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Human Trafficking of People with Disabilities

On April 4, 2017, the Diversity Committee, Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, University of Minnesota Law School Division, hosted a CLE event, a panel discussion of sex trafficking of people with disabilities. United States District Court Judge Donovan Frank served as moderator for panel members who shared their professional experience with human trafficking, some of the history and evolving legal landscape, and rights and remedies for victims.

One of the panel members was Sarah Bessell, staff attorney at the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center in Washington, DC. The Legal Center believes that every trafficking victim in the United States should have access to justice.

In this video interview, MS. Bessell identifies some of the types of abuses they are seeing including forced labor (sexual servitude), commercial sexual exploitation, and extreme violence and physical abuse. She presents case law examples involving people with disabilities and trends they are seeing in the types of trafficking.

About Sarah Bessell and the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center

…Sarah Bessell. And I am a staff attorney at the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center.

I went to Georgetown for my master’s in conflict resolution, and when I was in Ethiopia I worked… with the UNU University for Peace. It’s a UN-chartered organization but separate… entity from the United Nations, and they do capacity building and development in the areas of conflict resolution and conflict prevention.

I work at Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, or HT Pro Bono for short, and we are based in Washington, DC. We do… training and technical assistance for pro bono attorneys across the country. Our main mission is to ensure that every trafficking survivor that wishes to have access to justice is paired with a victim advocate, a competent lawyer.

And that could be a victim who wants to have a victim rights advocate during the criminal process where their trafficker is being indicted and prosecuted. It could be a trafficking survivor who requires or wants immigration assistance or a trafficking survivor who wants to take the initiative to sue their traffickers for damages. The list of legal needs for survivors goes on and on.

So that is the main thrust of our organization is the pro bono training.

And then we provide technical assistance to those pro bono attorneys if they like. And then we also do a lot of research. So… we’re kind of data nerds at HT Pro Bono, and so we maintain databases of every federal criminal case since 2009 and every federal civil case since 2006. They’re all word searchable.

And so what that allows us to do, actually, is to punch in any search term, and that’s actually how this project on the trafficking of persons with disabilities came out. We had a hunch. We started seeing more and more cases involving this victim population and we searched our data… our civil and our criminal databases to pull the cases and see what was going on.

And so that’s a large portion of what we do. We’re a very small organization, so we only take on, you know, a few direct service clients. But our main area is pairing trafficking survivors or NGO advocates with highly skilled and competent pro bono attorneys who are doing all of this for free, which really is what enables this to work.

Disability Rights and the Justice System

In terms of the types of abuses we’re seeing, we’re seeing forced labor of persons with disabilities. We’re seeing commercial sexual exploitation of people with disabilities, both adults and children. We also see something that we refer to as sexual servitude as forced labor and what that is is that it’s non-commercial sexual abuse, but we consider that forced labor, as well as sexual violence and sexual assault.

Anecdotally some of these cases have some of the most extreme physical violence and abuse that we’ve seen among human trafficking cases. We have hunches as to why, but, you know, we don’t have a firm answer as to why these cases are sometimes so horrible.

But one example, for instance, is a case US v Linda Weston. The news reports in Philadelphia refer to it as the Basement of Horrors cases. And that was a case in which Weston and her codefendants specifically targeted six adult individuals with varying disabilities – intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disabilities – in order to become their representative payees and then steal their Social Security income benefits.

So that’s one layer of abuse. And you see that often just generally you see that abuse and exploitation of persons with disabilities. Where the trafficking then came in is that Weston and her codefendants forced two of the female victims into commercial sex. And in addition to that, they just were horribly abused.

They traveled around different cities, and in each city that they lived, the forced the victims to live in attics, in closets and basements. They were malnourished. In fact, two of the victims died from malnourishment.

They were basically fed food laced with sedatives to keep them calm. Weston and her codefendant forced the victims to have sex with each other, the goal being so that the female victims would become pregnant and then they took the female victim three times to different hospitals when she gave birth and made her basically put the name of the mother down as Weston or one of Weston’s codefendants. That angle being that they could then claim that baby… Weston could claim that baby as her own and then begin to collect that baby’s benefits in Social Security and other government benefits.

It’s a horrible case. It’s… you know, and that case was really happenstance the way it broke. It was a landlord who was doing a routine inspection of his property that Weston was renting and he went down into the basement to look at…to look at the basement and he found these victims locked in this filthy basement. You can find the pictures online and it’s just, you know, you wouldn’t put animals down there.

And one of the victims was actually chained to the boiler and so he called police and the police were able to rescue the victims in that case. In that case, Linda Weston was sentenced to life plus 80 years and the codefendants were sentenced to varying other sentences. And they were ordered to pay restitution. Unfortunately, they ordered…the court ordered restitution to be paid to the Social Security Administration and not the victims, which we find very troubling.

Types of Abuse in Human Trafficking

The anti-trafficking field itself is… compared to even the disability rights advocacy community is still very young. The Trafficking Victim Protection Act was passed in 2000. The federal anti-human trafficking laws have only been since 2000, for 17 years.

