A Trauma-Informed Approach for Courtrooms Handling Prostitution-Related Arrests

Apr 26, 2019 | by Jennifer Harvey

“And what does “prostitution” mean when they’re also talking about “human trafficking?”’

“How are these words being interchanged?”

“What do these words mean, and what does it mean when these cases are being vacated? What does all that look like?”

“Where are these women coming from?”

“it feels like you’re threading a delicate needle with this film — you’re trying, on the one hand, to be respectful to the women who say that they chose a life as a sex worker, while also showing how the court works with all of the defendants, including those who were trafficked against their will.”

“How did you think about making the film in order to include all of those components?” (Wilkinson, 2019)           

These are just a few of the questions being challenged in the newly released documentary, Blowin’ Up. In this film, the director, Stephanie Wang-Breal, and her team explores a Queens, NY courtroom that is reframing the legal conversation surrounding the commercial sex trade and human trafficking through a trauma-informed lens. (Wilkinson, 2019).

About The Film:

The documentary Blowin’ Up was released at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2018 and has been available for viewing at screenings and film festivals around the world. The documentary was inspired after the New York Times profiled the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court in 2014. Director Stephanie Wang-Breal and her crew observed the court room for 10 months and then received permission to begin filming a multi-dimensional scope of the courtroom presided over by Judge Toko Serita. (Wilkinson, 2019).

According to an article released by Vox Media in which Judge Toko Serita and Director Stephanie Wang-Breal are interviewed about the film, this specific courtroom provides services and rehabilitation rather than a criminal disposition for individuals with prostitution-related cases. This alternative to incarceration connects individuals to legal services and advocates so that they are offered support if they choose to leave the commercial sex trade or if they have been trafficked. Specifically, counseling services are offered as an option to having individuals’ cases sealed (Wilkinson, 2019).  

The Need for a Trauma-Informed Response:

The responses provided by Judge Toko Serita and film director Stephanie Wang-Breal in their interview with journalist Allison Wilkinson highlight several of the justifications for trauma-informed courtrooms and alternative systems for prostitution-related cases:

  1. The Contradiction within the Criminal Justice System for Survivors of Trafficking

Judge Toko Serita explains that her courtroom was, “designed specifically to address the contradiction that we were facing in the criminal justice system. We were arresting people on prostitution-related charges, but coming to understand that many of the people were either being trafficked, or being victimized and commercially exploited in the commercial sex trade” (as cited in Wilkinson, 2019). This understanding lead to the aim of connecting individuals to a holistic range of service providers rather than further criminalizing them.

An Urban Institute study from April of 2018 supports the notion that many survivors of human trafficking have come into contact with the criminal justice system during their exploitation, often as a result of their trafficking experience. The study was conducted with 180 survivors of sex and labor trafficking and service provider stakeholders in 2016-2017. According to Hussemann et al. (2018), “Seventy-two percent of sex trafficking survivors and 16 percent of labor trafficking survivors interviewed had prior involvement in a criminal case as a defendant”. For survivors of sex trafficking, many had arrests for prostitution and drug charges (Hussemann et al., 2018, p. 12).

  1. Mistrust of Criminal Justice Actors & Rarity of Self-Disclosure

In her interview with Vox Media (2019), director Stephanie Wang-Breal points out that the film follows the experiences of individuals who often do not define their circumstances within the commercial sex trade as human trafficking. It is important to note that while this may be the case, there is also the reality that many of those same individuals have experiences that align with the federal definition of human trafficking according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000), but may not know that victimization and crimes of exploitation have been enacted against them. For example, foreign national individuals may not be made aware of their labor and immigration rights. Others may not recognize the familial or romantic relationships they are in as situations of sex trafficking. The methods of power and control perpetrated by traffickers can be a barrier to seeing the reality of the exploitation. Furthermore, retribution or harmful consequences can be carried out by the trafficker if the individual discloses.

