Monica Charleston couldn’t move. It was 5 a.m., and the sky was still dark. But her feet would not budge from the street corner in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.
Charleston had just gotten off a charter bus from her current home state of Virginia. This was the first time she had returned to New York City since 1992, when she had escaped the man who had sexually exploited her as a child and young adult. More than two decades later, Charleston found herself alone in the city where she was sexually trafficked until her early 20s—there in order to expunge more than 170 related felonies from her record.
She was frozen in place; she didn’t understand why.
Charleston called her friends frantically. “My feet won’t move off this corner,” she told them. “I’m having anxiety.”
Her friends couldn’t make it to her; they lived too far away. So they talked to her over the phone, helped calm her nerves. One friend even called the hotel where Charleston planned to stay to arrange an early check-in. They saved her life that day, she says.
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The expungement process only took about a year, but it was the longest year of Charleston’s life. That’s because Charleston, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, had to relive all the times she had been abused and raped in order to prove to the judge that she was a sex-trafficking victim.
“It was like going back to the scene of the crime,” Charleston, now 50, told Rewire. “I didn’t know it was going to hit me that hard. I didn’t know it would affect me that dramatically.”
Reliving Your Trauma Hundreds of Times
Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has received more than 22,000 reports of sex trafficking—defined by the Department of Homeland Security as “modern-day slavery” involving “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain” a commercial sex act—in the United States, according to the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking nonprofit that runs a toll-free national helpline. Globally, the International Labour Organization estimates that nearly 5 million victims of human trafficking are sexually exploited.
Charleston met her trafficker in the mid-1980s, when she was 15 years old. She came from a troubled home, and felt lost in the world. He told her he could make her a star; Charleston said she always wanted “to see my name in lights.”
That summer, her trafficker started to take Charleston to what she thought were auditions and tryouts for modeling gigs. “But they weren’t interviews,” she tells Rewire. “He was showing me off to other pimps to see if I was valuable to him.”
Charleston’s trafficker eventually forced her into prostitution, and for eight years, she was systematically raped and abused. Within that time period, Charleston was arrested multiple times and eventually found guilty of 173 felonies related to prostitution. (In 2014, about 700 children were arrested on charges of prostitution and commercialized vice, down from 1,500 in 2008, according to the latest data from the National Center for Juvenile Justice.) The felonies were a living record of her victimization.
Often, victims of sex trafficking will try to purge any and all state-level or federal convictions so they have a chance at a new life. A criminal record is often a barrier to housing, public benefits, financial aid, education, employment, and voting, making it far more difficult for a survivor to lift out of poverty and easier to return to their trafficker, said Stephanie Richard, policy and legal services director for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.
“If you got these criminal records and convictions, you can have a wide range of barriers accessing supportive services [that were] designed for people who have suffered abuse,” Richard told Rewire.
A person typically is eligible for expungement if they’ve completed probation successfully, have paid all fines, and do not have current criminal charges. Certain crimes, such as child sexual abuse, cannot be expunged depending on state law. But expunging a criminal record can be an exhausting process. Most people petitioning the courts for expungement have to recount every incident that led to every conviction under an invasive line of questioning from the courts.
For a sex trafficking survivor, that means reliving every rape and moment of abuse for a judge, which can traumatize them all over again, Richard said.
“You see victims having to go into a courthouse where, often, the only time that they ever entered one before was during their exploitation,” Richard told Rewire, “and then retell the story of their exploitation in hopes that the courts will forgive the original conviction.”
That was the case for Charleston, who, in 1992, escaped her trafficker after he tried to kill her and left her “in a ditch for dead,” she said. A cab driver found Charleston and called 911; she spent three days in the hospital, unconscious.
“When I woke up and was out [of] the hospital, I wound up going to Virginia to start my life all over again,” says Charleston. In 2015, she launched Kaleidoscope International, an advocacy group for victims of human trafficking. And a few years ago, with the help of a law firm in Washington, D.C., Charleston completed the expungement process.
Like many survivors, however, she had to revisit every sexual assault over and over again for the judge, she said—what was she wearing, how much money did she make, was it hot or cold, did you take drugs, how many girls were there.
She cried a lot in the courtroom; according to Charleston, the judge cried too.
But students at Smithfield High School in Smithfield, Virginia, have come up with a solution: Monica’s Law. Their draft legislation, inspired by Charleston’s story, seeks to reform the expungement process on a state level so that survivors won’t have to relive their trauma in order to get their lives back. (Laws governing expungement and sealing records vary by state.)
“The best laws are going to say [hypothetically], ‘If you find the individual credible, their statements alone should be sufficient to prove their victimization,'” Richard told Rewire, “because most people are not going to have additional information on the crime that happened to them other than their own statements.”
The proposed bill would allow survivors to have their felonies expunged without a long, intrusive investigation if they can provide proof of being trafficked, such as medical records detailing incidences of rape and abuse, says Matt Ployd, the teacher overseeing the student project. It would also make vocational training or financial assistance available to sex trafficking survivors once the process is completed so that they can get back on their feet and “cut down the recidivism rate by giving them a viable alternative,” Ployd added.
“There’s no reason for the system to make you go back and relive each individual event that you’re being prosecuted for,” Ployd told Rewire. The students “wanted to make sure [survivors] were taken care of legally, psychologically, and emotionally.”
Right now, Monica’s Law is in the early planning stages. The students’ goal is to gather enough petitions to present to a state lawmaker in the hopes they would introduce a final draft in the state legislature, and possibly inspire other legislators to do the same, Ployd said. It could also act as a model bill for other states. They’re aiming to complete the process by the end of this year.
The students are on the right track: After Charleston brought the issue to his attention, on January 23, Republican Del. David Yancey introduced two bills that would’ve made it easier for sex trafficking victims in Virginia to clear convictions from their records. Both pieces of legislation were voted down by a House Courts of Justice subcommittee. (Ployd told Rewire that Yancey’s bills are not the same as the students’ legislation, and that the students had not worked with the delegate on the issue.)
Yancey’s bills may have failed to move, but now there is a growing awareness of the barriers sex trafficking survivors face when trying to start over. Charleston knows that the legislation could help so many sex trafficking survivors like herself start over without the pain from revisiting traumatic events.
“I’ll have flashbacks and push those things out of my mind as fast as I can. I try to block it,” Charleston told Rewire. But with the expungement process, “you have to remember every single detail proving your innocence—proving how or why you were forced to do this.”
“Imagine going through that a hundred times,” she added.