Human trafficking – sexual or otherwise – can create some of the most difficult cases in family law. When divorce and child custody cases involve traffickers or their victims, fear of legal consequences can make it hard for the judge to understand family dynamics and protect the victims. The latest report by the Michigan Human Trafficking Commission recognizes this struggle and encourages legislators and professionals to take an empathetic approach to help human trafficking survivors.
Human Trafficking Commission Recommends Changes to Michigan Law
In March 2013, Michigan launched a Commission on Human Trafficking to gather information and propose changes to state law that would better address the heartbreaking issue of human trafficking. Those laws went into effect in 2014 and included safe harbor for victims and stronger tools to hold traffickers accountable. However, the work of the commission didn’t end there.
In 2020, seven subcommittees met to put together their recommendations for further change. Attorney General Dana Nessel said:
“In the absence of readily available data, unfortunate myths and misconceptions surrounding human trafficking develop and persist. Those with good intentions develop practices and theories that may actually be harmful to victims or fail to accurately depict the realities of human trafficking in our state.”
The Commission put together proposals for laws, training, and a listening tour designed to protect survivors and help service providers know human trafficking when they see it.
Website, Social Media, and Human Trafficking Awareness Month Bring the Issue into the Public Eye
Based on the Committee’s recommendation, in January 2020, Governor Gretchen Whitmer proclaimed January was Human Trafficking Awareness month in Michigan. The proclamation was paired with the roll-out of a new, more user-friendly website to connect victims, advocates, and professionals with resources, as well as a social media campaign to raise awareness of the issue.
Mandatory Training for Professionals to Identify Sex and Labor Trafficking
The Training & Education and Public Awareness Subcommittees focused their effort on creating guidelines for human trafficking training that:
- Is victim-centered and trauma-informed
- Addresses both sex trafficking and labor trafficking
- Identifies warning signs of human trafficking
- Is accurate and not based on myths or misconceptions
- Presents facts over opinion
- Is appropriately specific for the audience
- Is current
- Is financially accessible
- Refers to the National Human Trafficking Hotline
- Identifies resources for survivors of human trafficking
The Committee now recommends that the state require this training for licensed health care professionals, commercial drivers, educators, educational counselors, and cosmetologists.
Listening to Victims’ Stories and Their Needs
The Victim Services subcommittee developed a “Listening Tour” to learn what survivors need to best serve them. The report says:
“The goal of the tour is to let survivor voices fully inform our conversation on what services are available, what services are needed, and how the delivery of those services can be improved.”
Committee Recommends New Laws to Protect Human Trafficking Victims
The 2020 report emphasized that the changes made to Michigan law in 2014 were not enough. It recommended a package of 30 bills addressing sex trafficking and human trafficking. If passed, these bills would:
- Mandates training for licensed professionals
- Expanded protections against prosecution for minors involved in commercial sexual activity
- Allow the victims of human trafficking to expunge any convictions committed due to trafficking (not just prostitution charges)
- Create an affirmative defense to criminal charges for human trafficking victims.
- Allow victims’ advocates to present expert testimony into victims’ behavior and propensity evidence in human trafficking cases.
- Expand prostitution immunity protections to other forms of human trafficking.
- Fundamentally change and update Michigan prostitution laws, to protect “providers” who are themselves, victims.
Proposed Bills Would Shield Victims, Giving Them Freedom to Tell Their Stories
When traffickers target the members of their own family it creates complicated legal challenges. Victims may be afraid to testify in a divorce or custody case that would remove them from the dangerous situation out of fear they will be prosecuted or retaliated against. The proposed bills could help remove that fear and allow more family law judges to hear the stories of human trafficking victims, giving them the chance to protect them from further abuse.
At Thacker Sleight, our experienced and empathetic divorce attorneys have handled tough cases involving human trafficking before. We understand the interplay of criminal charges and family law and can help victims protect themselves and their children. If you have been trafficked by a family member, contact us at 616.888.3810 to schedule a consultation.