Monday, March 23, 2015

Law Helps Those Who Escape Sex Trafficking Shed Its Stigma, Too

She has applied for jobs cleaning airplane cabins between flights, tidying up offices overnight and ringing up orders at concession stands. But the 57-year-old woman from Queens has been rejected from these and dozens of other low-wage jobs because she has a long criminal record.
She has been convicted 133 times and does not deny any of her crimes.
But her record should not condemn her to a life of struggle, she says, because all of her crimes were the result of 17 years of being forced to work as a prostitute by an abusive ex-boyfriend.
“It’s not like I did it to myself,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be published because she feared for her safety. “He had me at an advantage. There would be repercussions if I didn’t do what he asked me to do. I could not talk about the beating I used to get. I always had a black eye.” She added: “Wherever I went, he’d always find me and bring me back. It was a lot of violence.”
She escaped her captor in 1990, but her criminal record has followed her, preventing her from finding steady work. Now, however, she is close to having all her convictions erased thanks to a New York State law designed to treat those forced to become prostitutes as victims rather than as criminals.
Melissa Broudo is a lawyer with the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center.CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
“Before, my life was like hell,” she said, anticipating a clean record. “Now, I feel good about myself. It’s like I died, and when I came back, I came back clean. Nothing to hold me back.”
The law, passed in 2010, allows convictions related to sexual trafficking to be removed from a person’s record. New York had the first such law in the country and today 18 other states have adopted similar statutes.
“If certain prostitution arrests arose directly from trafficking, the court must vacate the charges,” said Melissa Broudo, a lawyer with the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. “The case is over. It’s a recognition that they should not have been convicted in the first place.”
More than 60 women with prostitution convictions have had their records cleared in New York.
The law is particularly important, Ms. Broudo said, because sex-trafficking victims who manage to escape their plight often find themselves in financial crisis. “You have to start from scratch,” she said. “They’re not going to have money. They will have been forcibly cut off from family members, anyone that could have helped them.”
But the criminal records that can follow many former prostitutes make it nearly impossible to overcome financial hardship. “I can’t overstate the collateral consequences of criminal convictions, even for petty offenses,” said Kate Mogulescu, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society who has helped clear the records of 49 prostitutes. “It’s crippling. People come to us with one prostitution conviction from 10 years ago and they cannot get a job as a school bus matron.”
Ms. Broudo, with pro bono help from the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, has worked with the Queens woman to remove 129 convictions — mostly for prostitution or loitering — from her record, the most of any prostitute under the state law.
Now she is trying to have her four remaining convictions, which are more serious, removed. All of them stem from arrests involving thefts, including for stealing from a department store in Nassau County, crimes she says she was forced to commit by her trafficker when she did not earn enough money from prostitution.
She spent nine months in jail for the department store theft. Later, she moved to Virginia, where one of her sisters lived. After surviving for years on odd jobs and the support of her fiancé, the woman hopes to apply for a job as a school crossing guard or security guard.
“I got a second chance at life,” she said. “Doors are opening for me. I always wanted to do security but I never could because I had these convictions. This is the moment I was waiting for.”
But first, she must await a response from a Nassau County prosecutor about whether her convictions will be cleared. To have a conviction vacated under the law, a motion must be filed in court and with a prosecutor in the county where the offense was committed. If the prosecutor consents, then the conviction is removed. If not, a judge can decide after a hearing in which both sides make arguments.
Most prosecutors have approved the removal of convictions. Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, whose office has cleared 114 of the Queens woman’s convictions, said his prosecutors took a sympathetic approach to former prostitutes.
“Though law enforcement’s treatment of prostitution has evolved significantly over the past decade, many victims’ records contain convictions from an era when they were not viewed as victims,” Mr. Vance said in a statement. “Overturning those convictions is not only a positive way to help them move forward, but the just thing to do.”
Though efforts to remove convictions have been largely successful, providing legal help to sex-trafficking victims can be challenging. “There are very few providers doing these motions,” Ms. Broudo said. “The capacity is limited and there are thousands of survivors. There’s a real dearth of resources.”
The financial, emotional and physical consequences of being forced into prostitution can prevent victims from even seeking out legal services, she said. “For so many people that have experienced severe trauma and are living beneath the poverty level, there are endless barriers. Transportation, child care, a health issue stemming from the trauma, and emotionally, for a long time the criminal justice system is something they were trying to get away from.”
G.M., a 56-year-old Bronx woman, who abbreviates her name to protect her identity, was the first person to have her convictions vacated under New York’s law. In 1996, her husband began physically abusing her and forced her into prostitution, she said. She experienced “continued violence” that at times left her “scarred and disfigured,” according to court documents, and she accrued nine convictions over 11 years.
“When you have these convictions, you feel like the world is falling on you and that your life has ended,” she said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. When she did find work, she said, she would be fired when employers ran background checks. “They would see me as a delinquent,” she said. “It made me depressed because that wasn’t who I am. My record doesn’t show what my heart is.”
Since her convictions were cleared, she has been working as a home health aide. “My life has changed,” she said. “I’m part of society. I think about the past. It’s something I cannot forget. When I look back I just see darkness and these huge holes I couldn’t get out of. But I did get out.”

