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

by Rikha Sharma Rani March 7, 2019

This article was originally published in Montgomery 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.

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.’”

Sampedro-Iglesias asked that any juvenile case in which human trafficking was suspected be referred to her, informally at first. Then, 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.

Working with Ruiz and clinicians with expertise in child sex trafficking, Sampedro-Iglesias organized a training so that juvenile court judges would know what to look for. Even with safe harbor laws in place, survivors are hard to identify. Human trafficking is often linked to other illegal activities, like drug trafficking, pornography, peddling or gang activity, and it can be hard to recognize when survivors are being coerced into committing crimes — especially because survivors themselves don’t always identify as victims.

Minors who are trafficked are often manipulated into thinking that they’re romantically involved with their trafficker and that they’re selling themselves for the good of the relationship. “Despite our efforts, they many times come in and say ‘I’m not a human trafficking victim,’” said Sampedro-Iglesias.

That trauma bonding, along with other red flags, was included in the training organized by Sampedro-Iglesias, which she eventually turned into a “benchbook” for judges to help them recognize and support minor survivors of human trafficking.

It wasn’t long before the referrals starting flowing in. Now, no matter what other matters are being litigated — divorce, parental rights, delinquency, foster care, adoption — if human trafficking is a factor, the case is referred to GRACE court.

A different kind of courtroom

GRACE court is a trauma-informed courtroom, which means that it acknowledges the impact of trauma on court participants and takes steps to ensure the judicial process doesn’t aggravate that trauma. But it looks like your run-of-the-mill court.

Sampedro-Iglesias presides from the bench. A court clerk sits to her right. In the room are representatives from the department of children and families, lawyers for the participants, and family members who sit in a visitors’ gallery at the back. The child may or may not attend, depending on what kind of hearing it is. If a parent is voluntarily giving up their parental rights, for example, the court might decide it’s in the best interest of the child not to attend.

But unlike in most regular courtrooms, GRACE court proceedings generally aren’t adversarial, with the prosecution arguing one side and the defense arguing another. That’s because the court’s mission isn’t to mete out punishment. It’s to help children overcome trauma. Everyone in the courtroom, from the lawyers to the bailiff, receives human trafficking training.

Sampedro-Iglesias connects children to specialized services aimed at addressing the root causes of trafficking, which are often related to sexual abuse and other kinds of complex trauma. Children may be referred for mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, medical care, mentoring, educational support and more. Therapists accompany children to court and, in contrast to most juvenile courts, it’s the same one each time.

“I think GRACE Court more than anything is a support system for the children,” said Marta Torres, a clinical social worker with Citrus Health Network who helped launch GRACE Court and regularly attends hearings. “Every time they come to court, they see exactly the same faces. We’re not judging them.”

Part of that support is working with survivors to help them overcome barriers. In one hearing, for example, a young trafficking survivor shared that she was having difficulty commuting to school, a problem that can be compounded by the fact that many survivors, who are used to working late at night and sleeping during the day, have a hard time readjusting to regular hours. So, Sampedro-Iglesias agreed to let the girl take her high school courses online.

An all-hands-on-deck approach

GRACE Court, along with similar trauma-informed courts in New York, Ohio and California, is leading a shift toward a more holistic, victim-centered approach to human trafficking in the courts. But while courts are crucial, they’re part of a larger system of support that has to be in place for the model to be effective. Sampedro-Iglesias works closely with social workers, clinicians, case managers, the state attorney and law enforcement.

“I’m only involved in the things that you see in court,” said Sampedro-Iglesias. “There’s a lot of work behind the scenes.”

One challenge, for example, was shifting perceptions within law enforcement. “From their perspective, ‘You’re wasting my time. The child is just going to run again. The child is choosing to do this,’” said Ruiz. “So just helping them understand what the trauma bond looks like that takes them back to that.”

More and more police departments are receiving specialized training to identify situations of human trafficking, but that can require a huge cultural shift. “I pick up the victim, I put away the bad guy and that’s it,” Ruiz said, describing the mindset common among some law enforcement officials.

Slowly, that’s starting to change. “I think that because we worked so closely as a community, we’ve made a lot of progress in educating each other,” Ruiz said.

The results of stronger collaboration show up in unexpected ways. “Soon we’re going to have a child that we’re celebrating in GRACE court,” said Torres. “She’s turning 18 and her life has been just horrendous and she’s doing so good. One of the detectives who has worked with this kid was in one of the meetings, and we mentioned that we’re going to be celebrating her because she was doing so well. He said, ‘Please invite me. I want to be there.’”

These celebrations help make up for days like the one years ago, when a 13-year-old girl, branded like cattle, walked into Sampedro-Iglesias’s courtroom.

“I think by the grace of God, whenever something really bad happens, now we get a silver lining, when something good happens,” she said. “At least, that’s what keeps me going.”

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