An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- Many people forced into sex trafficking end up with lengthy criminal records. Those records can limit education, employment and housing options for victims. Several laws are now in place to help sex trade survivors get their lives back.
"I got kidnapped by two guerilla pimps who put me in the trunk of their car and took me out toward Indiana, and beat me and told me I was under pimp arrest and that I had to do what they wanted me to do," said Brenda Myers Powell, trafficking survivor and executive director of Dreamcatcher Foundation.
"He had me hooked on crack cocaine and a week after that he had me on the streets prostituting through force, coercion and addiction," said Dr. Joel Filmore, trafficking survivor.
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The Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Act was signed into law in 2014. The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation-known as CAASE-says Illinois recognized survivors should not be continuously punished by having such a criminal record. The law enables victims of sex trafficking to petition the court to clear their criminal records.
Survivors tell the I-Team having their records vacated is emotionally draining but life altering. CAASE has helped dozens of survivors clear their convictions.
"In February 2014 the Circuit Court of Cook County said you have proven your case that you in fact were a victim, and they vacated all of those offenses that happened over that 10 year period of time," said Filmore.
Though Filmore has two unrelated charges that were not dropped, he said having the rest of his record vacated was life-altering. He is now an assistant professor at National Louis University, and runs Lighthouse Professional Counseling Services.
Powell and Stephanie Daniels-Wilson met while in treatment for drug addiction. In 2007 they founded the Dreamcatcher Foundation, a Chicago-area agency focused on helping victims of sex trafficking.
"When Brenda's record was vacated, that was huge," Daniels-Wilson said. "That gave hope to all our ladies. 'If Brenda could have hers vacated, I can too.'"
"I stood up in front of a court and an Illinois judge said that this should have never happened to you, Brenda," Myers Powell said.
Additional laws have been passed to help sex trade survivors, including one last fall that allows judges to seal victims' criminal records if they are not able to vacate them under the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Law.