So it’s… We’re still a relatively young field and that’s why we find it so crucial and important to do these kind of partnerships with other communities like the disability rights community in order to best leverage our networks, to raise awareness about this issue. To, you know, work with law enforcement, prosecutors and the state and federal level on trauma-informed care.

The people are coming forward, especially with persons with disabilities, there’s still a lot of bias against persons with disabilities, that, you know, they might not be competent enough to withstand ay three days on the stand… on trial.

The reason why we are starting to see more and more cases may be due to the fact that persons with disabilities are now being seen as more credible witnesses. To the credit of the prosecutors bringing these cases that they are trying, you know, working outside the box and trying to come up with innovative ways in which you really can be victim centered, can be trauma informed and still push forth with an investigation and prosecution.

And so we… on the Callahan case, the prosecutor, Chelsea Rice, talks about how she received permission from the trial judge, to ask leading questions, which is, you know, in a normal case indirect you can’t ask leading questions. A leading question is something like, “You know the shop on the corner, right?” Like that’s a leading question. But the prosecutor was able to get permission from the judge to ask leading questions because of the unique qualities of this victim.

They also did things like they allowed the victim witness, to bring her daughter’s teddy bear up with her to the stand so that she’d have a token and be comforted and feel confident when she was on the stand. She’s sit there and… answer these questions. They allowed her to enter the room via the back so that she would not have to walk past the defendant because she was terrified of the defendants.

And so it’s those types of victim-centered oriented practices that essentially boost the competency of the… victim witness. And because these victims, they are able to tell their story. They are able to participate in the criminal justice process. You just have to find innovative ways to allow them to do that to bolster their confidence.

More Human Trafficking Case Examples

So Weston really is kind of the… exemplary case that we’ve seen in which perpetrators of trafficking target persons with disabilities specifically for their Social Security income, become their representative payee and then steal all their benefits, but Weston is by no means the only case in which victims are abused and targeted for their government benefits.

So there’s another case in Ohio, US v Callahan, and it was a young adult woman who had suffered a traumatic brain injury resulting in cognitive disability, and she had a very… She had a young daughter. And the defendants were Jordie Callahan and Jessica Hunt, and they befriended this woman and they said, “Why don’t you come stay and live with us?” and she said, “Great,” and she basically became their roommate and it was, you know…

And in many of these cases you see that, where the abuse doesn’t happen immediately. Usually, things are okay for a little bit. But over time, after a while they eventually moved, forced the victim to move into the basement with her daughter and forced her…began to force her to clean the house, and they had a menagerie of exotic pets and pit bulls and they made her clean up after them.

And they took her Social Security benefits card and in fact, I was at a panel recently listening to the prosecutor on that case, Chelsea Rice, an amazing AUSA over in Cleveland, and, you know, she said that they began to essentially refer to her as their bank and they took control of her SSI card and made, you know, would use it to buy groceries and cigarettes. That case they eventually were indicted and prosecuted and sentenced to prison and there was no restitution in that case but the victim was eventually rescued.

And so that’s one… type of abuse of benefits. There’s another civil case, Frankenfield v Strong, in which the the defendant was a conservator of the two victims. So that a state-level prosecution, Tennessee v Strong and then the new conservator of the two victims brought a civil case at the federal level suing the trafficker for damages.

And in that case, how it arose is it was Lisa Frankenfield and… Guy – I’m blanking on his last name, but Lisa and Guy. And they both had intellectual developmental disabilities and they were married.

And they were… originally their conservator was Lisa’s sister. She passed away. Walter Strong became their new conservator and then… so he very quickly began to exploit them. He would use their benefits to buy things, like a grill, like a TV, and he forced Guy, the male victim, to perform manual labor on his small farm. And he forced Lisa to perform sexual acts so that in order for him to give her the money to pay for rent…

They lived in a separate apartment and so he would only give them the money for their rent if she would perform sexual acts on him. That was eventually discovered when the court ordered an audit of the finances and they saw that something was off. So that’s another type of situation in which traffickers are abusing victims with disabilities, first for their benefits and then on top of it exploiting them, you know, through trafficking.

At the heart of every trafficking case is money and greed. And when you unitize a human being and you view a person as a commodity, that is an element of dehumanization. So there’s already a level of dehumanization going on in any trafficking case.

When you are doing it to a person with a disability who might not be reacting… in a "normal" way because – I put that in quotes because there is no normal, and who is already otherized in the minds of the perpetrator just by virtue of how they act and they talk and they interact with you, that then further dehumanizes that victim and allows again these just extreme levels of physical abuse and violence.

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The GCDD is funded under the provisions of P.L. 106-402. The federal law also provides funding to the Minnesota Disability Law Center, the state Protection and Advocacy System, and to the Institute on Community Integration, the state University Center for Excellence. The Minnesota network of programs works to increase the IPSII of people with developmental disabilities and families into community life.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 2301MNSCDD-02, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects with government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official ACL policy.

This website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $1,120,136.00 with 83 percent funded by ACL/HHS and $222,000.00 and 17 percent funded by non-federal-government source(s). The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.