COVID-19: Expert Discusses Pandemic’s Impact on Serving Survivors of Sex Trafficking

Alexia Tomlinson, courtesy of the CSE Institute

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Alexia Tomlinson used to go to Kensington once a week. 

Tomlinson would visit the Salvation Army New Day Drop-in Center, service center for women facing exploitation in the commercial sex industry, assisting individuals who had been arrested for crimes related to prostitution with legal advice and services. These people are often victims of sex trafficking, Tomlinson said, and she is dedicated to serving them.

Prior to the pandemic, the center provided women with necessities such as clothing, hygiene supplies, food, bathrooms, and places to rest. 

Tomlinson is a Justice for Victims Fellow at the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation at Villanova’s Charles Woodrow School of Law. Tomlinson’s role includes various duties, including providing direct legal services to survivors of human trafficking. Tomlinson assists with erasing criminal convictions for those who were arrested during their trafficking. 

With the pandemic, Tommlinson’s clients face increasingly difficult circumstances: losing access to resources, losing housing or a job, or even being unable to go to court due to the buildings being closed. 

While it is impossible to gauge whether the numbers of sex trafficking have increased or decreased due to COVID-19, Tomlinson said, it’s safe to say that the pandemic has made life harder for many survivors. In the below conversation, slightly edited for clarity, she talks about how difficult it has been to get a handle on what the pandemic has meant for victims of sex trafficking.

How does your organization assist human trafficking survivors and what specific issues are they facing?

These are, for the most part, women who were trafficked and over the course of their trafficking received convictions for crimes like prostitution or simple possession of drugs or disorderly conduct, there’s a couple other ones. 

Pennsylvania has a specific remedy that’s called vacature; it’s sort of similar to expungement. Vacature allows you to remove convictions from your criminal record if you show that they were committed as a result of your being a victim of human trafficking. It’s a really powerful remedy in that the whole record is destroyed, so everything from the arrest to the conviction, probation, parole, all of it. If the victim has paid any money into the court, they’re supposed to get it back. Everyone has to destroy the record that this criminal case ever happened. But it is only available to survivors of human trafficking.

How do criminal records affect your clients?

This is a population of people who were vulnerable and were trafficked because they were vulnerable. Then they managed to get away from a trafficker that they’ve formed a trauma bond with, beat an addiction, find a way out of the life, find a support system that’s able to help them, and then it’s like, “OK now you need to get a job. But wait, you can’t get a job because I’m not going to hire you because you have a criminal conviction.” 

Or, “Oh, you want to go back to school but I’m not going to give you any money to go back to school because you have a criminal conviction.” Or, “Oh, you want to be a good mom now because you’re able to be in a place that’s healthy for you to be around and spend time with your kids. But nope, I’m not going to give you custody of your kids because you have a criminal conviction.” Then you start this process that’s like, OK, let’s walk through removing this so you can go forward. 

But for a lot of our clients, this time in particular has been really difficult. A lot of them lost their jobs. And if you have a criminal conviction, you’re not the top priority for somebody to offer a second chance job during a pandemic. 

What does the New Day Drop-in Center do?

[It’s for] women who are homeless, near homeless, who are using controlled substances. They’re able to stop in and get food. A safe place to just sit for a little while. They have a TV. They have case managers who are available to assist people with getting identification, or apply for you to have a safe place to live, or a whole host of things. 

Occasionally, they have doctors that are there. They do treatment and therapy and all sorts of things there. And once a week during a time that is not COVID, we go there to provide legal triage for any of the women who are interested in it.

For the most part, we just do referrals from there. So we talk to women and then we refer them out to other organizations that will help them actually address their legal issues. But these women, for the most part, are not going to go to an organization that’s in Center City from Kensington. But if they talk to us, we’ll be able to connect them with somebody who will help them go through that process.

What else did your job entail before COVID-19?

