KU law class on human trafficking helps real-world victims

Victims of human trafficking face overwhelming obstacles in escaping their captors for good.

In more cases than one might think, what they need more than anything else is a lawyer.

With this in mind, Kansas University clinical associate professor Katie Cronin taught KU’s first Human Trafficking Law and Policy class this spring. While earning credit for the course, law students went to work on real cases.

“It’s sort of shocking how many areas of the law human trafficking does impact,” Cronin said. “I feel like it’s probably a good idea to make sure that our students have some exposure.”

For the victims Cronin and her students are seeking to help, the path to getting legal help starts in the emergency room.

Cronin is director of KU’s Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic, a collaboration between the School of Law and the School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine. The clinic is part of KU’s Anti-Slavery and Human Trafficking Initiative, or ASHTI, a working group housed within KU’s Institute for Policy and Social Research.

It was through work with ASHTI that Cronin first heard of a human-trafficking victim who had been identified by a medical provider. While there’s not extensive research on the topic, Cronin said reports indicate that high numbers of human-trafficking victims pass through emergency rooms.

Cronin’s idea: Train Kansas University Hospital staff to watch for red flags to identify victims, then connect them with social services, including the legal clinic.

Such red flags might include avoiding eye contact, not knowing what city they’re in, letting the person who brought them in speak for them because they don’t speak English, having certain illnesses such as sexually transmitted diseases, having injuries that don’t match their stories, or not being in control of their own personal documents or passports.

Cronin said the clinic has helped victims get restraining orders, name changes to make it harder for their former trafficker to find them, access to medical or psychological care, and an application for a special visa for individuals who cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute their trafficker.

Those are processes that would be difficult if not impossible — financially and emotionally — for trafficking victims to tackle on their own.

A visa application and supporting evidence that a student worked on this spring, for example, is hundreds of pages long and required a certain level of expertise, Cronin said.

Training the next generation of law students will help stop human trafficking, and attacking it at the “nexus” of medical and legal venues is unique, said Hannah Britton, ASHTI director and associate professor of Political Science and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

“All of these survivors need immediate legal assistance,” Britton said. “The problem is that this is a hidden population because it’s a criminal activity … Most victims are very scared to come forward because they are fearful of arrest or deportation. They’ve been isolated, and the traffickers are very skillful at creating fear.”

Cronin said she hoped to teach the class again. While it’s not a core part of the law curriculum, she said certain students have a strong interest and it’s a niche that helps the community.

“Human trafficking has been viewed as a coastal problem. People don’t always grasp that its victims originate in the Midwest as well. There are victims of all ages, both male and female, and it’s a problem both foreign and domestic,” Cronin said. “We have this cohort of law students who will graduate and pursue a range of legal work but who will now have awareness of this complex problem.”

Cronin and Britton said prevalence of human trafficking is difficult to determine.

Only isolated cases reach prosecution, and the media. One case, however, was filed just last month in Lawrence.

In April two Lawrence residents — both citizens of China — were charged with human trafficking and promoting the sale of sexual relations at a local massage parlor.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates more than 20 million children and adults worldwide are trafficking victims at any given time. ASHTI is conducting research in the Kansas City metropolitan area — which it describes as a “focal point of human trafficking, with emblematic migration patterns for domestic and international labor forces.”

In addition to studying laws such as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, this spring’s law class produced projects to guide attorneys, victim advocates, police and health care workers in helping trafficking victims.

For example, Lauren Bavitz prepared a Know Your Rights brochure for trafficking victims served by the Willow Domestic Violence Center, and Marci Mauch created training materials to help police and health care professionals spot signs of human trafficking and offer help at the hospital.

They see their work from the class helping victims in the real world, both students said, in a news release from KU.

“Often, legal remedies are unattainable for those who do not know where to look,” Bavitz said. “I hope that in distributing the brochure throughout Kansas, I can connect a few victims and families to the legal remedies they need.”

Mauch said she hoped her guide would make a difference for “the health care providers to be able to identify the victims, the victims to receive the help they need to escape or overcome their situations and attorneys and law enforcement to be able to identify the traffickers, build a case against them and help the victims.”