#sextrafficking | Sex-Trafficking Survivors Are Locked Out of Victim Compensation Funds


Deborah Pembrook doesn’t remember exactly when she was first sex-trafficked, but she knows it was early—the images of abuse collide in her brain with images of childhood crayons and stuffed animals. When she finally escaped, she was 17 years old and all alone. Her earnings had gone to her trafficker, so she had no savings, and she was forced to move to another state, so she had no family or safety net. And because of the laws in California—the state where she eventually settled, to disappear among tourists on the crowded beaches of Santa Cruz—she had no way of getting what she really needed: cash.

Throughout the United States, thousands of human-trafficking survivors are struggling to make up for the wages stolen from them while they were enslaved. But unlike victims of other violent crimes—say, a mugging victim who can’t work because of their injuries, or a robbery victim who can’t work because of a stolen computer—trafficking victims are routinely barred from recouping lost income through state victim compensation funds.

Now, lawmakers in California are trying to change that. A new bill would secure the right of sex- and labor-trafficking victims to recover lost income through the state’s victim compensation fund—a decades-old institution that provides reimbursement for crime-related expenses like medical care, mental health services, funeral expenses, relocation, and lost income. In the last year, it paid out more than $57 million dollars to victims of violent crimes.

Trafficking victims aren’t explicitly locked out of the fund—in fact, many have received compensation for expenses like mental health services or relocation. But when it comes to paying back lost income, the devil is in the details: Under current state guidelines, any crime victims seeking reimbursement for lost income must submit a worker’s compensation report or a letter from their employer. In a trafficking case, that’s the same person who exploited the victim.

“Common sense tells you no trafficking victims could ask their employer for a letter documenting their trafficking,” said Stephanie Richard, a senior policy adviser for the nonprofit Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST). “Therefore if the victims compensation fund wishes to fully compensate all victims, they need to come up with a different system.”

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