – it is exploitation of another and forcing them to commit an array of crimes.”
Kelsey explained while the vacatur law has been in place for two years in Virginia, survivors aren’t taking advantage of it.
“It became clear that this could be the piece that we bring to the puzzle, that survivors have access to this law but don’t know about it,” Kelsey said.
The center recently launched a clinic to provide survivors with the legal help needed to file petitions to have their records expunged. Olivia is their first victory.
“This relief is significant it is helping survivors like Olivia clear criminal convictions that they don’t deserve to have on their record,” Kelsey said. “They didn’t have the intent to commit these crimes, and so even when they exit human trafficking they may be physically free from the predator, the trafficker, this criminal record goes with them.”
The clinic also connected with a local law firm to train attorneys on the law, human trafficking, and trauma-informed lawyering.
“God is moving,” said Kelsey. “Our enemy prowls around like a roaring lion, but we have the actual Lion of Judah with us. We get to pray and research and advocate from a place of victory.”
While not all of Olivia’s record is clean, she tells CBN News she’s relieved her most embarrassing charge is erased.
“Saying you know, we made a mistake, you know we should have never charged you with this, we apologize. This is how we’re going to apologize – we’re going to take it off your record, that’s huge,” Olivia said. “Forget the record being gone, just knowing that they realized that we’re victims and not criminals is probably the best part about the thing.”
Olivia is hopeful Virginia’s law will expand one day to clear other charges.
“I feel like people are learning now. I think people think they know what human trafficking is but I don’t think they realize the extent of it,” explained Olivia. “It’s not just prostitution, it’s not just, you know, selling sex, it’s anything and that’s how I got my record — you know, I got it from being trafficked.”
The clinic not only helps survivors, but it’s also providing Regent Law students with real-life experience with human rights and anti-trafficking work.
“God loves stories of beauty from ashes, of redemption and restoration and forgiveness and new life and we hope at Regent Law to inspire a generation of attorneys who are going to walk with people in the midst of those stories as an advocate for people in those stories,” Regent Law School’s Dean Brad Lingo tells CBN News. “I can’t think of a better way to do that than this new human trafficking clinic.”
Moving forward, Regent hopes to scale up the number of victims they can help through this clinic, and they’re even hoping to bring Olivia on as an official part of the team as they work with more survivors.