261: Legal Advocacy with Sarah Byrne


Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Sarah Byrne, founding member of the National Survivor Law Collective. Dr. Morgan and Sarah discuss the need for trauma-informed legal services for survivors of human trafficking and their complex legal needs.

Sarah Byrne

Sarah has years of experience representing survivors of sex and labor trafficking and is nationally recognized for her work in combatting human trafficking. Sarah is a frequent conference speaker and advocate for legislative change in support of trafficking victims. She is a founding member of the National Survivor Law Collective, a national network of trauma-informed lawyers providing legal aid to survivors. Representing MVA as a participating member, Sarah works with the United Nation’s Finance Against Slavery and Trafficking (“FAST”) Initiative to increase survivor access to financial services and guide banks on the Survivor Inclusion Initiative.

Key Points

  • Establishing a collective of trauma-informed pro-bono legal services for survivors of human trafficking.
  • There is a consequential need to have trauma-informed lawyers who understand the complex trauma that survivors have faced in order to prevent retraumatization and build trustful relationships.
  • Many survivors seek vacatur or expungement of crimes that are directly related to their exploitation.
  • Victim witnesses play a significant role as advocates for survivors who are navigating the legal system.
  • Restitution to survivors gives them the resources to become financially independent.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 261, Legal Advocacy with Sarah Byrne.

Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:30] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak

Sandie [00:00:35] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:38] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. If you’ve been listening for any length of time, you know one of the things that we love to do on the show is to be able to bring in the voice of partners and experts who can help us to understand more of the complexity around trafficking and also, most importantly, help us to take the first steps to end it. I’m so glad to welcome today Sarah Byrne to the show. She is an attorney in North Carolina who has been representing trafficking survivors for years. She understands trauma and carefully provides legal services to help her clients. Sarah is now leading the National Survivor Law Collective, where she helps lawyers at law firms from all over the country provide pro-bono services to survivors. Sarah has had years of experience representing survivors of sex and labor trafficking and is nationally recognized for her work in combatting human trafficking. Sarah is a frequent conference speaker and advocate for legislative change in support of trafficking victims. She’s a founding member of the National Survivor Law Collective, a national network of trauma informed lawyers providing legal aid to survivors representing MVA as a participating member. Sarah works with the United Nations Finance Against Slavery and Trafficking Fast Initiative to increase survivor access to financial services and guide banks on the Survivor Inclusion Initiative. Sarah, so glad to welcome you to the show.

Sarah [00:02:05] Thank you for having me.

Sandie [00:02:07] I was very excited when Ambassador John Cotton Richmond reached out to me and said, I want to introduce you to someone, and I always know that’s going to be an exciting conversation. And within a few days, Sarah and I had connected, and I’m sure we’re not going to be able to cover our entire conversation in one podcast. So welcome, Sarah.

Sarah [00:02:32] Thank you.

Sandie [00:02:33] We often hear folks with lofty, aspirational goals for restorative justice. I can still remember where I was when I heard that term. And I became really committed to finding restorative justice for survivors. But along the way, the path to restorative justice seemed to be filled with lots of challenges, lots of barriers. It was windy and it’s not easy. But you said something that stopped me in my tracks when we first talked. You said, I couldn’t find it, so I built it. Tell us about that experience.

Sarah [00:03:24] Oh, well, thank you for that kind of question, Dr. Morgan. So this was around 2012, 2013, and sort of alongside with a lot of the world, I was becoming more informed about human trafficking and its prevalence in my community in particular. And my law firm has a long history of providing pro-bono legal representation to various populations, and we had, and still have, a very strong domestic violence support program. And when I came to learn about human trafficking, I thought, well, I hope there is wraparound services, including legal services for survivors of this crime, just as there is for survivors of domestic violence, at least where I am in the world. And so I said, well, you know, myself and a number of my colleagues at the firm wanted to begin volunteering with such a program and we looked locally. We looked regionally. We even looked nationally and couldn’t find something that looks like what we have since built. And what that looks like is a mission to provide comprehensive legal services to survivors of trafficking. As all of your listeners, I’m sure, would understand, victims of human trafficking have vast and varied legal needs. It’s not the type of pro-bono or other client that walks through a lawyer’s door and says, I need this one particular task done. The experience of being trafficked, and also other life experiences that could be connected to being vulnerable to trafficking, can lead to a lot of legal needs. And we’ll say primarily, one would be engaging in criminal activity. But again, so many other legal needs need to be met. So the program was structured to provide those comprehensive legal services.