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Steps Against Juvenile Sex Trafficking

Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens, NY. CreditUli Seit for The New York Times
The impression that America’s sex-trafficking problem mostly involves young people smuggled from overseas has given way to broad recognition of a cruel homegrown reality: the tens of thousands of juveniles who are exploited each year by traffickers in this country.
On Capitol Hill, a consensus is emerging on new initiatives to confront this human-rights problem and help its victims, often runaways or homeless youngsters who have been forced or coerced into prostitution.
The Senate Judiciary Committee last week unanimously approved a pair of anti-trafficking bills with wide backing from victim advocates and other experts, and the full Senate is expected to take up the package soon.
A bill championed by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, would create a new pool of financing — through additional fines on people convicted of sex and labor trafficking, child pornography and other crimes — for restitution, victim services and law enforcement. The idea of aiding victims without committing more tax dollars has drawn support from Republicans, and any new money for this badly underfinanced cause would help.
The Cornyn bill would also encourage prosecution of the “johns,” or buyers of juvenile sex, who typically escape criminal charges even though they are paying for what amounts to the statutory rape of children and teenagers. Their demand is what’s fueling the highly lucrative human slavery business.
The second bill, put forward by Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, would give a preference for Department of Justice law enforcement grants to states that adopt “safe harbor” laws.
These laws help ensure that young people sold for sex are treated as victims and offered support services instead of being prosecuted. The House has approved similar bills, so it should not be hard to hammer out a strong final package.
A preventive measure that would help ensure housing and services for homeless juveniles, who are often prey to traffickers, unfortunately stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. One obstacle was the resistance of some Republicans to its nondiscrimination provision guaranteeing fair treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths.
No young person should “have to choose between selling their bodies and a safe place to sleep,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who introduced the bill with Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. Undeterred, they plan to seek consideration from the full Senate.
Trafficking abroad remains a tremendous problem, so it is fitting that a promising approach comes from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which last week unanimously approved a measure to create an international public-private fund dedicated to the issue, similar to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. More resources could do a lot to help trafficking’s victims at home, too.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

