Wayne Law School conference on sex trafficking draws a large crowd

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By Taylor Hilton
Wayne Law School

The conference “(S)exploiting the Vulnerable: Empowering Future Legal Advocates,” held April 12 at Wayne State University Law School, attracted more than 300 attendees from a variety of disciplines.

Planned and coordinated by WSU Assistant Professor Blanche Cook and law students Taylor Hilton, Ben VanSlyke, Lydia Mikail, Rebecca Bundy, and Elisabeth Moore, the event opened with remarks by WSU Law School Dean Richard Bierschbach about the issues of sex trafficking and how future legal advocates can make a change by bringing light to this topic. 

Wayne Law alumna Angela Povilatis from the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board, and Kim Trent from the WSU Board of Governors spoke about the growing world of sex trafficking and how the legal community can work to combat this practice. 

Cook provided statistics about sex trafficking, the role of race and class, and the difficulties in investigating and adjudicating cases. Her passion behind hosting this conference stems from her previous experience as an Assistant U.S. Attorney specializing in large-scale drug and sex-trafficking prosecutions. 

“The desire for exploiting vulnerability is insatiable,” Cook told the audience. “The effort to eradicate sexual exploitation must be as ubiquitous as the desire for exploiting the vulnerable. This conference is just one step in an unyielding effort to raise consciousness, to equip our community for activism, and to encourage their advancement.

“Ultimately, we want to lend our voice to a chorus of voices dedicated to the eradication of sexual exploitation. Our goal is to listen to the most vulnerable, to hear their voices, and most importantly, to recognize their humanity.”

In the panel “Insight and Perspective from Survivors,” moderated by student Ben VanSlyke, two survivors shared their stories, discussed their interactions with the legal system, and addressed questions on how the legal process could be improved to better meet their needs. They suggested providing resources to help survivors get jobs and access to housing. Both women addressed the difficulties of receiving adequate legal representation, and spoke about their negative experiences with the legal system.

University of Toledo Professor Celia Williamson, Ph.D, executive director of the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute, spoke about the legislative implications and the role of social policy in the current and future status of sex trafficking laws.  She emphasized the importance of serving populations with the highest risks of becoming victims, such as the homeless and impoverished. 

The panel, “Meeting Needs and Overcoming Barriers: Legal Advocacy for Sex Trafficking Victims,” moderated by student Rebecca Bundy and featuring attorney Melissa Novock, Wayne County SAFE; USAO Victim-Witness Coordinator Sandy Palazzolo; Dykema attorney Heidi Naasko; and survivor April Doss, focused on the victims’ interactions with the legal system and resources available to survivors throughout the prosecution process.
Panelists discussed issues of expungements, how victims may be charged with obstruction of justice by failing to testify, how prosecutor offices work with social service agencies to provide assistance, and how some law firms provide pro-bono services to victims.

A lunch panel, moderated by Elizabeth Stafford, Magistrate Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, included Federal Public Defenders Andrew Wise and James Gerometta, and AUSAs Sara Woodward and Margaret Smith. Judge Stafford asked panelists about legal issues prosecutors and defense attorneys face when working on large-scale sex trafficking cases—including handling large quantities of evidence, getting victims and witnesses to testify, and lack of proper resources for adjudicating cases. The panelists addressed their different experiences in the federal court system and how to work to combat the issues as well as provide support for victims.

The “Investigation and Adjudication at the State Level” panel, moderated by student Elisabeth Moore, included Danielle Bastien, R.N. Henry Ford Hospital; Tracee Jackson, Southwest Detroit Community Justice Center; Allen Williams, Detroit Police Department, Vice Squad; Assistant Attorney General Kelly Carter; and Danielle Bennetts, Sexual Assault Team, Wayne County Prosecutor's Office. 

Bastien addressed the tools implemented for medical professionals to screen patients and identify victims. Panelists also discussed the complexity of picking a jury and ensuring fair results.

Panelists on  “Investigation and Adjudication at the Federal Level,” moderated by Taylor Hilton, included FBI Victim Specialist Nicole McGee; FBI Agent Nate Knapper; and Amanda Jawad, AUSA. The trio discussed the process behind investigating and adjudicating cases, the amount of time this takes, and the biggest obstacles. They also discussed how federal laws differ between minor and adult victims, and the different resources provided; and discussed how enhanced technology has made it easier to target children via the Internet.

 “A Multi- Faceted Dialogue on Sex Trafficking,” moderated by student Lydia Mikail and featuring Nicole McGee, Danielle Bennetts, David Champine, Kelly Carter, and Alice Jay, focused on how to help victims and provide support and addressed written questions from attendees.

“This is not like what you see on television,” McGee said. “There aren’t witness protection programs for victims, there just aren’t the resources.”
 

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