Boston University School of Law


BU Law's Human Trafficking Clinic

The second largest and fastest growing black market in the world, human trafficking victimizes approximately 27 million people—women, men, girls and boys—annually. And the $32 billion industry isn’t confined to foreign nations: The last few years have revealed the scale of the problem within Massachusetts’ borders.

As legislative attention turns to addressing the complex issues on a policy level, the substantial need for legal and support services for victims has become apparent. Boston University School of Law’s new Human Trafficking Clinic, just the second such program in the country, offers second- and third-year students the opportunity to provide legal representation for survivors of sex and labor trafficking, as well as the chance to study, critique and even shape political frameworks for amelioration.

“We provide legal representation and also work on issues related to advocacy and law reform,” says Julie Dahlstrom, director of the BU Law clinic and managing attorney at Lutheran Social Services (LSS), a leading organization in the local fight against trafficking.

Dahlstrom’s passion for assisting trafficking survivors stems from an experience early in her legal career when, working as an immigration attorney, her organization’s English ESOL program referred a woman who was overtly malnourished and had no access to her documents. After their initial meeting, it was clear human trafficking was at play.

“We didn't see these cases very often,” Dahlstrom says. “The thought was that, one, human trafficking wasn't an issue, and two, if it was, there were resources, plenty of legal resources out there to help people.” But as she worked to help the woman start a new life, Dahlstrom recognized a sobering void of available services and protections for human trafficking victims.

“It was from that first case, understanding the lack of services available, that we established the Human Trafficking Legal Assistance Center at LSS in 2008, and then recently established the BU Law clinic to broaden the legal services available to this population,” says Dahlstrom.

The problem hits home with several of the clinic students, like Michelle McGrath (’13), who elected to take the clinic because of her firsthand experience with potential victims: “I was a public school teacher for six years, and I worked in largely immigrant communities, so I see domestic human trafficking as something that really any of my students could have been involved in.”

Following in Attorney General Coakley's footsteps

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Clinic students visit the Attorney General's Office

In bringing the clinic to fruition, LSS received indispensable support from BU Law alumna and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (’79), who was simultaneously working to overhaul the state’s mentality about human trafficking—namely, that it existed.

“We just didn’t see it,” explained Coakley to clinic students in an October class. As the attorney general’s eyes were opened to the severity of the problem and how the state lagged in effectively addressing it, she vigorously began work toward reform.

Coakley became chair of the newly established Massachusetts Anti-Trafficking Task Force, which led the Commonwealth to pass a new human trafficking statute, effective February 2012. Supplementing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000—which allows for a special visa (called a T-visa) for victims, but has cumbersome and complex requirements—the new legislation explicitly outlines clear criminal penalties for traffickers and provides new legal protections, including a safe harbor provision, for survivors. “We do not charge those who have been victimized,” Coakley told students.

“What’s exciting about the clinic is that it’s happening at the same time that new legislation is being passed in Massachusetts, so you get to see the law in action, and you get to be a part of that process,” says clinic student Nam-Giao Do (’14).

Also appealing to law students is the sheer complexity and intellectual challenge of each case.

“I find that a lot of the women that we deal with … have been prosecuted for prostitution, which is what they’ve been trafficked for, so there’s sort of an interesting conflict of the law,” says McGrath. “It’s not always clear that one person is the victim, one person is the persecutor, and one person is the perpetrator. So one thing that we learned in the clinic is that you have to look at things through a lot of different lenses.”

Dahlstrom, who is also a member of the attorney general’s task force, guides the students through each point of view and the difficult questions that arise. “Why do we distinguish between prostitution and trafficking? Where are those lines? What’s the utility of those lines? Is a victim of trafficking somehow more deserving than someone who’s involved with prostitution? We really grapple with those issues in the clinic. … And what I hope students come out of it with is a wider understanding of the complexity at play here.”

martha coakley
Attorney General Coakley answers student questions

It’s a complexity that the attorney general understands, as she told clinic students, from her experience with the sensitive and complex nature of child abuse cases, which have provided a model for addressing instances of trafficking. Coakley informed the BU Law clinic that her office involves multidisciplinary forces—including law enforcement, psychologists, doctors and, now, law students—to work through each unique case together.

“This is a brave new world for us,” Coakley remarked. “I am really proud that BU has undertaken this.”

“The Attorney General’s Office has really understood the nature of these cases, that without support for survivors they really aren’t in a position to be able to cooperate throughout an investigation,” says Dahlstom. “And then it’s important and integral to have victim service providers, legal services, involved at the early stages in terms of developing trust and support for survivors throughout the process.”

Tackling trafficking beyond the courtroom

The clinic’s structure reinforces this multi-pronged approach. For one, the students work out of the Family Justice Center, a comprehensive model that “pairs law enforcement upstairs with social and legal services providers in the same building,” describes Dahlstrom. The clinic also shares space and works hand-in-hand with Kim’s Project, a survivor-led initiative offering support services for those who have been working in the sex trade.

“We’re at the very beginning really of developing theoretical models for how to provide those services effectively, both legal services and all the other pieces,” Dahlstrom notes. “We’re really hoping that the students can get involved in developing those models.”

Each clinic student also must develop a project beyond client contact work to impact Massachusetts’ fight against trafficking. For example, Nam-Giao Do and fellow student Tina Borysthen-Tkacz worked with WilmerHale and the AG’s Office to develop a human trafficking manual for Massachusetts attorneys.

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Clinic students with U.S. attorney Carmen Ortiz

“It’s another way for me to build my legal research and writing skills, as well as see how this manual can assist lawyers in stepping up in a role assisting trafficked victims,” says Do.

Other projects include training probation officers and providing feedback to the Attorney General’s Office on an amicus brief in ACLU vs. Sebelius, a First Circuit case addressing whether faith-based organizations that receive federal funding can restrict trafficking victims’ access to family planning services.

Dahlstrom notes that her students “really have had the chance to be involved in a formative stage of developing [anti-trafficking] models in Massachusetts.”

At the close of the clinic’s first semester, students had already won several small victories for their clients, and four students will continue volunteering through the spring.

“I tell the students really it takes time, it takes a connection, establishing a real connection, and there’s no substitute for time,” says Dahlstrom. “Slowly we’re identifying more clients in need of services and hopefully providing those services to people, and I think with that built momentum in terms of learning about the legislation and what it means.”

Reported January 2013

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