World War II Sex Slaves Bear Witness

An image from the exhibition “Comfort Women Wanted,” named after the headline in ads intended to lure women into prostitution for the Imperial Japanese Army. Most of the women were unpaid and unwilling, and were kidnapped or tricked. “It hurt me inside,” one woman says. “Some of them beat me.” CreditChang-Jin Lee
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Chang-Jin Lee, a New York artist, wanted to commemorate what she feared would become a “forgotten history,” she said. After reading anarticle in The New York Times in 2007 about the experiences of an estimated 200,000 women and girls who had been forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II, she decided to do something about it.
From 2008 to 2012, Ms. Lee, who grew up in Seoul, South Korea, took four trips to seven countries to interview survivors, take photographs and gather images, which she has exhibited in different ways across the United States and in other countries over the last few years.
The latest exhibition — seven striking panels showing survivors when they were young and two videos with interviews, photographs and folk songs — is now on view at the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University. Titled “Comfort Women Wanted,” it is named after the headline in newspaper advertisements intended to lure women to work as prostitutes for soldiers in the Imperial Japanese Army.
The advertisement did not work very well, Ms. Lee said, though a few women may have been paid for their work in the beginning. The rest were kidnapped or deceived with offers of other jobs that did not exist. They ended up being raped up to 100 times per day by one soldier after another in spaces, euphemistically called “comfort stations,” which came in the form of huts or rooms in industrial complexes throughout imperial Japan, and occupied territories. A former Japanese soldier — one of only two to publicly acknowledge and apologize for the practice, she said — describes the conditions in one of Ms. Lee’s videos.
“It was fast,” says Yasuji Kaneko, the former soldier. “No hug, no kiss. We had no time to do such things.” The women sat, wearing kimonos, he says, as men stood in front of them for a few minutes “and just had sex.” His video runs concurrently with a longer one featuring interviews with some of the survivors.
Emah Kastima, an Indonesian woman who was kidnapped from a market when she was 17, says in a whispery voice: “It hurt me inside. Some of them beat me. It hurt my heart. I hated being treated like that.” Jan Ruff O’Herne, who Ms. Lee said was the first European to come forward, describes being selected at age 21 at a Japanese prison camp where she had already spent three and a half years, as her mother and the families of nine other young women who were also being hauled away with her cried and wailed. Lee Yong Soo, a Korean and a former comfort woman, says, “If I am ever born again, I hope to be born as a woman soldier.”
Another image from the exhibition. CreditChang-Jin Lee
The cacophony created by the battling sounds of the simultaneous videos is intentional, the artist said; it is meant to draw a visceral response. It also reflects the controversy that still surrounds the issue. Though Japan issued an apology in 1993, the current government’s policy, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is to deny that the women were coerced into working in brothels. However, many other nations and most scholars believe the testimony of the survivors (who represent only about 25 to 30 percent of the women who went through the ordeal, Ms. Lee said).
Jinyoung Jin, the associate director of cultural programs at the Wang Center, who invited Ms. Lee to show her work and curated the exhibition, said it was not about “finger-pointing” but did highlight a continuing global human trafficking problem. “The video is very caring,” Ms. Jin said. “This happened to women who didn’t have a strong voice in society.” The exhibition has elicited strong responses from viewers and has benefited both history and art students. “How you interpret a historical subject in a visual language is also important for students studying art,” she said.
Logan Marks, an master’s student in fine arts at Stony Brook, helped to install the show. “Its location is very effective, because it’s kind of in the belly of the building” on its lowest level, he said. “It has darker and more ominous subject matter, so it fits well with the space.” He added: “It’s a heavy-duty subject. If you’re not moved by that, what kind of person are you?”
Ms. Lee agreed that she set out to make bold artistic choices. “I’m not a documentarian,” she said. To help present the women “as individuals rather than as victims,” she said, she asked each to record a favorite song in her own language to introduce each segment. With support from several grants and fellowships, including aid from the New York State Council on the Artsand the Asian Cultural Council, she traveled to Japan, Korea and Taiwan in 2008, to China and Indonesia in 2010, to Australia in 2011 and to the Philippines in 2012. Seven languages are represented in her video.
For the large prints showing the women who were able to give her photographs of themselves as teenagers before, soon after or, in one case, during their enslavement, she went for a “strong visual impact,” she said. “I want it carved into your memory.” Each print is more than five feet tall.
Fashioned after the advertisements, the photographs are at the center, framed in black and red with “Comfort Women Wanted” boldly displayed in English, Chinese, Filipino and Korean. But the background is gold leaf, “like a saint’s halo in a Renaissance painting,” Ms. Lee said.
The one she finds most moving is of Mei Chen, a Taiwanese survivor whose unsmiling face was photographed by a Japanese soldier. “It’s like she’s no longer there,” Ms. Lee said. “Her expression says something about what these women went through. She’s just not there.”

