Human trafficking survivor takes fight for change to Lansing

‘There is a better life,’ Leigh said

LANSING, Mich. – A woman who survived human trafficking is sharing her story with lawmakers in Lansing, pushing for laws to be changed to protect others.

Leigh, as she wants to be identified, went in front of a House subcommittee to tell lawmakers what happened to her and let them know what needs to change to help survivors. Leigh shared what she went through when she was human trafficked and how the system failed her when she escaped.

“I was charged with prostitution when I escaped,” she said.

READ: Metro Detroit human trafficking survivor faced charges and is now exposing major flaw in criminal system

Leigh was 23 years old when she was held in a Metro Detroit motel and trafficked for five days. She was a college student with a 4.0 GPA and had just left a drug rehab facility -- she thought she had met people she could trust. She was wrong.

“I just can’t believe that I’ve come this far and that my journey has taken me to this point,” Leigh said.

READ: The Joseph Project works to connect human trafficking survivors with pro bono legal services

Her case is a common one, according to a recent study by the Polaris Project. Nearly 91 percent of human trafficking survivor respondents reported having been arrested.

“The impact of being trafficked and then feeling like no one is hearing you, no one is there to help you. It’s really horrific,” Leigh said.

Rep. Mary Whiteford, who is heading the committee, said she wants to see changes to clear or expunge records of human trafficking victims and stop them from being charged in the first place.

“We need to make sure that judges have the proper tools in their belt. So, when they are faced with somebody who has done some of these crimes, we realize they were exploited and were victims themselves,” Whiteford said.

On Feb. 3, Whiteford introduced bipartisan legislation designed to support human trafficking survivors and to help them rebuild their lives after escaping from their captors. The plan would help clear criminal records of trafficking victims, change references of “prostitution” to “commercial sexual activity” in state law and more.

Whiteford says the legislation was inspired by victims’ testimonies given during a hearing.

“Survivors of human trafficking are incredibly strong and resilient, but as we heard today, rebuilding their lives is extremely difficult,” Whiteford said. “State law must be updated to help empower women, children and men who escape from sex and labor trafficking, so they can move forward from their harmful past and go on to lead successful lives.”

Leigh’s criminal record was cleared with the help of the Joseph Project, a nonprofit that offers legal services to human trafficking survivors.

“She took a negative experience, something that she didn’t deserve, an unjust charge on her record -- she fought for an expungement of that charge -- and now she is at the state Capitol using her voice to do something good,” said Nate Knapper with the Joseph Project.

The day she spoke in Lansing is a day that Leigh said she will never forget.

“I don’t want other women and survivors to have to go through what I went through. I think that if they are provided with a little bit more hope, then hopefully they will see that there is something to live for and there is a better life for them,” Leigh said.

Whiteford said there is a lot of work ahead. Besides working to prevent human trafficking victims from being charged with a crime, there is a huge need for housing services for trafficking victims.

Click here to learn more about The Joseph Project.

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