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Human Trafficking Court will cover all of Monroe County


The Rochester Human Trafficking Court is expanding its services to include towns and villages around Monroe County, with the help of a federal grant.

The effort began in 2013 through Rochester City Court. State Supreme Court justice Craig Doran said that around that time the state’s former Chief Judge Jonathan Lipmann opened his eyes to a serious concern that was going under the radar.

"The city of Rochester has a disproportionately high number of low level prostitution arrests," Doran says. "And Judge Lipmann indicated that it was his experience that that is an indication in a community that there is a human trafficking problem.”
City Court Judge Ellen Yacknin says that a $750,000 federal grant will help expand the Rochester Human Trafficking Court's breadth of resources and reach across Monroe County. - PHOTO BY NOELLE E. C. EVANS / WXXI NEWS
  • City Court Judge Ellen Yacknin says that a $750,000 federal grant will help expand the Rochester Human Trafficking Court's breadth of resources and reach across Monroe County.

City Court Justice Ellen Yacknin said that the Human Trafficking Court, which she’s presided over from its start, assists victims of human trafficking when they arrive in court on prostitution charges.

"The overwhelming number of people arrested for prostitution, not just in the state of New York or Rochester but also in the country, either have been or are, at the current time, victims of trafficking," Yacknin said.

The program has been awarded a three-year, $750,000 grant, much of which will be used to provide coordinated services, Yacknin said.

“We’ve also made the decision to expand our services and outreach not just to people who are arrested in Rochester, New York, but also to the 20 or so towns and villages throughout Monroe County," she said.

The Human Trafficking Intervention Court works like this: someone charged with prostitution is invited to participate in the specialized court proceedings. They must admit to the charges, first.

The judge then requests that they take certain actions, like moving to safer housing, seeking mental health counseling, or getting drug addiction treatment. They sign a contract.

When people fulfill their requirements, they can return to the court. If they haven’t been arrested again, they graduate from the court. Graduation comes with a major benefit: charges are dismissed.

“Their records are absolutely wiped clean from any kind of reference to being arrested for prostitution,” she said.

People tend to come back with new charges and when that happens, they get another chance, Yacknin said, because it's the kind of work that requires many chances.

Prostitution is a crime for adults, though whether a felony or misdemeanor depends on the specifics of the case. For minors found engaging in prostitution, there are Safe Harbor Laws which treat the individual as a victim, not a criminal, and offer certain protections. New York state enacted the nation's first Safe Harbor law in 2008.

"We know that our homeless young people, those who are disenfranchised, those that are not connected to family, to church, to school, are more likely — much more likely — to be victims of trafficking," said Elaine Spaull, the executive director of the Center for Youth.

The Center for Youth offers safe housing and services for minors who are at risk of being the targets of traffickers, or who have been victimized. In any given year, the agency receives around 200 referrals of minors who have been trafficked or are at risk of being victimized, Spaull said.

"I’m actually quite proud of us for not turning our backs and saying this couldn’t happen here,” Spaull said. “Of course it could. Of course it could. It happens everywhere.”

Signs that someone is being trafficked can include not having a cell phone or bank account, having tattoos of someone’s name or initials, bruises, wandering the street, no access to money, and drug addiction.

If you suspect someone may be the victim of human trafficking, advocates advise to call Lifeline at 211, or Polaris Project’s national human trafficking hotline, at 888-373-7888.