On Thursday, August 15, CAASE Policy Director Lynne Johnson, survivor leader and co-founder of the Dreamcatcher Foundation Brenda Myers-Powell, and survivor Dr. Joel Filmore presented on the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act (JVST). The presentation was hosted at the 4th Annual Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force Conference held at Loyola University.
Brenda and Joel each gave their compelling personal accounts of being trafficked at the hands of pimps and going through the criminal justice system. Both explained how difficult life was after escaping the sex trade.
“Because I had prostitution on my record, it was hard for me to find work,” explains Brenda.
Joel, whose experience greatly mirrored Brenda’s, shared how he had struggled to find work despite obtaining his Master’s and Ph.D.
“There were still doors closed to me because of my background,” said Joel.
According to Brenda and Joel, because survivors of human trafficking and prostitution have steep criminal charges such as felonies and misdemeanors, they often struggle to be hired for any job and are likened to murderers and sex offenders.
“Survivors have suffered abuse, violence, and substance abuse. Many have been marginalized and have extensive criminal records,” explained Lynne.
This exacerbates survivors’ struggles to move forward and build better lives.
“Survivors shouldn’t have to pay for the rest of their lives,” said Brenda. “They shouldn’t have to opt out of an education, getting a job, or adopting a child.”
In an effort to support survivors like Brenda and Joel and to transform our community’s broken response to prostitution, CAASE’s End Demand Illinois campaign led the lobbying effort to pass the JVST which was signed into law in 2011. The law allows people with prostitution convictions to ask a judge to vacate those convictions that resulted from “a severe form” of human trafficking, defined by either the federal or state statute.
Brenda and Joel, both of whom had their prostitution convictions vacated through CAASE’s legal services, explained how this transformed their lives forever.
“The most important impact of the JVST was that I adopted an 18 month old boy,” said Brenda. “That was the most important thing to me.”
Brenda and Joel explained how CAASE helped them every step of the way and made what would have been an extremely difficult process, a lot smoother.
“No matter what the circumstances, the work that CAASE does will permeate the rest of their clients' lives,” said Joel. “My life story has been vastly changed because of the work CAASE has done.”
Lynne explained how the next step would be to create resources that provide meaningful options for survivors. Illinois currently has only 12 beds for survivors of human trafficking. This year, End Demand Illinois worked to pass a new law that will create funding streams for specialized services for survivors of human trafficking and prostitution.
The bill was signed into law Thursday, August 21, and will go into effect in January of next year. Lynne explained the importance of providing specialized services for survivors who have suffered trauma and abuse and who need community-based alternatives like safe housing and counseling.
Brenda, who found her way to Genesis House, a women’s shelter, said how important having specialized services that catered to her experience, had the greatest impact on her life.
“I stayed at Genesis house because it was for me,” said Brenda. “I was welcomed by women, who had been through what I’ve been through, and these survivor leaders helped me.”
Joel now has a Ph.D. in Counseling Education and Supervision from Northern Illinois University and will be teaching at Winona State University in the fall. Brenda is the Executive Director of the Dreamcatcher Foundation, a survivor led non-profit dedicated to end sexual exploitation of at-risk youth.
Both survivors illustrated how community-based resources and options have the potential to rebuild lives.
CAASE attorneys offer pro bono individualized legal advice, consultation, and representation following and related to sexual assault and exploitation. We tailor our services to the needs of individuals and serve survivors of every sex, race, socio-economic status, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, and immigration status.