It is for this reason, among many, that self-disclosure of trafficking is rare, especially when involving the stakeholders in a courtroom. The inherent intimidating nature of the legal system can reduce the level of comfort or practicality in disclosing the vulnerable details of someone’s circumstances.

The study, Bending Toward Justice: Perceptions of Justice Among Human Trafficking Survivors (2018), which interviewed 80 trafficking survivors in the across the U.S. finds, “Concerns about reporting trafficking experiences included limited faith in the justice system’s ability to remedy harms caused by trafficking and prevent others from experiencing harm. Foreign-born survivors also expressed concerns about immigration and had a limited understanding of the United States’ criminal justice system. Sex trafficking survivors expressed negative experiences with law enforcement before and during their most recent trafficking experience, including disrespectful treatment, sexual abuse, and criminalization for actions related to their trafficking experience, such as prostitution and drug use. These negative experiences commonly led to reduced trust in system actors” (Hussemann at el., p. 12).

The legal system can be confusing to navigate. Wang-Breal of Blowin’ Up says she intentionally created the film to explore this confusion further. Wang-Breal explains, “I wanted to put the viewer in the shoes of the defendant, coming into this space for the very first time. All the conversations, all the actions, all the strangers they encounter, all of it is taking place simultaneously” (Wilkinson, 2019). She goes on to state that initial viewers asked her to add context or explanations, but she defends her vision by stating, “That’s exactly what it’s like for people coming into this place […] I really wanted to just sit the audience in this space and make them figure out what’s going on. That’s exactly how I experienced it, and that’s exactly how all of these female defendants experience it” (Wilkinson, 2019).

  1. Pervasive Experiences of Trauma and Mental Health Concerns

When asked about the interpersonal issues exposed in her courtroom, Judge Serita responds that she observes a wide range of needs and trauma experiences.She states that these needs “involve issues such as housing, lack of employment opportunities, sexual assault, or sexual abuse history. A lot of them are also very traumatized, dealing with different types of chronic trauma and abuse, substance abuse issues, and mental health issues”. She acknowledges that this specific court room engages with a population that is very marginalized and in need of intervention” (as cited in Wilkinson, 2019).

Much like health care facilities, offices of public benefits, schools, and other public systems, courtrooms are spaces where people with complex lives must navigate even more complex systems which are nonetheless impacted by intersecting issues of poverty, racism, homelessness, trauma, and the like. These intersecting and multi-layered life experiences undoubtedly intertwine with engagement in the commercial sex trade.

Efforts in New York and Chicago

In 2004, New York began leading the way on how to change the language to view all “defendants” as those in need of services, while still respecting self-determination of life experiences and needs of individuals involved. As of 2017, New York has eleven Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (Office of Policy & Planning, 2017). These courts connect individuals to legal aid societies, housing and mentoring services, counseling and mental health support, and “know your rights” organizations. New York has paved the way and created an example for similar alternative prosecution courts including the Chicago Prostitution and Trafficking Intervention Court, or CPTIC.

The Chicago Prostitution and Trafficking Intervention Court (CPTIC) was established in 2015 as a means to alternative prosecution for those arrested for prostitution and soliciting charges. The State’s Attorney’s Office and Public Defender’s Office work alongside with service providers to offer participants the option of participating in a program to complete five personalized goals. After completion of the goals, the charges are dismissed. Goals generally entail obtaining housing, identification, government benefits, employment training, health care appointments, substance abuse treatment, and a mental health evaluation depending on the participant’s identified needs through an assessment with an on-site case manager in the court-room. Case management providers, trafficking-specific services, substance use treatment providers, counseling and housing advocates all come to the table to offer resources.

How Do These Intervention Courts Compare?

