How Lawyers Can Help Human Trafficking Victims

Federal and state laws exist to hold traffickers accountable and, perhaps more importantly, to provide victims support.

Recently Ventura County has experienced an increase in human trafficking cases, raising awareness of what is being called “modern-day slavery.” However, while there is increased awareness of the trafficker’s criminal actions, these cases haven’t clearly shown the legal needs of victims once freed. These needs span two categories:

  1. The legal challenges related to recovering from trafficked life.
  2. The opportunity to obtain civil restitution under existing state and federal law.

With new laws and increased resources, lawyers have an opportunity to help victims of human trafficking.


What is human trafficking?

The term “severe form of trafficking in persons” means:

(A) Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or

(B) Labor trafficking defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.


Legal options for human trafficking victims

Federal and state laws exist to hold traffickers accountable and, perhaps more importantly, to provide victims support. At the federal level, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) makes human trafficking a federal crime and grants trafficking victims access to benefits and services such as health benefits and immigration visas. In addition, the law provides victims a civil cause of action against any defendant who benefits from the trafficking. California law also provides victims a civil cause of action.

As financial compensation, trafficking victims are eligible for criminal restitution awards and civil damages. Victims can receive restitution for their losses and the value of their work performed, but restitution becomes controversial with sex trafficking because it compensates sex work, which is illegal. However, multiple federal courts have held that a victim cannot be denied restitution because the work is deemed illegal. Calculating the work value in labor trafficking is simpler than sex trafficking cases, yet fewer victims receive restitution.

A recent study of federal courts found far more sex trafficking cases are prosecuted while more civil labor trafficking suits get filed. Different theories try to explain why. It might be because sex trafficking victims have restitution awards, prefer not to see their traffickers at court, or know their traffickers have no accessible funds.

While restitution and damages can compensate victims and hold traffickers accountable, many trafficking victims face additional legal needs in recovering and moving on from trafficked life.       


Additional legal needs for human trafficking victims

In addition to the civil actions, recovering victims have legal problems of many kinds that serve as obstacles in moving forward, including:

  • Family law – Family law challenges, including divorce, custody, and child support issues are common, as the trafficker may be a spouse of or co-parent with the victim.
  • Criminal law – Criminal records expungement is also critical. It reduces barriers to future employment. Many victims are eligible to have their criminal records expunged, and California’s new expungement law, passed in 2016, allows expungement for crimes related to trafficking.
  • Immigration law – Immigration issues often rank as a top need for many trafficking victims. Traffickers often withhold passports or immigration documents to control their victims, and victims encounter urgent immigration issues after escaping their trafficking situation.
  • Tax law – Tax and public benefit issues can surface when victims receive settlement or restitution funds and need guidance with financial management.
  • Civil law – Victims need civil advocates to help them obtain restitution awards during the criminal case.

These common legal issues can hinder victims as they progress in leaving trafficked life and starting anew, but they can be helped.


How attorneys can help victims of human trafficking

To meet these needs, most legal work for human trafficking victims nationwide is accomplished pro bono through either nonprofit law firms, such as Free to Thrive in San Diego County, or private attorneys completing pro bono human trafficking work such as those connected with the Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington D.C.  Interested attorneys can get specific training on human trafficking legal issues, needs, and available remedies. The Human Trafficking Legal Center maintains a nationwide network of resources that can connect survivors with trained attorneys. This approach combats the transient nature of the issue as victims are often trafficked across states and long distances. Recently, more plaintiff’s firms are also getting involved to support victims.


Current action against human trafficking

Recent legal actions attempt to curb trafficking by making the act of trafficking more difficult. The 2019 Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) restricts online advertisement sites such as from advertising for commercial sex. Under the civil cause of action, pending lawsuits attack hotel and motel chains for benefitting from the trafficking within their establishments. These lawsuits show creative approaches to inhibit trafficking. Creativity plus collaboration from legal professionals can bolster local anti-trafficking activities.       

In Ventura County, the Ventura County Coalition Against Human Trafficking (VCCAHT), formed in 2015, meets monthly and unites organizations in combatting human trafficking. The coalition needs lawyers to become involved. One coalition partner, Interface Children and Family Services, provides direct services to human trafficking victims and opened the first shelter for trafficking victims in the county. The program’s director emphasizes the often-complex legal needs of human trafficking survivors served by the program. She stresses that the trauma involved creates obstacles to identifying legal needs. Bound for years by coercion, violence, and control, victims first need space, safety, and refuge allowing the heightened vigilance and stress to subside before identifying priorities – often legal priorities – and then areas an attorney can assist.   

Attorneys wanting to help have options. The VCCAHT wants to strengthen its ties with the legal community and expand its impact. To start, interested attorneys can become trained and informed. The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and  Trafficking in Los Angeles offers free online training. Attorneys interested in providing legal services may contact the Ventura County Coalition Against Human Trafficking at [email protected]and can read a report on Ventura County human trafficking activities at  


About the Author

COL Jon pic

Jonathan Gunderson attends the Ventura College of Law and graduates this December. He and his wife, Amy (also attending the Ventura Colleges of Law), plan to help address the legal needs of trafficking survivors in their future practice. Jonathan completed undergraduate studies at Colorado Christian University and has a background in emergency response and trauma services. He lives in Oxnard, CA with his wife and their two children.