Sandie [00:05:22] So let’s back up just a little bit because you talked about that those legal needs are not as simple and direct as maybe one client or other. And so part of what I noticed in the way this is organized is the whole idea that the attorneys are trauma informed. So does that speak to the complexity of the issues that a survivor might bring into an attorney’s office?

Sarah [00:05:53] Absolutely. That is vital to the provision of legal aid to survivors, and that is the primary tenant of the National Survivor Law Collective that you mentioned. That’s a network of trauma informed lawyers who are competent to provide the type of representation that survivors need across the country. Because as those of us in this space know that poor service provision or just non-trauma informed support can be retraumatizing for a survivor and just not deliver good quality, effective legal aid to survivors. So that is of primary priority.

Sandie [00:06:31] Give me an example of that when it goes wrong, because you’ve got someone who knows the law and you have someone who needs the law, what is, if they’re not trauma informed, how does it go awry?

Sarah [00:06:46] Yes, great question. So as your listeners would probably know and have experienced with so many survivors of trafficking and sex trafficking in particular have enormous distrust for the legal system, and that often comes from experiences they had with the criminal justice system being perceived as a perpetrator in activity related to it or just interfacing with law enforcement or prosecutors, and perhaps feeling as though they had to take a plea for conduct that they were coerced to engage in and just other experiences that have led to mistrust with the legal system. So oftentimes in their minds, lawyers are not effective service providers and not individuals that may have understood the complex psychological experience of being trafficked. So there is that base level natural distrust, and we as lawyers, even pro-bono lawyers and law firms or legal aid or nonprofit legal services providers, can be perceived to be in that institution that has never understood what’s happened to them or their needs. So we start with that base level of distrust. And then where it can go wrong, as you ask, is if we as lawyers, for example, in an intake meeting, treat our human trafficking survivor clients as we would any other perhaps with our commercial clients or other clients. And an example of that is, many times as lawyers we asked our clients to come in and they sit down and we say, Tell us what happened that led to you wanting to speak with me? Tell me chronologically what happened from A to Z. And those that have been trained on trauma brain and the implications and results of complex trauma well know that that can be very challenging for a survivor who has experienced trauma, to chronologically describe events in a way that’s consistent with past descriptions or other, you know, recitation of the facts. So that’s problematic for that very reason that that can be challenging and almost impossible for survivors to recount facts that way. But also a lot of what we do for survivors of trafficking. These comprehensive legal services, don’t require us to ask them to describe their exploitation experience to us again because they’ve described it to law enforcement, case managers, health care professionals, mental health professionals to ask them to have to go through that again can be a traumatizing experience. So that’s just one example of how a well-intentioned lawyer can have an adverse impact on a survivor client who has that, as I mentioned, that, you know, already preexisting distrust or discomfort with working with a lawyer to then be asked to sit down and describe exactly what happened to them. You know, whether they can’t do it or that’s just not an effective way to begin that relationship.

Sandie [00:09:46] I was talking to a survivor who was thrilled to have a pro-bono attorney speak with her, and yet, she was petrified, almost nervous, like she was going to court or something because she said, if I don’t get it right, they’re not going to help me. And she said, and sometimes I can’t remember exactly what I said. And so it’s like this idea that this is a big test and they already have the answers and I don’t get them right then I don’t have any help.

Sarah [00:10:27] That’s disheartening to hear and, you know, empowers us even more to ensure that all lawyers that do this work are trauma informed, because that’s certainly not a best practice in service provision if our clients think they have one shot for us to support them. These lawyer client relationships in our experience here, certainly at Moore and Van Allen, are very long relationships that navigate a number of legal challenges. And so to the sense of having one shot to seek remedy through one individual is certainly not, you know, the program that those of us that do this work are setting out to offer.

Sandie [00:11:06] So tell us about how you create a trauma informed environment for a pro-bono attorney. And in first, I think for some of my listeners, they need to understand pro-bono attorneys as a collective in that they may not actually work in your law firm.

