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Survivors Need a Seat at the Table to be Seen and Heard

by Carole Bernard, CEO of Amara Legal Center

When one Googles “sex trafficking” on the Internet, the dominant images one will see will be cis White women and girls. These images show White women and girls with a male Black hand covering their mouths. Other images show White women holding both hands up, palms showing “not for sale” written on them, while others have these women chained or with ropes tied around their wrists. The visual story the Internet conveys perpetuates myths and depicts a “Hollywood’’ portrayal of kidnapped young White women. Although that scenario does happen in the United States, sex trafficking on an every day basis in our country looks very different.

In October 2021, a New York jury found R. Kelly guilty of sex trafficking, along with separate charges of racketeering, including acts of bribery and sexual exploitation of a child. I cheered as survivors’ voices were heard and justice was served. I celebrated with the women and girls who stepped out on faith, hoping that the legal system would work for them, when too often they see the legal system work against individuals that look like them — Black women and girls. The celebration, however, felt bittersweet. On the one hand, I was grateful for the verdict and the fact that the media was paying attention to the victimization of these women when the headlines and news coverage too often omit their stories. On the other hand, I was angry and saddened, thinking about all of the Black women and girls, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and other communities of color that go missing in cities across America, and still remain unseen and unheard as victims of sex trafficking.

Since its founding in 2013, the Amara Legal Center has provided legal services in almost 800 case matters for over 500 clients in the DC-metro area in the form of brief legal advice, limited or extended representation. The majority of Amara’s clients are U.S. born, Black, cis- and trans- women, ages 18–29, who are survivors of sex trafficking. Our clients often confront re-victimization at the hands of the legal system and law enforcement, and our clients face poverty, homelessness, mental health issues, substance use, and incarceration during their exploitation.

The work Amara does has become increasingly important — providing free, trauma-informed legal services to those whose rights have been violated while involved in commercial sex, whether that involvement was by force, fraud, coercion, necessity, choice, or otherwise. We remain vigilant in our efforts to seek justice for survivors through the courts, conducting trainings for target groups, and advocating for sound public policy, such as the Safe Sex Worker Study. This national effort would solicit responses from individuals involved in the commercial sex industry to lend their lived experiences to informing policymakers of their situations, social service needs, and the much needed investments in harm reduction programs.

Amara works to dispel myths and stereotypes and educate and inform the public about the complexity of our clients’ experiences, the dire circumstances our clients are in and the systemic vulnerability factors contributing to their victimization and criminalization. What the headlines don’t mention is that marginalization, poverty, racism, adultification, gender violence, and policies made without input from impacted communities make cis and trans Black women and girls disproportionately at-risk and vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.

The Stats

According to Snapshot on the State of Black Women and Girls: Sex Trafficking in the U.S., a report published by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, “To better understand the high rates of

sex trafficking among Black women and girls, research has indicated the continued sexualization of Black women and girls’ bodies which has played out since slavery. The myths around Black women and girls’ hypersexuality cannot be ignored when researching sex trafficking.” The report goes on to discuss the intersecting risk factors that make Black women and girls vulnerable to sex trafficking:

● Involvement in the juvenile and criminal legal systems

● Unequal school discipline policies

● Involvement in the child welfare system

● History of physical and sexual abuse

In addition, the numbers related to socioeconomic status and these intersecting issues are alarming for sex trafficking and Black women:

● Black girls are more likely to experience poverty than their racial counterparts.

● Traffickers tend to target Black women with a low socioeconomic status.

● Black girls are more likely to experience sexual and physical abuse than their racial counterparts.

● Although Black children make up 14% of children in the U.S, they also make up 23% of the children in the foster care system.

● Black children are sexually abused twice as much as their White counterparts in the foster care system.

Amara’s Commitment to Survivors

We recognize these societal risk factors, look at our work through a racial justice lens, and address our legal cases with a holistic approach by advocating for a more equitable legal system to support marginalized populations struggling for equity and safety. By providing free, trauma-informed legal representation, access to support services, training opportunities and advocacy for sound public policy, we strive to level the legal playing field for individuals impacted by sex trafficking or involved in commercial sex work in the DC-metro area and help to ensure a continuum of care. In essence, we see our clients and their humanity — understanding their situations, the various multi-faceted complexity of their lives and the incredible role we are honored to play in their legal journey.

Our programs are holistically designed to improve survivors experience with the legal system:

Legal Services: With access to free legal help, our clients can use the law to advocate for their rights and to stop the civil and human rights abuses suffered.

Training: Our trainings focused on human trafficking and trauma-informed legal representation help inform and educate the public, law enforcement (police, attorneys, courts, etc.), community-based organizations, and social service organizations about the vulnerability factors and the contributions that systemic racism has on Black and trans-women and other marginalized populations.

Advocacy: We work to break down racial biases, old myths and barriers that prevent not only our clients, but other victims of crime, from receiving appropriate client-centered support services and care.

Policy: We advocate for state and local public policies rooted in criminal justice reform, such as diversion and alternative programs for incarceration, accountability and transparency, and expungements and record sealing for victim-defendants.

I realize that justice, by its very nature, is a bittersweet concept because it means someone or a group of people were victimized in some way, in the first place. So, I accept that truism, as I work alongside a dedicated team at Amara and a committed community of advocates. The collaboration and partnerships we have as advocates will no doubt continue to instigate critical discussions about harm reduction priorities and the factors contributing to sex trafficking. I am optimistic that policymakers, the media, industry leaders, government agencies and other decision makers will open the doors and their hearts to the deep tissue work required to truly affect systemic change that ensures opportunities for upward mobility for individuals, families, and communities. This level of change, however, cannot happen effectively if those impacted do not have a seat at the table to share their thoughts, ideas, situations and goals. The Safe Sex Worker Study would allow this input to occur and provide valuable data for decisionmakers in creating bills that positively impact and benefit those who have historically been left out of the dialogue regarding legislation directly affecting them and their communities.

Amara stands alongside the many victims of sex trafficking to help empower them, to be seen and heard, and to access the legal system. Their stories don’t make the headlines. Their faces, or those that look like them, are not represented in Google searches, but we see them and their humanity, and we seek to have their voices heard in the halls of state houses across the country and the nation’s capital. We commit each day to educate individuals on their rights and to dismantle the systemic barriers that prevent them from living self-determined lives, free from oppression and exploitation.

Carole Bernard, CEO, Amara Legal Center

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