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Community Legal Aid looks to help immigrant victims

Legal News Reporter

Published: April 15, 2016

Nearly 200 victim advocates and legal professionals turned out last month at Youngstown State University to hear experts discuss the growing issues of sexual violence and human trafficking in Ohio. Community Legal Aid (CLA) hosted the “Helping Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking Victims: Holding their Abusers Accountable” event.

CLA associate director Steven McGarrity said the hope is to draw greater awareness to the prevention and prosecution of sex crimes, especially among immigrant populations.

“We had a lot of staff that weren’t necessarily familiar with particularities of the law,” said McGarity. “This is the largest training we’ve ever done. This will change the way we use the law.”

Keynote speaker Leslye Orloff, the director of the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, echoed McGarity’s sentiment.

“Being involved in drafting the laws, what makes the laws effective in helping victims is by holding these trainings so that judges, lawyers, and other people know them and can use them,” said Orloff.

Orloff has spent her legal career advocating for the protection and prevention of abused immigrants. Spouses can exert power and control over victims, Orloff said, by refusing to file immigration papers, threatening to have the victim deported or calling the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to turn in the victim. She cited abuse rates among immigrant women as high as 49.8 percent––almost three times the national average.

Because many victims do not speak English and because police often rely on spouses to translate, Orloff said perpetrators often control and manipulate the way victims communicate with authorities.

Orloff described four kinds of protection for victims, which they may qualify for depending on the status of their spouse, whether or not they have been trafficked and whether they are children suffering parental abuse. Orloff said that an immigrant may qualify for multiple types of protection, so, as a best practice, practitioners should screen victims to discover every possible opportunity.

She said that after such a screening, a practitioner should then file a skeletal immigration case so that the DHS will not respond to the wishes of a perpetrator, adding that once a victim is in the DHS’s computer system, the victim should then obtain a protection order with practitioner help.

Brent Currence of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Missing Persons Unit spoke about sex trafficking and underage prostitution. Currence said abused children, runaways and those with low self-esteem are especially vulnerable. Traffickers lure children, not with money, but with the temptation of a relationship, he said, explaining that once the trafficker has the trust of a victim, he can then use isolation, violence and drugs to enforce control.

Currence said that victims often show signs of emotional distress and fearful behavior, physical abuse, evidence of drug addiction, age-inappropriate knowledge of sexual situations and are often absent from school.

He said that after a child has been identified and separated from the trafficker, a victim has ongoing needs, both immediate and in securing a better future. A recovering victim needs not only food and shelter, but schooling and job training.

Bertina King, a detective in the Akron Police Department’s Crimes Against the Person Unit, detailed how to conduct sexual assault investigations in a victim-centered way.

She said police officers should focus on what the suspect did, not how the victim behaved, and should try to build trust with the victim.

“If people feel they have no one to call, they won’t call,” said King.

King also said that officers should be aware of their own biases regarding the credibility of victims, particularly since victims are often chosen because they are vulnerable and lacking in credibility. She said that officers should not form a hypothesis and try to prove it, but rather allow the detailed facts of the case—recorded in unsanitized, objective terms— to lead them to the truth.

King said a trauma victim’s experience shapes the way they remember events and respond to questions, so officers should try to use open-ended questions with the expectation that multiple inquiries will be required to obtain the best information.

King also emphasized the need for Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs), groups with membership from across agencies and disciplines that meet to resolve problems and coordinate efforts. By including law enforcement, victims’ advocates, health care and prosecution in the same body, the needs of victims can be met while building a strong and coherent case, she said.

Angela Walls-Alexander of the Stark County Prosecutor’s Office also discussed best practices for prosecuting sex crimes. She explained the importance of collecting detailed photographic evidence of injuries in preparing a strong file of the case.

By building a strong case, particularly in situations where strangulation has occurred, prosecutors can charge a defendant with more serious crimes, said Walls-Alexander.

“In cases of multiple strangulations, they often get worse and worse. Eventually it doesn’t take much more for it to become a killing,” said Walls-Alexander.