AUGUSTA — Survivors of human trafficking rallied Thursday in Augusta to increase public awareness about forced laborers or sexual exploitation in Maine and to advocate for a bill allowing trafficking victims to have criminal convictions vacated.

Stephanie Bratnick, with the Anti-Trafficking Services program at Portland’s Preble Street, urges attendees at Thursday’s conference to become more aware of worker exploitation.

Gov. Janet Mills, a former prosecutor and Maine attorney general, was among those who spoke about the ongoing need to change public perception of what were once often regarded as “victimless crimes.” Mills pledged that her administration will continue working with police, health care professionals and others to better identify and help trafficking victims while prosecuting ringleaders.

“We still have challenges, but through the honesty, courage and articulate voice of people like Dee Clarke and others who’ve survived a life of trafficking, and of those who have spoken up and continue to speak up, we no longer languish in ignorance and acquiescence,” Mills told several dozen people gathered at the State House.

Clarke, an organizer of the event and the executive director of Survivor Speak USA, was trafficked as a child.

“Under my administration, every branch of the government, every member of Maine law enforcement, will have a policy of no-tolerance for human trafficking from this point forward,” Mills said. “Not here. Not now. Not ever again.”

A 2017 report from the Maine Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said that “human trafficking is a growing problem in Maine.” Calls from Maine to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline have fluctuated over the past six years, from a low of 40 calls and seven trafficking cases in 2012 to 83 calls and 10 cases one year later.

For the first half of 2018, the hotline – run by a nonprofit that connects callers with access to resources and services – reported 23 calls and seven reported cases in Maine. Six of the seven cases involved sex trafficking, although national data suggest that non-sexual forced labor is even more common but often goes unnoticed or unreported.

THE BURDEN OF CRIMINAL RECORDS

Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, addresses the Survivor Speak USA event Thursday. She is sponsoring a bill that would shield minors who are trafficked from prostitution prosecution.

In addition to sex trafficking, the report said trafficking also occurs in Maine in the construction, manufacturing, agriculture and logging industries, affecting both U.S. citizens and immigrants.

A separate report by the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault estimated that 200 to 300 people are victims of human trafficking annually in the state, but more than 80 percent of those people do not report the crimes against them.

Clarke and other speakers used the event to urge lawmakers to pass a bill that aims to help sex trafficking victims rebuild their lives.

The bill, which is still being drafted, would allow individuals to request that a court vacate – or expunge from their record – convictions for crimes committed while they were victims of trafficking. Those would include convictions for prostitution, trespassing, drug possession and other offenses that bill advocates say victims are often forced to commit while under the control of traffickers.

Clarke, who was trafficked as a child after growing up in an abusive home, said a so-called “vacatur” law is needed because many victims are unable to get jobs, qualify for housing or even volunteer in their children’s’ schools because of their criminal record.

“When you think of the individual survivors and how it affects their lives, that is really what we are talking about: to be able to move forward with their lives,” Clarke said. “It matters if you have a criminal record. And it matters even how you feel about yourself if on one hand some will say you were victimized, but the world still says you’re a criminal.”

The vacatur bill is sponsored by Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, D-South Portland, and Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland.

The 2017 report from the Maine advisory committee said Maine should join the 14 other states with some form of vacatur laws.

“To effectively combat human trafficking, Maine should recognize that those who are trafficked are victims, not criminals,” the report states.

EFFORTS TO STOP TRAFFICKING

The Maine Legislature has passed several laws in the past decade in an attempt to combat trafficking.

For instance, in 2013, lawmakers established standalone crimes for “sex trafficking” and “aggravated sex trafficking.” A subsequent bill provides trafficking victims with an affirmative defense when charged with prostitution.

In her remarks, Mills noted that the Maine Criminal Justice Academy now instructs law enforcement officers on how to identify potential victims. And the Attorney General’s Office was involved in the creation of the state’s first emergency shelter for trafficking victims.

But the 2017 report notes that Maine lacks a specific law for labor trafficking.

Stephanie Bratnick with the Anti-Trafficking Services program at the Portland-based nonprofit Preble Street, said her organization hears from survivors across the state “that they were threatened, abused, humiliated, tortured and made to feel powerless.”

“They were stripped of their essential right to govern their own life, causing devastating repercussions for the individual and for the public whose worldview is shattered when it learns this is happening in communities and to people you know in Maine,” Bratnick said. “On this day of awareness, we implore each of you to think about all of the venues where worker exploitation can happen and raise the alarm bells.”

Lawmakers will also consider a bill by Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, that would shield from prosecution for prostitution the minors who are trafficking victims.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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