Trafficking Victims Need More Than Legal Reform

03/25/2015 08:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2015

We've made great progress in recent years in how sex trafficking cases are adjudicated -- and sex trafficking victims treated -- in the legal system. Although women were once arrested for prostitution and sent back to their pimps without any help, we now acknowledge that these individuals are forced into sex work, often held hostage, beaten and raped by their captors. The Human Trafficking Intervention Courts in New York, starting with Queens County in 2004, have led the way by treating those arrested for prostitution as survivors of trafficking, not criminals. Instead of sending the victims to jail, women are connected with service providers for counseling and other resources to help them leave the criminal sex trade.

Our legal framework for handling sex trafficking cases continues to evolve, and is being pushed even further to ensure that women are recognized as victims and traffickers don't escape justice. Human trafficking legislation, which has passed both houses of the New York legislature, would increase criminal penalties for trafficking and require law enforcement officials to receive anti-human trafficking training. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown created a pro-bono program for immigrant trafficking victims that connects survivors with lawyers who work to vacate their criminal convictions. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance is pushing legislation to make it easier to convict child sex traffickers by making it clear that no child can choose to enter sex work of their own volition. Congress created the T-Visa to ensure that trafficking victims who cannot return to their home countries are able to stay in the US legally.

But we're missing something. While we reconfigure the legal paradigm to recognize the inherent humanity of trafficked women, we have failed to provide them with the services their humanity requires.

Incredible non-profit organizations, such as Restore, Sanctuary for Families, GEMS and the New York Asian Women's Center, provide crucial services to victims, including culturally and linguistically matched long-term trauma counseling to help victims return to a normal life after years of horrific abuse; legal assistance to guide them through immigration proceedings; educational and employment counseling, so they can return to school or get a job; and peer-led trainings to prevent girls from entering the sex trade. But these organizations are chronically underfunded and struggle to meet the demand for their services. One organization that Queens courts refer victims to for counseling and support services has even stopped accepting new referrals for thirty days because it simply cannot meet the demand.

These services also work to provide victims with adequate housing. As unbelievable as it sounds, victims often have no choice but to return to living with their trafficker because they don't have anywhere else to go. While we provide shelter for victims of other gender-based crimes, there are scarce resources for trafficking victims in New York. Although organizations in this field have attempted to provide housing on an ad hoc basis, they aren't currently able to provide the level of support these victims need.

It's great that we're reforming our legal system to protect sex trafficking victims rather than prosecuting them, and focusing our attention on the real criminals -- the traffickers themselves. But we must increase funding for organizations that support trafficking victims so we can help victims leave the commercial sex trade, and possibly even be able to place victims in housing and away from their traffickers.

18,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the US each year. Thousands of these women travel through JFK, thinking they have come for a new job and a brighter future, only to find themselves enslaved and forced to have sex with twenty men each day. They are isolated by language and cultural barriers that make it difficult for them to access help. Thousands more come from within the United States, fleeing abusive circumstances at home or chasing the dream of living in New York City -- until they get caught in a cycle of virtual enslavement. As our legal framework has changed to recognize that these women are victims, not criminals, we have an opportunity to help trafficked women. We must ensure that the organizations working every day to restore these women's lives have the resources they need to help every victim, every time.