Awaiting Change

New Hamilton County court docket looks to help individuals escape the lingering barriers of sex trafficking

When Caroline came out as transgender during high school, her mother asked that she leave her house and neighborhood in Northern Kentucky. That rejection started a long, harrowing journey through sex trafficking and addiction.

Caroline (whose name CityBeat agreed to change for safety reasons) escaped that world, gaining education and self-reliance in the years since. Now in her fifties, she may soon get the chance to take another big step toward putting the past behind her thanks to a new Hamilton County specialty court. The CHANGE Court, presided over by Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Heather Russell, will give those like Caroline a chance to expunge convictions for acts done under the duress of sex trafficking. 

Just as importantly, the court’s focus will be providing a road out of the world of coerced sex work for those who have yet to escape.

“I’m ready for it,” Caroline says of her potential expungement. “It’s easy to just work as a temporary worker here and there, because they don’t check your record. But I wanted to work with seniors and kids, and I have all these credentials now. This has been stopping me from being more productive in the community.”

The court is part of a wider shift in attitudes away from viewing sex trafficked individuals as criminals. Social service and law enforcement agencies are increasingly seeing them as victims in need of help.

Russell says the court started taking shape more than a year ago when two Cincinnati Police officers sat in her office and gave what she calls “the hard sell.”

“They didn’t have to push me very hard to do it. I was aware even a year ago that we have a big heroin problem that has gotten the better of us,” Russell says, noting that something like 90 percent of the sex workers coming through the courts were addicted. “As a judge, I see it in my courtroom every day. I was very frustrated that there was nothing I could offer them and that people are dying.”

The CHANGE Court is patterned after a groundbreaking 1995 Hamilton County felony drug specialty court, the first of its kind in the state when it was created. It also takes a page from a specialty court in Franklin County started in 2012 that focuses on victims of sex trafficking.

Russell says the main goal of the court is to restore a sense of dignity and self-worth to individuals who have been told they don’t have any. Currently, six women are actively participating in the court. They meet weekly with Russell, who law enforcement officers and lawyers have called a kind of fiercely protective, almost motherly figure for the women. They also undergo various treatment programs, including time at the Center for Chemical Addiction Treatment in the West End.

Early on, it seems to be working.

“They look brighter,” Russell says of those in the program. “They’re happier. As they become less focused on using drugs and more focused on every other aspect of themselves, oh my gosh, they start looking so much better.”

Others involved agree. For Cincinnati Police Officer Lisa Johnson, extending the opportunity for sex trafficking victims to be in the CHANGE Court is personal. She has worked with many individuals caught up in sex trafficking during her time with the department’s Quality of Life Enhancement Team in District Five, which encompasses the stretch of West McMicken Avenue where many individuals are trafficked.

The CHANGE Court is a way to show trafficked individuals that the system cares about them, Johnson says, and they’re important. She says it’s a difficult process but that she’s already seen some improvements among those involved in the program.

Their situation as sex trade victims is similar to the one Caroline found herself in well before specialty courts were a concept. Though she’s since escaped, the court may still be able to help her move forward without the legal scars of her past.

Caroline has the chance at a new job with the city she is very excited about. But because she has convictions for solicitation and prostitution on her record, she’s barred from working with children and the elderly, a key tenet of the job waiting for her. If she can prove to Judge Russell she was trafficked when she was on the streets, her record can be expunged thanks to the new court and a 2012 law passed by the Ohio Legislature.

Having a clear record would mark a milestone on a long, difficult road, Caroline says.

After being kicked out of her family’s house at 18, she moved to Cincinnati. She soon became involved with a man who convinced her he loved her. His brother was also involved with a transgender woman, and soon Caroline moved in with the three of them. She didn’t realize at the time that the two men were prostituting the woman.

“At first, he was taking care of me, and then he started me on the corners,” Caroline says. “It’s always, ‘If you love me, you’ll do this for me,’ or, ‘This will get us ahead,’ or, ‘You’re my number one,’ anything to make you feel more special. You think you’re being loved by someone, and next thing you know you’re in a different lifestyle right before your eyes. It’s like they transform themselves into a demon.”

The men offered Caroline food, shelter and anything else she needed. They also supplied her with drugs, and she was soon hooked on rock cocaine.

“You don’t see yourself slipping away because it’s so gradual,” she says.

After a couple years, Caroline was able to escape for a time, traveling the country performing as a female impersonator. But about a decade later she fell into the orbit of another man who gradually coerced her into sex work again.

“Traffickers are very good at identifying past traumas and vulnerabilities,” says Caroline’s attorney, Sasha Appatova, who works with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center representing sex trafficking victims. “That’s a source of control. The more you’ve had trauma and abuse in your past, the more likely that is to be a point of control and future victimization for traffickers.”

Caroline’s transgender status was part of that vulnerability. Her pimps worked a whole group of transgender women, playing on their insecurities and search for acceptance. She describes how traffickers would brand them — burning them with cigarettes or hot clothes hangers. Caroline suffered beatings and also mental and emotional abuse. Then there was the danger from the johns.

“I’ve known people to come up missing,” Caroline says. “The guy doesn’t seem to realize he’s being solicited by a transgender person. When I was out there, that’s what the problem was. If they found out they’d picked up a guy, they want to beat them up.”

Two murders of transgender women in the past few years illustrate the dangers Caroline once faced. Twenty-eight-year-old Tiffany Edwards was killed in Walnut Hills in June 2014, and Kendall Hampton died there at age 26 in August 2012. Police suspect both were engaged in sex work at the time they died. Both, like Caroline, were women of color.

Court records show Caroline was arrested 15 times for solicitation and other acts related to being trafficked. Appatova says pimps often use their victims to shield themselves from legal trouble and that having a record can be a factor in victims staying in sex work.

Caroline says her pimp was never caught and that most don’t even suspect his crimes.

“He was a well-rounded community person,” she says, “and he was the ring leader of all this madness.”

Caroline eventually completed a program at the Center for Chemical Addiction Treatment to escape her drug addiction and left the streets more than a decade ago. She has had jobs with the Freestore Foodbank and other social service agencies. She’s also been in school and is currently just a couple classes away from completing a social work degree at Cincinnati State. She already holds certificates in human services and addiction studies from the school. Those things alone, however, won’t allow Caroline to take the job she’s been offered.

“The spirit of it is to say they were a victim,” Judge Russell says of those seeking expungements through the specialty court. “To have a criminal history does not reflect accurately their true history. You’re correcting the record, which certainly I would hope would help them moving forward.” ©

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