Both courts operate with pre-plea and no admission of guilt required in order to engage in services and programs. Within New York Court rooms, the judge plays an important role of consulting with the District Attorney and Defense Counsel in order to refer the individual to service providers. At CPTIC, the services providers are present in court to complete an initial intake and needs assessment in order to get participants connected to services. In a similar fashion, New York participants must complete five counseling sessions with treatment providers, while in Chicago, participants can reach their goals through case management and participation in an education class (Ehrlich, S., Winsett, C., Cervantes, N., Harvey, J., & Cohen, L., 2018).

In Judge Toko Serita’s courtroom, most participants are women and many are foreign national individuals who speak languages other than English (Wilkinson, 2019). At CPTIC, most participants are female-identified and English speaking. Less than 1% of participants require immigration services and consultation (Ehrlich, S., Winsett, C., Cervantes, N., Harvey, J., & Cohen, L., 2018).

At the end of program completion participants in New York can have their records sealed after 6 months, where as in Chicago, the participant’s case is dismissed and expungement information is provide upon graduation of the program.

What is STOP-IT’s role at the Chicago Prostitution and Trafficking Intervention Court?

As service providers at CPTIC, we see the same complexities here as described by the film of the New York courtroom. We observe many indicators of trafficking in the courtroom, such as many non-related participants living under the roof on one male, disclosure of engagement in survival sex for something of value, young individuals with several out-of-state prostitution arrests, participants stating they have a ride waiting and are unable to talk, or participants who are being physically monitored by someone present in the court house. Because self-disclosures of trafficking are rare in occurrence, Outreach Specialists from STOP-IT are present at each court call. We hope to build rapport with the participants and other services providers to create opportunities for those who want to leave “the life” or receive trafficking-specific services.

A STOP-IT case manager is also regularly present at an education class called, “Unhooked” that is offered by the main services providers at CPTIC. This class provides education and health resources and helps individuals meet a majority of their goals for their case to be dismissed. At this class, a STOP-IT provider will talk through the definition of trafficking, how it can overlap with the commercial sex trade, the control tactics used by pimps and traffickers and services available. It is here where participants are away from the intimidating nature of the court room and away from a monitoring trafficker. As they receive education on trafficking, we see individuals connecting their lived experiences to definitions of exploitation. It is here where folks inch just a little closer to being able to engage with services. The more we can help the courtroom reflect this level of individualized and purposeful interaction, the more we can further address the complexities showcased by Director Stephanie Wang-Breal and Judge Toko Serita.  

Our overall goal of working alongside the service providers at the Intervention Court here in Chicago is parallel with the hopes of Judge Toko Serita in Queens, NY. We hope to be a positive presence in a historically unjust justice system to reinforce the need to treat individuals with humanity, reinforce the right to self-determination for those whose power is often stripped away, offer options, and guide people toward a trajectory of services rather than punitive responses.

Judge Toko Serita summarizes, “To the extent we can use the courts and the criminal justice system in a positive way to redress some of the issues these women are facing, then that’s what we’ll attempt to do” (as cited in Wilkinson, 2019).

We haven’t yet seen the film, but we look forward to viewing it and learning more!

Additional resources:

Sources Cited:

Blowin’ Up. (2018). Upcoming screenings. Retrieved from https://www.blowinupfilm.com/watch

Ehrlich, S., Winsett, C., Cervantes, N., Harvey, J., & Cohen, L. (August, 2018). Comparing and Contrasting Human Trafficking Intervention Courts in New york and Chicago. Panel presented at The Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force, Chicago.

Hussemann, J., Owens, C., Love, H., Yu, L., McCoy, E., Flynn, A., & Woods, K. (2018). Bending toward justice: Perceptions of justice among human trafficking survivors. National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/251631.pdf

Office of Policy & Planning (2017). Problem-Solving Courts. Retrieved from


Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 § 106, 386 U.S.C. § 1464 (200).

Wilkinson, A. (2019, April 5th). One court challenges the way the system handles prostitution-related cases. A new doc shows how. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/4/5/18295312/blowin-up-review-interview-prostitution-trafficking-toko-serita

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