Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Legal Aid Helps Sex Trafficking Victim Obtain Protection Order Against Her Abuser

Wemi Peters, Staff Attorney

Ms. Smith came to Legal Aid for legal assistance in obtaining a Civil Protection Order (CPO) against her abuser, a child sex trafficker who had trafficked her across state lines as a teenager and forced her to sell her body for his financial profit. (We have changed her name to protect her identity.) Although the intersection between violence and sex trafficking may not be that surprising, cases like these are particularly disturbing. It is rare that a young survivor of sexual and physical violence finds the strength to fight back.  

Ms. Smith met the abuser in her mid teens. By then, he was already in his late twenties. He convinced her to run away from home with him so they could pursue Ms. Smith’s artistic dreams together. Young and in love, Ms. Smith agreed. That was the beginning of the abuser’s reign of terror over Ms. Smith’s life. The abuser forced Ms. Smith to work as a prostitute, beat her when she refused or failed bring home enough money, and convinced Ms. Smith that she was worthless and no one would love her. Ms. Smith told me that she found it difficult to love herself. The physical and sexual abuse continued for two years until the abuser was arrested for exploiting another young teenage girl.

Even in prison, the abuser’s power over Ms. Smith was apparent, and out of fear, she fled the city. When she finally returned to rebuild her life, the abuser was out of jail. He found Ms. Smith and soon returned to his abusive ways. But Ms. Smith was not the same naïve teenager as when they first met. This time, she was determined to stand up for herself.  Unfortunately, Ms. Smith’s resolve further angered the abuser and resulted in more severe physical abuse.

One hot summer night this year, after a particularly brutal beating in an alleyway, Ms. Smith had had enough.  She ran away from her abuser, and she never looked back. She filed for a Temporary Protective Order and a year-long Civil Protection Order at the South East Domestic Violence Center (DVIC), where we met. Ms. Smith was homeless and looking for shelter housing; she had no phone because the abuser had taken it from her. But she came to the Legal Aid looking for legal assistance. The emotional and physical drain that the abuse had taken on Ms. Smith was apparent on her face as well as her body. It was clear that Ms. Smith would struggle if she had to confront her abuser on her own.  She needed an attorney willing to advocate on her behalf and help her tell her story to the Judge.    

The court process was difficult. At the first hearing, Ms. Smith came to court very nervous. We were informed that the abuser had not been served with the necessary paperwork for her request for a CPO. Ms. Smith and I found out where the abuser lived and requested that the Court order the police to serve him. The next time Ms. Smith came to court, the abuser was present. Ms. Smith did not flinch when she saw the abuser. By then she had told me her story more than once, and I had gone over the CPO process with her a few times. Now that she had an understanding about what could occur, she was much more confident. With a lawyer by her side, Ms. Smith was prepared to confront the abuser in open court if necessary.  Her determination and poise were a shock to the abuser, who had been used to controlling her. He paced back and forth when he was not seated and looked restless in the courtroom. After negotiations, the abuser eventually agreed to consent to Ms. Smith’s petition for a Civil Protection Order.  After the Judge entered the order, Ms. Smith left the court brimming with pride.

Legal Aid’s domestic violence practice has grown in recent months. The growth has been Legal Aid’s response to a visible need in the community for legal services and advocacy to help domestic violence survivors. And in our view, it couldn’t have come soon enough.

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