For Family Sued by Nanny, a Vacation Becomes Legal Limbo

The family vacation in Italy began in August and lasted three weeks. A family photo tells the story, all smiling faces, four children and their parents perched at the prow of a boat in the Marina di Portofino.
The vacation ended Sept. 6, but their time in Italy has not. The family, from Manhattan, has been stuck in an Italian limbo ever since, refused re-entry by the State Department. The reason for the refusal is related to an allegation by the family’s former nanny that she was physically and emotionally mistreated and underpaid in the eight weeks she spent in their employ in New York.
The family will spend the weekend finding a new place to stay in Italy, after several weeks living in a rented house outside Portofino, which has humbly called itself the “eighth wonder of the world.”
At first glance, this does not sound like cause to reach for the handkerchiefs, but the mother, Malu Custer Edwards, 30, said the last three months had been exhausting.
“'Well, what’s so bad about Italy?'” Ms. Edwards asked, repeating a question she has heard from friends. “Well, just wait until you are anywhere in the world, and you think you’ll be there a couple of weeks, and then be told you can’t go back to where your life is.”
The family — Ms. Edwards, her husband, Micky Hurley, 37, and three of their children, a 7-year-old son and daughters, age 5 and 3 — arrived in New York in January 2011 from Chile, where they lived. Ms. Edwards later gave birth to their youngest daughter in New York while she was studying graphic design at Parsons the New School for Design.
They were accompanied by a nanny, Felicitas del Carmen Villanueva Garnica, whom they had hired via an agency. They settled in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
By the middle of March, Ms. Garnica no longer worked for the family. Two years later, she sued Ms. Edwards and Mr. Hurley in Federal District Court in Manhattan, accusing them of human trafficking.
Ms. Garnica, in her lawsuit, claimed the couple took her passport, locked her in the apartment, left her without decent food or her medication for hypertension and allowed the children to hit her. Once, she claimed, a child smashed a refrigerator door on her head.
The parents denied the allegations. They were, however, ordered by New York State Department of Labor to pay Ms. Garnica $6,302.54 in back pay, court documents show.
After an article in The New York Post about the case, other stories about the family emerged, including several unpleasant email exchanges between Mr. Hurley and photographers who worked for him, which portrayed Mr. Hurley as a privileged bully and went viral.
The case was wending its way through court when the family decided it was time for a vacation. In Italy, Ms. Edwards learned that in order to return to New York, she had to renew her student visa. That request was denied by the United States Consulate on Sept. 9.
The reason given: She had been untruthful on her application to renew the visa by failing to report having engaged in human trafficking.
Of course, she has never admitted anything of the sort, and had never been charged by the authorities. But the family was stuck. Shortly after the ruling, Mr. Hurley suffered a collapsed lung and spent two weeks in a hospital, Ms. Edwards said.
School started in New York without the family. Back home, “the children have their friends, their toys, their clothing,” Ms. Edwards said. “You come on vacation with your summer clothes, and all of a sudden it’s colder.”
In New York, on Dec. 10, Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of Federal District Court in Manhattan, citing “rampant inconsistencies,” ruled against the nanny and dismissed the case. Ms. Garnica, in a deposition for the case, seemed to retreat from most of the allegations, he ruled. For example, she kept a diary that showed she came and went from the apartment as she pleased, the judge wrote. And as for the abuse by the children, Ms. Garnica testified that the main source of the supposed beatings, the 3-year-old girl, was only as high as her waist when the nanny was working for the family, according to the ruling.
A lawyer for Ms. Garnica did not return calls for comment on Friday.
The family hired a lawyer in Italy, Nicoletta Montefusco, who on Friday requested reconsideration of the visa denial.
In the meantime, the Italian non-vacation continues.
“I spend most of my days in communication with lawyers,” Ms. Edwards said.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

