By Kristina Davis The San Diego Union-Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Attorney Jamie Quient says that her work with victims of human trafficking gives her the opportunity to give these survivors a fresh start and that is what drives her.
The San Diego Union-Tribune
When Jamie Quient first asked how she, a civil litigation attorney, could help victims of human trafficking, a federal prosecutor advised her: We need lawyers.
Lawyers to help victims get restitution from their traffickers. Lawyers to help victims expunge criminal charges related to their abuse. Lawyers to help victims get their kids back in child custody disputes.
The conversation stuck with her. And as she delved deeper in the issue in San Diego County, Quient realized how legal problems related to trafficking were preventing many survivors from moving on with their lives.
It's why the 33-year-old quit her well-paying job at the prestigious Procopio law firm in downtown San Diego to start a nonprofit that will take on the legal messes of trafficked victims.
"I'm hearing over and over again, 'I've never had a lawyer before.' 'The only lawyer I've had was a public defender when I was charged with a crime,'" Quient said in an interview this week.
"Access to the legal system is a huge barrier for them, and ultimately results in other things happening, like losing custody of your kids because you don't have a lawyer."
The nonprofit, Free to Thrive, is the third such program to provide free legal services to human trafficking victims in California, along with programs in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
Clean slate Helping survivors vacate their criminal record in connection with their trafficking will likely be the nonprofit's bread and butter, thanks to a new law that went into effect this year that allows victims to get a clean slate.
"The vacatur process is far more than a clean criminal record -- it is telling someone who was trafficked that he or she is not a criminal and should never have been treated like one to begin with," Quient said. "It is restorative justice."
The charges may be related to prostitution, but arrests for crimes such as drug possession or shoplifting are also common. Why?
"Drugs are used as a form of coercion and control," Quient explained, "and oftentimes survivors steal at the control of their traffickers or steal because their traffickers don't give them any money so they have to go out and have their basic needs met."
Under the law, survivors must show they were trafficked, that they aren't being trafficked anymore and that the crime was connected to their trafficking. Also, the crime can't be considered violent under the law.
The first record to be vacated in San Diego County was completed a few months ago.
Once vacated, the criminal record is wiped clean, allowing survivors to apply for jobs, student loans and professional licenses without their past getting in the way.
"The story I hear over and over again from clients is: 'I keep applying for jobs and I'll get the job but then they run the fingerprints and they revoke the offer,'" Quient said.
One case she heard about involves a survivor who had kept her trafficking past a secret even from her husband. But when she went to volunteer at her children's school and the district ran her fingerprints, her secret was out.
An area of law still being tested in this area involves victims who were previously trafficked but now are being charged with trafficking themselves, said Kate Mogulescu, an assistant professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School and an expert on human trafficking law.
"Where that line is is a really interesting question," Mogulescu said. "We are at a point where it is coming to a head in many places across the country."
The legal problems go way beyond criminal.
Victims often can't afford to pay lawyers to represent them for child custody or child support disputes -- and sometimes the child's father is the trafficker. Identity theft is common, as traffickers often use victims' names to open accounts and rent housing, then default on payments.
Also, victims are often called to testify against their traffickers, a harrowing experience that many don't go through with. And victims may need restraining orders against their traffickers.
In federal cases, victims can even seek up to $150,000 restitution against their traffickers. But they need a lawyer's help.
Full-time help The nonprofit's journey started with an April 2014 training for lawyers on the issue of human trafficking. Quient, a board member for the Lawyers Club of San Diego, was struck by the enormity of the problem here, which has been identified by the FBI as being among the top 13 regions for child sex trafficking.
The issue fit the mission statement of the lawyer's club perfectly -- advancing women in law and society. "I thought what is our role as lawyers in this? There must be something we can do," Quient recalled.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Alessandra Serano, a panelist that day, told her that more lawyers were needed to represent the needs of the victims.
"One of the things as a prosecutor I have to remind survivors is that I don't represent them, even though they think I do," Serano said in an interview. "There is a gap of somebody solely representing their interests."
Quient took action by forming the Lawyers Club Human Trafficking Collaborative, a group that provides awareness training to lawyers and the public, advocates for legislation and helps with victim support.
It was at a legislative roundtable with lawmakers that the collaborative asked for a law to allow survivors to vacate crimes linked to their trafficking. State Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, jumped at the idea and authored a bill that laid out a process for victims to do just that, Quient said.
The bill was signed into law last year, among several recent measures that address human trafficking victims.
But Serano's challenge to Quient kept nagging at her. She took on pro bono cases of survivors as an associate at Procopio. And she started to explore what a legal services provider would look like, talking to leaders of similar programs around the country, including Mogulescu.
Quient took the best ideas from those models and came up with Free to Thrive, a nonprofit that would use staff attorneys, pro bono lawyers and law school students to represent survivors in court and also connect them to support services, including counseling, safe housing and job training.
But she needed funding. Then, almost miraculously, county grant money came available for just that: legal services for human trafficking victims. Quient applied and got it.
"From that point on it's been like running a marathon while putting on your shoes," Quient said.
She had no website and no malpractice insurance, yet as soon as word started getting out that the grant was approved, her phone started ringing with client referrals.
She took three law school externs and a pro bono attorney and started mobile law clinics over the summer, assessing the needs of survivors and beginning to work on their cases. So far they have served 22 victims.
She cut her hours at Procopio, but the demand at the nonprofit was too intense.
"I knew if I was going to do it right I had to do it full time," she said. She quit Procopio in August, although the firm has agreed to incubate her nonprofit for now, providing her with office space and the support of an influential firm.
Quient's nonprofit will join a network of other providers and trained volunteer attorneys across the country that can be accessed through the American Bar Association's Survivor Re-entry Project, which is trying to help fill that legal services gap with training and technical assistance.