Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Human Trafficking Victims Survive Many Demons En Route to Courts, Recovery

There are many paths for those who end up in a human trafficking court. The exploitation of people – be they forced into labor or the commercial sex industry – often stems from the roots of dysfunction in a person’s life.

“My mom was an addict and my dad has been in prison all of my life,” said Cheyenne, a survivor and participant in Changing Actions that Change Habits (CATCH Court) – a human trafficking specialized docket at Franklin County Municipal Court.

CATCH Court – and Ohio’s three other human trafficking courts in Cuyahoga County Municipal Court, Hamilton County Municipal Court, and Summit County Juvenile Court – are structured specifically to help such survivors open up about their past and the pain that led them into a vicious cycle of being abused and manipulated. In some cases, like Cheyenne’s, it was something witnessed as part of their upbringing. In other instances, the damage came from what they’ve been told.

“It's really hard when you have a mentality of always thinking that you’re never good enough or you're always feeling like nothing you do is ever going to amount to anything,” said Erica, another survivor and CATCH Court participant.

CATCH Court is a two-year program broken up into four phases aimed at clearing a participant’s record and helping them maintain a clean lifestyle – safety and grounding, heal and recover, reconnect, sustain and thrive.

On top of the psychological anguish these women endure is the very real concern about physical harm. Haidy Tawadros, a Franklin County prosecutor, recalled the first time she handled a prostitution case in court, and saw the dangers human trafficking victims experience on a daily basis.

“What I didn’t realize was that her trafficker was right there in the audience, and she came out of jail freaked out. She said, ‘If you let me out of jail, I’m going to die,’” Tawadros said.

As a way to cope with their pain and fear, many victims experiment with drugs before they ultimately become dependent on them as an escape.

“It may be a choice when you first pick up [and] you think it’s all fun, but afterwards it’s no longer a choice,” said Cheyenne.

By the time survivors end up in a human trafficking court – typically following multiple appearances within the judicial system – the trust issues are evident, even though the court is filled with staff and a support system to help and rehabilitate victims.

“Everyone was very open-armed and welcoming, but, you know, I’m used to being on the street,” said Cheyenne. “So, I wasn’t used to that. I kind of thought it was a bunch of crap at first.”

Once the avenues of communication and trust are opened, the healing process takes place over years, if not a lifetime. That’s because the psychological wounds take much longer to recover from than the physical ones.

“If you try to communicate with them, they will shut down if their trauma starts to kick in, and when they’re stressed out, you can’t talk to them. They can’t hear anything,” said CATCH Court Judge Paul Herbert.

Fortunately, with patience and persistence from support staff and survivors, things improve. In many cases, it simply requires a vision – whether it’s figurative or literal.

Behind Judge Herbert’s bench is a painting of a girl with her wrists bound by rope, yet still exhibiting hope with her hands open. Near her hands is a butterfly – a symbol of change – and the sun illuminating an open landscape.

“Even though her hands are tied and you can see she's in a prison, there’s a pathway out, and she’s got a dream, and that’s being set free,” said Judge Herbert.

That liberation from darkness creates a bond for these women – not only among each other and with court personnel, but also with loved ones. The recovery from abuse and addiction reconnects them with family members after a separation under dark circumstances or children taken away from them by court order.

“The multi-generational healing is something very special. I didn’t expect that,” said Judge Herbert. “When you have mothers and daughters get back together, and then the daughters get their kids back, and to see that kind of healing, is worth everything.”