More Than 100 Vietnamese Brides Are Said to Have Disappeared From Hebei Villages

More Than 100 Vietnamese Brides Are Said to Have Disappeared From Hebei Villages

Workers at a steel factory in Handan, China. With a shortage of prospective brides, and limited financial resources, many men in the community have paid matchmakers to introduce them to Vietnamese women. CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times
When Yuan Xinqiang’s last negotiations for marriage with a Chinese woman fell through over monetary matters, he, like many other men in China, asked a matchmaker to help him find a Vietnamese fiancĂ©e. But his happiness, he told The Beijing News, was short-lived: His bride-to-be vanished just two months after they were introduced, along with dozens of other Vietnamese women in the area.
In that cluster of villages in the Hebei Province city of Handan, about 300 miles southwest of Beijing, the police have set up a task force to investigate reports of marriage fraud, the official English-language newspaper China Daily reported.
Since January, a Vietnamese woman who had lived in the area for more than 20 years had helped introduce other Vietnamese women to local men, collecting thousands of dollars in matchmaking fees. By late November, however, more than 100 of the women had vanished, China Daily reported. Several had lived in China for only a few months.
Several calls to the Quzhou Public Security Bureau, which is reportedly leading the investigation, went unanswered.
Like many other young men from the region, Mr. Yuan, 22, had struggled to find a wife, The Beijing News reported on Monday. A local official told the newspaper that there was a surfeit of men in the area because of China’s one-child policy, which was initiated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and because of gender-selective abortions.
There are 118 men in China today for every 100 women.
Mr. Yuan’s parents are in poor health, and his father said this was the main reason his son’s efforts to find a Chinese wife had failed, the paper reported. Another obstacle was a lack of funds. “You spend 200,000 on just betrothal gifts, and besides that, the woman also demands that you have a car and a new house,” the article quoted Mr. Yuan as saying. An expenditure of 200,000 renminbi is equivalent to more than $32,600.
Instead, for gifts worth 100,000 renminbi  — some of which Mr. Yuan borrowed from relatives — he brought home a Vietnamese woman who went by the Chinese name Lan Lan. He intended to apply for a marriage certificate at the end of the year and to hold a celebratory banquet. But the Vietnamese matchmaker, Wu Meiyu, had kept Lan Lan’s Vietnamese identity papers, along with those of many other Vietnamese women, on the pretext that she would soon return to Vietnam to process their visas.
On the morning of Nov. 21, Lan Lan told her prospective in-laws that she was going to visit a friend. She never returned, nor did several other Vietnamese women in the surrounding area, villagers told The Beijing News.
The only woman who returned, Wu Xiaohong (no relation to Wu Meiyu), said that she had been drugged at a banquet on Nov. 21 and that she had woken up in Handan city. She told the Chinese news media that her captors wanted to find her a new husband, but that she had refused and called her husband, who came to pick her up. Her version of events could not be verified.
The villagers also told The Beijing News that Ms. Wu, the matchmaker, had been brought to the village as a bride more than two decades ago but that she had managed to communicate that fact only after she learned Mandarin. After an early escape attempt, she had returned to the village, they said.
The police in Quzhou County have reportedly detained three peoplein connection with the investigation and are searching for Ms. Wu and another suspect, who has the surname Li. Although news reports have put the number of missing women at more than 100, the police said that only 28 villagers had reported such fraud, China Daily reported last week.
Those who filed police reports were all from villages under the jurisdiction of Handan, which is best known as the birthplace of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
Stories of Vietnamese brides have become common in rural China, where many bachelors say they are squeezed out of the marriage market because they lack the funds to satisfy the demands of Chinese families. Unfortunately for these men, runaway foreign brides are also common — though 100 in one area is a larger number than usual.
Although the police suspect that the Hebei case involves marriage fraud, Chinese government officials and international rights organizations have expressed concern that some international marriages involve human trafficking.
From 2009 to 2012, the Chinese police returned to Vietnam more than 1,800 women who had been brought to China illegally, Chen Shiqu, the head of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s anti-trafficking office, told the official news agency Xinhua last year.
It is difficult to estimate how many trafficked Vietnamese women are in China, said Annette Lyth, the regional project manager for the United Nations Action for Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons.
“Both China and Vietnam are extremely difficult countries when it comes to any kind of data collection, and even more so when it comes to such a sensitive issue,” Ms. Lyth said. She added that the Chinese government appeared to be taking the issue more seriously in recent years.
“Due to the one-child policy being a root cause to marriage trafficking, it used to be extremely sensitive to discuss this,” Ms. Lyth said. “However, recently the government has started to acknowledge that it exists, and the importance of finding ways to counter it.”
A British government report found in 2011 that 60 percent of women who had been brought to China by traffickers from 2005 to 2009 had escaped. The Chinese police rescued 25 percent of those women, the study said, and the rest were released after their families paid money to the traffickers.
In October, a Chinese court sentenced five people to prison terms ranging from six to 12 years for trafficking Vietnamese with the intent of arranging their marriage.
In an interview with China Daily, Wang Ying, an anti-trafficking official at the Ministry of Public Security, said that many Chinese websites and agencies that introduce Chinese men to foreign brides were involved in trafficking.
In many ways, fighting such trafficking is difficult. The border between China and Vietnam stretches about 750 miles. Thousands of day laborers and traders cross it every day, either through one of the official crossing points or by way of dozens of semilegal and unofficial forested pathways.
A search of Chinese websites turns up numerous services that promise to introduce potential suitors to Vietnamese women, and many of them feature photographs of purportedly happy couples. One website,, offers to handle paperwork, including visas for travel to Vietnam, Cambodia or Indonesia to find a wife, for the equivalent of about $8,800.
But there are terms and conditions, the website says: The fee cannot be returned, no matter what happens after the marriage.