We do trainings and education across the state. And we do them for a vast, vast array of audiences. I had a presentation for a Girl Scout troop where I just went to a woman’s house at 7:30 on a Tuesday night and was like, “Hi, let’s talk about what trafficking looks like to you and how to keep you safe when you are a 12-year-old girl.” 

We do training for every magisterial justice or magisterial judge in the state of Pennsylvania on what trafficking looks like and how victims of trafficking might present in their courtrooms. We do trauma-informed lawyering training to anybody that we run into. So training and education is also normally a big part of my job. 

We also publish an annual report that goes through all of the trafficking and prostitution arrests, as well as charges in Pennsylvania, to figure out what the state of the sex trade is in right now and report that data as best as we can.

CSE Institute director Shea Rhodes (far left) speaks to a panel at the Human Trafficking Conference at Lansdale Hospital in January of 2020.

Do prostitution and sex trafficking usually go hand-in-hand?

Yes. So the way that we always say this is: Not all prostitution is sex trafficking, but all sex trafficking presents as prostitution.

How has COVID-19 affected your work?

First of all, we don’t go to the drop-in anymore because they’ve closed, actually. We’re still not going in-person. We might be providing video services occasionally, but we’re still trying to figure out how that’s going to work. So that stopped. We do that once a week, and it is just gone for now. We might start doing virtual, but they have to still figure out how they can safely open the drop-in. Part of the difficulty with that is the building that it’s in is really small and old and is super narrow, so I literally don’t know if you could be six feet away from someone. It’s just not conducive to safe practices during COVID.

But other organizations are still providing work, still providing services. Clearly, it did go down a little bit just because people weren’t going places, people weren’t doing work, people were working from home. The volume decreased a little. 

For the most part, our direct legal services were not super impacted. They were a little bit because the courts closed. But the process of going through and applying for vacature is kind of a long one and it’s very new. The law was only passed in 2014, so most courts don’t have a process in place for dealing with this. A lot of places don’t even know that this exists, like experienced district attorneys are like, “What are you talking about?” 

So a lot of our job is getting people to recognize that this exists and understand why the survivor that we’re working with deserves the remedy and how it works. But a lot of it is also going and talking to court staff and being like, “OK, can we set up a process so that I can bring you this document and you know what to do with it?” And getting to that point in Philadelphia, specifically, took a year. And then we got to the point where there’s a process, everything is ready, let’s go, we had one court date and then COVID happened. And we haven’t had one since then. 

What happened to your clients?

We have lots of clients that have stuff to file in Philadelphia that we haven’t had a court date scheduled for, so their vacature can’t go through. They just continue to have a criminal record despite the fact that all of their records should be clear. And then they struggle with things like employment and finding housing or getting custody of their kids. Or if they want to go back to school, you can’t get federal loans if you have certain convictions.

We’re still able to do all of our intake and all of our prep work, but the actual filing and moving forward was severely hindered by the fact that the courts were shut down. We’re just now getting to the point where things are reopening and we’re able to file stuff again. [COVID] slowed everything. 

How would you say the trafficking itself was affected by the pandemic?

Trafficking generally, it’s a clandestine crime. We don’t know how many people are being trafficked. We don’t know. I mean, we are able to say, “Yes, this is probably where it’s happening, and yes, on Kensington Avenue there are a lot of prostituted people who are being trafficked.” 

But there are no estimates for numbers of people. If somebody tells you they have an estimate for the number of people who are being trafficked, they’re lying to you. They don’t know. Nobody knows. There is no prevalent study, that’s not a thing. The closest we come to that in Pennsylvania is the report that we publish every year that says this is how many people were arrested for prostitution.

So it’s like a really weird situation where there is most likely, and again this is all anecdotal, an increase in the number of women that are being exploited. And a decrease in the amount of sex that is being purchased. And I don’t know how the numbers have changed over the course of the pandemic. Again, I don’t think anybody would accurately be able to share that information. 

Anecdotally, and based on my gut reaction, this is the spread: there’s an increased number of vulnerable, exploited women and a decrease in the number of men who are buying sex.

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