Sarah [00:11:26] So as I mentioned before, the primary piece of this is being trauma informed, receiving that education about what trauma is, the impact on the brain and behaviors, and how that may interface with criminal behavior. And then also to understand best practices, which, as you mentioned, lawyers that support survivors can, you know, be part of many different types of institutions. So there are some sort of common best practices that lawyers can engage in. And just kind of a simple, understandable example is we say, let the clients lead. And from the very beginning. You know, oftentimes when we think of other, perhaps commercial clients, we think of ourselves as advisors and we, you know, suggest to our clients a path to achieve their goals or remedy. It’s really inverted in this context. The client’s goals lead and only, if and when, we determine that they would like us to pursue a path to legal remedy that we don’t feel as though we can ethically facilitate. You know, then we might have a conflict of interest. But other than that, we walk them through the steps that we understand through our experience and training might lead to the goals that they want to achieve. And when I say that happens at the very beginning is by giving choice to the survivor, perhaps where you’re going to have the forum, the platform for meeting for the first time, you know, pre-pandemic, all of our clients would they would either come into the law firm and we would have an in-person meeting or we would meet at a safe, comfortable place for them, including the individuals that they felt comfortable with. Since the pandemic, we’ve become much more creative and facile in other forms of meeting and connecting. So, of course, you know, we have zooms and we have the telephone, but the point is that they ought to have the choice in the context platform setting and participants, certainly in that first meeting.

Sandie [00:13:27] So there are three buckets that you introduced me to, and it seems like the choices that they have are in those three buckets. Let’s start with the first bucket and explain to us about vacatur and expungement.

Sarah [00:13:48] Yes. So as mentioned before, we find, and I now working so closely with the National Survivor Law Collective lawyers, I’ve come to understand that this is the experience of a lot of human trafficking survivor lawyers as well. The primary need that survivors come to our program is with regard to expunction or vacatur of criminal records, and I’m using both of those words with a disclaimer that in each state, they can have different meanings. But for purposes of this conversation will describe it as the ability to clean up or get rid of criminal record that they may have incurred as part of their experience of being trafficked. So we have found many of our clients have criminal records that can include breaking and entering, or possession of a controlled substance, or possession of an unlicensed firearm. But it’s a lot of criminal activity, that’s not to be honest, what we thought when we set out to do this work we thought we would face. We thought that we would have survivors that would have mostly prostitution charges or convictions. And that really hasn’t been the experience of our clients on a number of them have had those. They’re mostly historical, but they have these what I call ancillary criminal records that relate to the trafficking or connected to the, you know, the predicate crime of commercial sex. So they would like to understand if they are eligible to have that charge or conviction erased from their record because we all know that having a criminal record can be really debilitating when you’re trying to pursue education, employment, housing and just other opportunities in life. So in our mind, that’s, you know, it’s a number one need from the survivors that we serve, but it’s also a high priority for the lawyers in our program because it’s so high impact when we are successful in cleaning up those records.

Sandie [00:15:51] I am always overwhelmed when I think of the barriers that survivors face if they have any kind of criminal record. And especially if it rises to the level of a felony. In the state of California where we’re recording from, if you have a felony on your record, you can’t get a license to walk dogs.

Sarah [00:16:18] Yeah, it’s creates obstacles in so many different contexts.

Sandie [00:16:24] So the second bucket about victim witnesses, can you explain what that might entail?

Sarah [00:16:32] Yes. So this happens to be my area of most focus for the matters that I work on. So victim witnesses, human trafficking survivors interface with law enforcement and prosecutors in a couple of different contexts. But I’ll just generalize and say we often have a survivor that says to us, I have not reported what happened to me because of a perhaps a distrust of law enforcement or just, you know, the discomfort in reporting a crime, particularly one of this complexity where survivors are often perceived as perpetrators. But I would like to report it because I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard that. So they say, I’d like an advocate in that process because I’m nervous about it and we provide that service because survivor’s rights can be at stake in that process for, you know, the very reason primarily that I mentioned in that they could be perceived as a perpetrator of a crime, either in collaboration with a trafficker or just due to the criminal activity that was part of the overall trafficking scheme or otherwise. So they say, I’d like an advocate, a lawyer in that process. So we find that to be really impactful in that it really comforts a survivor in reporting and continuing to participate in an investigation of a trafficker. Another way that it surfaces is a survivor says, law enforcement is calling me to ask me about what happened to me. But I’m really nervous about it again for the reasons that we’ve already mentioned. You know, I’d like an advocate, a lawyer in that process. And the important part of that representation is to ensure that the survivor understands that it is his or her choice, whether or not to participate, the breadth of that participation with law enforcement. And many times we found, I mean, this is anecdotal, but once they are armed with a lawyer in that process, they do want to participate and help law enforcement in the investigation. Now that representation does and should continue for the duration of the criminal process, of course, as we know, so many investigations don’t result in a prosecution, or for the ones that do, that would include a lawyer representing that survivor if she or he is being alerted to a plea agreement and their right to communicate with a prosecutor about that plea agreement. If it goes to trial, they may serve as a victim witness and provide testimony. They certainly would like representation in that process, which includes preparing for trial and then participating again in the actual trial by providing testimony, all the way through to sentencing where they have an opportunity to provide a victim impact statement, either orally or in writing or both where their voice can be heard, and they can impact the court’s decision on a sentence and vital vital, so you talked about restorative justice for survivors. A huge part of that is restitution. And restitution is when the court orders a defendant to pay the survivor for the work that they did and any other losses related to that experience. And a pro-bono lawyer can be really effective and ensuring that the prosecution does make a motion for restitution or whatever other procedural mechanism they ask for that, and to help provide information from the victim about what losses there were, whether that’s lost wages or health care, medical bills or mental health needs, both historical and in the future. That can be really helpful when a pro-bono attorney helps the survivor communicate with the prosecution in order to ensure that a restitution award is as significant as it should be. Of course, compensatory damages in this way will never make a survivor whole for their experience, but it can be so supportive to a survivor who’s looking to achieve financial independence following exploitation and can minimize the chance of re-exploitation in the future.

