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Human trafficking

Harnessing the power of pro bono to fight against human trafficking: A panel discussion

Flavie Fuentes  Legal Manager for North America and the Caribbean for the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Flavie Fuentes  Legal Manager for North America and the Caribbean for the Thomson Reuters Foundation

There still are millions of people around the world being victimized by human trafficking — but now there may be new allies available.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Around the globe, millions of men, women, and children are tragically subjected to human trafficking, sex trafficking, and modern-day slavery and awareness raising is still necessary in some parts of the world. However, the anti- human trafficking movement is getting stronger in countries where dedicated activists, lawyers, law enforcement officers, government officials, nonprofits and survivors have partnered to fight this scourge.

At the recent Pro Bono Institute’s 2019 Annual Conference, a panel examined one potential weapon in this fight — the use of pro bono lawyers to support survivors, spearhead critical research, work in collaboration with other agencies and individuals to free the victims of these crimes, prosecute the offender and seek reparation.

I was honored to be part of the panel, titled “Pro Bono to Combat Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery”, along with Washington-based associate attorneys Betsy Hutson, of McGuireWoods, and Melissa Lim Patterson, of Jones Day. Martina Vandenberg, founder and president of The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center was the moderator of the panel, which aimed to address ways in which pro bono lawyers can support anti-human trafficking advocacy efforts.

The significance of “impact litigation”

The panel initially focused on what is called “impact litigation” with Hutson and Patterson discussing recent landmark cases concerning human trafficking in which they’ve been involved. Hutson talked about how her team at McGuireWoods won an $8 million civil judgment in May 2019 for human trafficking survivor Kendra Ross in her lawsuit against a nationwide cult and its leader.

Patterson too, discussed how she led a Jones Day team that secured a victory in the case Roe v. Howard in February 2019 when the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s judgment after a jury found the defendant civilly liable for violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The plaintiff (Sarah Roe, a pseudonym) had filed a lawsuit against the defendant (Linda Howard, a US State Department employee) for Howard’s role in her husband’s sexual abuse of Roe, who was housekeeper for the family at the time.

Both Hutson and Patterson insisted on the technical support they received from Vandenberg who has developed a thought leadership in addition to an impressive case law database.

Research-based pro bono projects

I highlighted how the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s legal pro bono program, TrustLaw, gives lawyers the opportunity to participate in research based pro bono projects that support anti-human trafficking NGOs’ advocacy efforts. I shared a recent project that we facilitated on behalf of Lumos, the UK charity founded by J.K. Rowling, to put an end to children’s institutionalization. Lumos — which partnered on the project with the Stahili Foundation and the Forget Me Not organization — contacted the Thomson Reuters Foundation because they needed lawyers to collect, review and analyze case law related to orphanage trafficking, and the exploitation of children in orphanages internationally. They needed US lawyers to identify cases where an offender has been prosecuted in the US for criminal offences relating to the abuse or exploitation of children in overseas orphanages or institutions.

Children who grow up without the care of a safe and nurturing family are some of the most vulnerable in the world. Orphanages provide the conditions within which trafficking and modern slavery can continue to thrive. The phenomenon of orphanage trafficking — where children are recruited into orphanages from families — is an emerging form of child trafficking. It is driven in part by the rise in individuals seeking volunteer experiences in orphanages abroad. These particular “orphanages” are profit-making ventures and exist to attract the lucrative international flows of volunteers, donations, and other funding. This is trafficking in children disguised as “care” for orphans. Children may also be trafficked into orphanages for other forms of exploitation, such as sexual exploitation, child labor, or domestic servitude. Children are therefore exploited as per the Palermo Protocol’s definition of human trafficking.

How corporate lawyers can join forces to combat human trafficking

I was so pleased that the Pro Bono Institute made this focus on human trafficking part of its annual event because so much has happened in the US over the past several years, in terms of federal and state litigation, as outlined by the Human Trafficking Legal Center’s recent report entitled “Federal Human Trafficking Civil Litigation: 15 years of the private right of action”.

Of course, there’s still so many people who need to be represented by pro bono lawyers! And, as the panel stressed, those lawyers don’t necessarily need to have a background in human rights or criminal law; they just need to be passionate and committed attorneys with strong research and analytical skills.

Both of the attorneys on the panel (Hutson and Patterson) explained, indeed, how they personally didn’t have any prior experience in human trafficking litigation before engaging in these pro bono matters, but because they created this very strong relationship with the clients, and thought outside the box, they ultimately got an excellent result for the client.

From my perspective on the research side, I see a very similar level of devotion and passion to the work we do through the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The pro bono lawyers who work with us on anti-human trafficking projects don’t necessarily have prior experience but use the skills they were taught in law school for this kind of desk-based research.

Overall, the panel underscored how important the need is for pro bono lawyers to support survivors of human trafficking — and I think it’s vital that we keep raising awareness on that topic among the legal community and in collaboration with the social and nonprofit sectors, as well as the private sector and law enforcement agencies.

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