How a Miami Judge Pioneered a New Way of Handling Minor Human Trafficking Cases

This article was originally published by Montgomery Advertiser, in partnership with The Fuller Project, on March 7th, 2019, by Fuller Project Correspondent Rikha Sharma Rani.

A human trafficking victim is shown near her home in Alabama on Wednesday February 6, 2019. (Photo: Mickey Welsh / Advertiser)

The turning point came the day a 13-year-old girl appeared in Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesias’s Miami courtroom.

The child wouldn’t make eye contact, so the judge asked her to approach the bench. That’s when she saw the girl’s eyelids.

The word ‘Suave’ had been tattooed on one eyelid. On the other, the word ‘House.’  Suave was the name of the local man who was trafficking the girl for sex.

“It was a rude awakening,” Sampedro-Iglesias said of that day in 2013. Not long before that encounter, she had attended a conference for judges about human trafficking. “In theory, we had heard about all these things. But I didn’t think that it really was as prevalent as it seemed to be, as it turned out to be. That child is the epitome of a broken child.”

Sampedro-Iglesias went on to establish GRACE Court, one of the first trauma-informed courts for juvenile survivors of human trafficking in the country — and a potential model for Alabama.

Though there are no accurate estimates for how many victims there are, human trafficking is thought to be one of the fastest-growing crimes in the United States. In Alabama, more than 200 cases of sex or labor trafficking have been reported to the national human trafficking hotline since 2015, most of them women and girls. Local experts believe the actual number is much higher because many cases aren’t reported. In Florida, a frequent tourist destination, the problem is even worse. Since 2015, there have been close to 2,000 reports of human trafficking from the state.

In July 2016, the 11th judicial circuit of Florida formally announced the creation of GRACE court, which stands for Growth Renewed through Acceptance, Change and Empowerment. (Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Like in Alabama, momentum toward tackling the problem in Florida has grown. In 2012, the state passed its safe harbor law. Instead of facing prostitution charges as they had in the past, now minor trafficking survivors are referred for support services. Alabama passed a similar law in 2016. But Miami-Dade County has gone much further by creating a specialized, trauma-informed court focused on human trafficking.

In 2014, the county was awarded a five-year grant by the Department of Homeland Security to tackle human trafficking within the child welfare population, a group that’s particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

“We did find a lot of children were at very high risk,” said Yinay Ruiz, who manages the grant on behalf of the child welfare agency Our Kids. “We met with Judge Sampedro because we knew of her interest in human trafficking. We let her know that, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing. We’re identifying a lot of children that you’re not aware of.’ And immediately, she said, ‘I want those cases.’”

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