Sandie [00:21:07] OK, so I have like 17 questions now following up on that. Going back to the idea that sometimes there is this sense that I want to talk to somebody, but mostly because I don’t want this to happen to somebody else. And when I’m interfacing with law enforcement and victim services, there is this principle in our federal enhanced collaborative model of a victim centered approach. And so I have like two different teams. If you can imagine this with me and this team is lined up to protect the survivor and that’s my victim service providers. And then I have my law enforcement team and they want to go find more survivors, and the key to that, is the person behind the victim service line. And so they have competing goals. One is focused on making sure her or his rights are protected and they’re not retriggered and all of those things. And then you have these law enforcement team members who are anxious to not miss the opportunity to use the leads. So how do you balance that?

Sarah [00:22:39] It’s so important that you brought this up. So a lot of us that do this work have really productive and collaborative relationships with prosecutors and law enforcement in our, as you said, victim centered, you know, collective approach to a problem. But it’s so important that a survivor have their own lawyer because, as you said, our interests really are different and that can come to a head in really acute and important ways that you just highlighted. So of course, we’ll just talk generally about, we’ll say, the federal government and their human trafficking prosecutions. Their job is to prosecute and pursue a sentence in a way to protect the general public, and of course, to provide punishment for the offender. And law enforcement, their interests is to investigate that human trafficking offense and, as you said, identify as many victims as possible. And those two institutions can do that in a way that’s victim centered, as you described. But that’s not their primary job. And as I said, anecdotally in our experience, they’re very good at that. But again, that’s not their guidepost. So that’s why a survivor really needs to have his or her own attorney to only be looking out for their best interests. And I’ll just give you an example that has come to mind in an experience that I’ve had on a case that I worked on. The federal government would want to pursue a significant sentence for an offender. And as we talked about, survivors have an opportunity to use their voice and impact sentencing by providing a victim impact statement. A lot of our survivors want to participate in that, and they might, as we say, share the goal of as significant as this of a sentence as possible. But some may not. And when I’m thinking of this one particular client, this client did not want to participate in the sentencing for a couple of different reasons. One, she wanted the experience to be concluded and really move on from it. But also, she was not motivated to help pursue as significant of a sentence as the government may have wanted to, sort of for her own reasons. And so it’s those important experiences where a survivor have an advocate to assert the right to not participate in the sentencing, even though law enforcement and prosecutors may be motivated to put forward, you know, as best of a case or argument for a significant sentence.

Sandie [00:25:24] OK. Wow, that is so helpful. Thank you. There is one more bucket that just holds everything, and I think I’m going to wait and do that in a separate interview, Sarah, because we have about five minutes left and I want people to understand what the NSL Collective is and what its goals are and how they can become involved.

