Kembry’s Blog: What VCAHT Taught Me About Legislative Efforts for Victims

Kembry McNeil-Thompson: Marymount University Senior Pursuing a B.A. in English and a B.A. in Criminal Justice.

Just as there are misconceptions and myths about the pimps and Johns that “benefit” from trafficking, there are also just as many myths about those who are victimized, and these beliefs can often translate over into the criminal justice system as well; these are the misrepresentations that the Virginia Coaltion Against Human Trafficking is attempting to shift in a different direction. Victims rarely, if ever, willingly participate in acts of trafficking. Since victims are often those in society with an increased vulnerability, trafficker’s use this to their advantage. For instance, a victim who was exposed to childhood abuse may form trauma bonds with their traffickers in an attempt to escape retaliation; they do as they are told, eventually forming a relationship with the trafficker, as a means of self-preservation so as not to jeopardize their safety. They often do not even know that this is occurring to them.

Victims do not willingly participate in many of the acts/crimes that they perform, and it is not that easy to simply leave. There are a number of reasons as to why each of these is true, as mentioned in the former blog, but trauma-bonding is a psychological tactic that is often overlooked. Trauma bonding refers to the bond created between an abuser and their abused through the abuser’s alternating acts and/or words of kindness/”love” with acts such as fear of physical injury or death to themselves or those the victim loves and/or actual acts of abuse. The abused begins to look at the abuser as their benefactor rather than their abuser; they believe the abuser really loves/cares for them and that it is their own “fault” that the trafficker has been abusive to them– as in domestic violence. Therefore they are led to believe that if they perform better and do what the trafficker wants everything will be better, like at the beginning of their relationship, making it harder for them to break free of their trafficker – hence the “trauma bond”.

VCAHT’s main focus is survivor-centered legislation, which means that we aim to put in place legislation that will help survivors– victims to these horrific crimes. We also strive to debunk various myths about human trafficking as well as educate on the topic. One of the biggest obstacles that survivors face once they have escaped their trafficker(s) is being treated like criminals within the legal system; even though they were forced with threats, fraud, and/or coercion into committing crimes, these crimes follow the victims wherever they go, and the legal system punishes survivors as if they were willing participants in these crimes.

VCAHT wants to ensure that there is legislature that works in favor of the survivor that does not punish them for what they may have done while being trafficked. Our efforts focus heavily on vacatur and expungement, methods that either overturn convictions/dismiss charges or completely eradicate the criminal record(s) that survivors may have accumulated. Some believe that offering survivors these legislative rights will lead to the abuse of the law by removing the legal consequences for committing a crime; there is also the belief that vacatur and expungement do not need to be enacted because plenty of people with criminal records have gone on to succeed in life. However, criminal records actually make it easier for pimps to remain in control by creating a stronger dependence factor for the survivor upon the pimp. The pimp can coerce the victim into staying with them by pushing them away from the authorities since they have a criminal record or blackmail them with their record(s) by convincing them that working for the pimp is their only option.

Additionally, criminal records can also stop survivors from acquiring substance abuse and mental health counseling, housing, employment, and/or education, furthering their already traumatic experience as a victim and creating roadblocks to the healing and resources they need in order to keep from being re-exploited. VCAHT recognizes that victims are not criminals, and they should not have to live as if they are. While there have been some efforts within Virginia’s legislature to improve legislation for trafficking survivors, these have only been minimal. Survivors are still being harmed rather than helped by these laws as long as the system continues to treat them like criminals, further proving that there is still much work to be done. 

Next week, learn about how to further these efforts.

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