Jamie Beck On Legal Services For Trafficking Survivors

By Sarah Martinson | February 21, 2021, 8:02 PM EST

Jamie Beck's life was changed after she attended a human trafficking awareness training session hosted by the Lawyers Club of San Diego, where she learned that trafficking survivors are in dire need of legal representation in civil cases.

After attending the training, Beck, who was an attorney at law firm Procopio Cory Hargreaves & Savitch LLP at the time, helped the Lawyers Club launch what is now known as the Human Trafficking Collaborative.

Jamie Beck left private practice to launch several efforts aimed at helping human trafficking survivors, including founding legal nonprofit Free to Thrive.

Through the collaborative, Beck found that California's criminal record relief law for trafficking survivors was too limited and pushed the state to pass a vacatur law that would allow survivors to have criminal convictions related to their trafficking completely cleared from their records.

California passed a vacatur law for trafficking survivors in 2016, but the state didn't have attorneys with expertise in criminal vacatur for those survivors. This led Beck to leave Procopio and found Free to Thrive, an organization that provides legal and support services to human trafficking survivors and training to attorneys who want to represent survivors.

"When this law went into effect, it was like a whole new world because we had this incredible law that would help survivors and no attorneys in California who knew how to do it, or who were kind of doing this work," Beck said.

Beck spoke with Law360 about Free to Thrive's services and how they give trafficking survivors access to justice.

Why is your organization beneficial to human trafficking survivors?

The three parts of our model are: One, that we're mobile. Two, that we're holistic. And three, that we're trauma-informed. So the mobile piece, pre-COVID, our program was designed in a very unique way that's not traditional for legal service providers, which is that we did not have a central office. We went to our clients. So we partnered with every safe house, every human trafficking program in San Diego, where we would go on-site and provide services there, as opposed to saying, "We're in downtown San Diego, you have to come to us." We also, as part of our mobile legal clinic, operated a clinic at our women's detention facility in San Diego. By doing that, we met our clients where they are physically, where they feel safe and comfortable, and broke down a huge barrier to access to legal services, which is simply just being able to get there.

The holistic part is that we serve all of a client's legal needs in one place. The main areas of our services are criminal record vacatur, criminal court advocacy — representing clients in open court cases — family law and specialized legal services, which is a catchall for anything that doesn't fit into those other buckets. We have estate planning, bankruptcy, a lot of personal injury and employment issues.

The other piece of the holistic part is that we do a full needs assessment to identify their nonlegal needs, and then we work with partner organizations to address those needs. So we assess every client at the outset for basic needs — food, shelter, clothing, personal safety — and then, if those needs are met, we look at employment, financial independence and education. We have 60 formal partners and over a hundred organizations that we connect clients to depending on the need.

For trauma-informed care, the reality is that most lawyers work with trauma victims and almost no lawyers have any training in trauma. When I started doing this work, I had very minimal trauma training. And most of what I know is what I learned, either through doing the work or from really seeking out training. Most of the training I've had is for social service providers because there aren't a whole lot of lawyer-specific training.

There's a lot of really well-intended people that could do a lot more harm than good if they're not trauma-trained. Criminal vacatur is extremely retraumatizing. We're asking survivors to tell us their entire life history and the most traumatic things that have ever happened to them in order to clear their record. And so there's a lot of skills that lawyers need to know to do this work competently. I've worked with mostly clinical psychologists to develop training specifically for lawyers on trauma and trauma-informed practices.

Do you only serve clients in San Diego?

Our initial focus was clients with some nexus to San Diego. So either they had to be located in San Diego or have a legal issue in San Diego. And what that meant is we already were serving a national client population because we had people from other parts of the country who had a legal issue in San Diego who lived somewhere else and clients in San Diego who have a legal issue somewhere else. That's been our first four years.

This year, we're expanding our services to include all of Southern California. It's a slow expansion. It won't happen like right now, but we're starting with Los Angeles, and then we already have some cases in Riverside and Orange County. But basically, the idea is that human trafficking does not stop at the border of San Diego County, and so many of our clients' legal issues spread across the entire region.

We don't have an income threshold. Your citizenship status doesn't matter. We serve minors and adults in sex and labor trafficking.

Do you do any training for attorneys on how to handle human trafficking cases?

We do a ton of training. Pre-COVID, we did training in-person and I was doing them in San Diego and, nationally, I did them in Portland, Oregon; Tucson, Arizona; New Orleans, Louisiana; Sacramento; Los Angeles; and South Carolina. It was training lawyers and nonlawyers on working with survivors and being trauma-informed.

Since COVID in April last year, we launched a virtual training program and have now done, I think, 12 training sessions. We've been training lawyers and community members around the country on everything from trauma-informed family law representation, social security benefits, expungements and vacatur — all the different aspects of the work that we do and a lot on being trauma-informed.

How do your services achieve justice for trafficking survivors?

Our clients have had really negative experiences in the criminal justice system. Very often they encounter law enforcement who do not see them as a victim of crime and instead arrest them for crimes that are very much tied to their trafficking. In some cases, our clients are not at a point where they even understand that they're a victim of crime. So it's not always on law enforcement. Sometimes it's that they've been so manipulated and brainwashed that they don't realize that they're a victim of crime. But other clients very much identify and understand their victimization and yet were criminalized.

The thing about trauma is that somebody who's experienced trauma is going to react differently in situations than somebody who has not. Our clients' default safety response when they're threatened is to fight, which means that they're going to respond violently in a situation where they're threatened. So we have a number of clients who were in a situation where they were threatened, they responded violently and they were arrested. These are situations where law enforcement does not understand trauma and does not understand how a trauma victim will react in that situation.

So our job is to help our clients navigate the system and help them understand what's going on in their cases, because we have amazing public defenders who work extremely hard, but they don't always have the time to really explain the process of what's happening, why it's happening to their clients. And so our clients will be very confused about what's going on in their legal cases, and our job is to kind of help bridge that knowledge gap and help them feel supported.

We work really closely with their public defenders to help them help their clients, help them understand their clients' trauma and help them understand what their charges have to do with their trafficking. If somebody is arrested for a violent crime that is because they reacted in that moment as a trauma victim would, we have to help them understand that oftentimes if somebody gets arrested, they're not going to tell their public defender, "Well, I'm a human trafficking survivor, and I was really triggered by this person. This is why I respond that way." They don't know how to articulate that. So we just help them navigate the criminal justice system in a way that's more trauma-informed and more victim-centered.

What do you hope that your organization achieves?

The vision of the organization is that all survivors of human trafficking have access to free lawyers.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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