Sarah [00:25:53] Wonderful, Dr. Morgan. I want your listeners to hear about it, too. So this is an organization that, believe it or not, got its legs during the pandemic. This was in 2020. The leadership team of the National Survivor Law Collective came together to form what I’ll just describe as a formal network of trauma informed, competent lawyers who set out to provide free legal representation to human trafficking survivors. So many of us that do this work have been doing this work for a very long time. And up until the collective, in the experience at least of those of us on the leadership team, is that there was an effective but an informal network when we were supporting survivors who had legal needs in other parts of the country where say we would reach out to, you know, an attorney that we have worked with in another state and say one of my clients has an expunction need in we’ll say California, for example, could you are your firm or organization assist with that? So we were certainly connected, but not in a way that allowed the network to grow and to provide, just really, I would say, a quick turnaround of referral. So that’s really the very simple goal of the National Survivor Law Collective at this stage, at least, is to have this network of attorneys who are part of this program and what it includes, is a listserv where when we have those needs in each of the states we posted on the listserv and I have already found that it is more efficient in how we connect survivors to lawyers in that state. It just as a matter of time, it’s just quicker to make that connection. So of course, that’s a huge benefit of the survivor who has, you know, may have an urgent legal need. So we absolutely want to grow the network because we know there’s lots of trauma informed lawyers who do this work. And, you know, the network is growing. I would say almost every day, it seems that we’re adding more participants. And in addition to hosting this platform where we can connect survivors to lawyers who do this work, together we’ve provided a number of trauma informed lawyering trainings. Because we had talked about the primary mission is to make sure that survivors have access to a trauma informed lawyer. So, of course, and it’s the responsibility of the collective to make sure that those that are part of the network have received that trauma informed training. So we try to make those trainings as available as possible, and we’re going to continue to do that. We have some training set up for some upcoming conferences and there are some virtual trainings. So we certainly want to make that trauma informed lawyering training more accessible to all lawyers who either are doing this work or want to get involved in the work.

Sandie [00:28:45] Wow. So how do they contact you?

Sarah [00:28:48] So you can Google the National Survivor Law Collective. We have a website. We have a LinkedIn page. Certainly, your listeners should feel free to reach out to me and we can talk with them about being onboarded onto the collective so they can participate in the listserv and be notified of future trainings. So I hope it’s quite accessible on the internet, as I said, is a group that’s come together over the pandemic. I think we’ve made it accessible in a virtual platform.

Sandie [00:29:16] And we’ll have all those links in our show notes as well. Sarah Byrne, you are building a pathway forward for restorative justice one attorney at a time, and I’m so excited that we get to share this message with our listeners. I have one last question before I turn it back to Dave. We have listeners in 140 countries. What’s happening elsewhere? Is there, is there a way to be involved? I know you’re involved with the United Nations.

Sarah [00:29:53] Certainly, though this may require another podcast as well, but the United Nations Finance Against Slavery and Trafficking is another extraordinary collaboration that supports survivors, but with more of a mandate on enhancing access to financial services for survivors, in addition to many other important goals related to the financial services industry. Well, that is certainly a an organization with global presence, and we see certainly there are some intersects between the legal needs and empowering the financial sector to support survivors. So that relationship exists for sure. But we’d love to see the National Survivor Law Collective grow global when we have survivors. I was on a call yesterday supporting a survivor who has a legal need in another country, and we were talking with a provider that may connect us to pro bono counsel in that country. So just like at the, you know, at the domestic level an informal network exists, but we got to make it more formal so that we can more quickly and easily connect survivors to counsel and service providers that are trauma informed, trained and competent to support them.

Sandie [00:30:59] Thank you. Thank you, Sarah.

Sarah [00:31:01] Thank you.

Dave [00:31:03] Sarah, thank you so much for your work. What an incredible, incredible conversation, Sandie, and so many opportunities for partnership. I mean, here, just within the legal lens, we’re looking at this today. Boy, if you’re if you’re involved in legal work, I certainly would invite you to take a few minutes to follow the links that we’ll have identified in this episode. And we’re inviting you also to take the first step, especially if this is perhaps the first or second episode you’ve listened to of the podcast. Hop online and download a copy of Sandie’s guide, the Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’ll teach you the five critical things that Sandies identified in her work that you should know before you join the fight against trafficking. You can access that by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s also the best place to find information on the episode notes, not only for this and every other episode. One additional piece to know about is that we are, of course, hosting again the Ensure Justice conference coming up March 4th and 5th, 2022, not long from now. If you would like details on getting together with so many other partners doing this work, I’d invite you to go over to ensurejustice.com for details and early registration, and we will be back with our next episode in two weeks. As always, thanks, Sandie. See you in two weeks.

Sandie [00:32:22] Thanks, Dave.

Dave [00:32:23] Take care, everybody.

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