At the end of 2013, I was asked to work as a peer for the Washtenaw Women’s Court, a new specialty program for human trafficking victims. I was instantly interested, especially when I realized that these women were not the stereotypical prostitutes, but rather very normal women with extreme life circumstances, who could be my neighbor or yours.
Michigan is in the top five states in the country for human trafficking, today’s “modern day slavery.”
This is defined as working in the commercial sex, labor, or domestic work industries through the use of physical force, fraud, blackmail, or coercion. A recently published report by the Michigan Commission on Human Trafficking noted that, “Human trafficking is the second-largest and fastest-growing criminal industry in the world.”
What makes Washtenaw County’s new program unique is that it utilizes a holistic approach to working with identified eligible defendants. Participants are linked with free legal services through the University of Michigan Human Trafficking Clinic, as well as specialized treatment through Home of New Vision and the Washtenaw County Community Support and Treatment Services Justice Project Outreach Team, to address the cycle of mental illness, substance use, prostitution, victimization, traumatization, and incarceration.
The purpose of the project is to identify victims of human trafficking and to evaluate how effective the treatments are when it comes to improving the participants’ lives. This is achieved by not treating them as criminals; instead, the project seeks to treat them as they are: people lacking other options who are facing significant barriers.
Despite the fact that other counties in Michigan likely have higher incidences of human trafficking, Washtenaw County was identified as being a good candidate for the pilot program by the University of Michigan Human Trafficking Clinic based on proximity, available community resources, and overwhelming judicial support. 14B District Court Judge Charles Pope agreed to offer his prior sobriety court judicial experience and knowledge as the presiding judge for the newly formed women’s court.
Currently, University of Michigan Law Professor Elizabeth Campbell and her associates are acting as partners, providing training to professionals and free civil legal services to defendants. This investigative program to determine best practices supported by scientific research is made possible primarily by monies available through the Michigan Supreme Court State Administrators’ Office – through the Court Performance Innovation Grant – and the efforts of professionals who graduated from Eastern Michigan University.
Moving forward, collaborators hope to reduce recidivism among clients, improve overall well-being of clients, and continue to be an influential force in the way that Michigan responds to and provides resources for victims of human trafficking.
Now is an opportune time to develop new models for serving victims of human trafficking in Michigan, as there are currently over 20 bills being considered in Lansing.
For more information on how to become involved and help prevent human trafficking, visit law.umich.edu/clinical/humantraffickingclinicalprogram or humantrafficking.msu.edu/. If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, text INFO or HELP to BeFree 233733, or report online at .polarisproject.org.
Elka Chamberlain is an EMU alumnus and peer support specialist at the Washtenaw Women’s Court.