Court provides beacon of hope for human trafficking victims

Posted at 11:49 AM, Jun 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-23 11:49:27-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — At the very end of a long municipal court hallway that mostly smells of sweat and despair, Vanessa Perkins turns slowly as she tries to decide where to sit for a quick afternoon break.

She looks to the left, to the right and back left again before she finally settles on a low-slung table. All the shabby blue chairs are doubles and would put her too close to people. And right now what Perkins needs most is space.

It has been an emotional day inside Courtroom 12C at the Franklin County Municipal Court building, where she is bailiff for Judge Paul Herbert. On most days, she does the same as any bailiff here: manages misdemeanor caseloads, handles the paperwork and deals with the myriad of problems that arise.

But this is a Thursday, and Thursdays and Fridays are different. That's when Judge Herbert presides over CATCH Court (Changing Actions To Change Habits), a specialty docket for women in the system who are victims of human trafficking. After a lifetime of abuse, years of battling alcoholism and drug addiction and thousands of days running the streets of Franklinton, Perkins was among the first to graduate after CATCH started a decade ago this fall. Now, she is its highest officer.

On this recent day, about 16 current women of CATCH — gathered in a relaxed semicircle with the judge sitting on a chair near them, and Perkins and a probation officer sitting close by — were asking one another questions as part of peer-to-peer work. A woman named Jamie Vanover asked Perkins for advice. As per custom in this court, however, the first question posed was: "How many days you got?"

"I have 9 1/2 years sober, which I still can't believe those words come out of my mouth!" Perkins, 34, said with a laugh. Then she tells the group how she's trying to settle into a new place after a recent move, how it's nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time.

"I used to sleep in cemeteries, on random porches, in someone's bushes," she says, then pauses and waves her hand around the courtroom that she has managed for more than a year. "This? This was not supposed to be my story. Life is good."

Vanover, 34, was already teary because the judge had just told her how proud he was of her. And because she and Perkins have a history together out there in the world they once thought was all there was, Perkins' answer made her cry.

"I'm only just now figuring out who I really am," Vanover tells Perkins. "I'm very thankful to have had you continually in my life. You give us all hope."

In early 2009, when CATCH Court was merely an idea in a few people's minds, Perkins would have still been called a prostitute, and her trafficker would have simply been known as a pimp. But thanks to a decade of public awareness and advocacy, those days and those outdated terms are long gone, said Herbert, who has presided over CATCH since its beginning.

"These women are worthy," he said. "We've learned so much as a society in the last decade about human trafficking. It really all stems from early childhood sexual trauma that never gets resolved. That awfulness, all of that trauma, is what allows a man to force a woman to sell what's most personally precious to her to the most vile of people."

A report commissioned for the city of Columbus last year found that the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in 2015 received 1,066 trafficking calls from Ohio, the fourth-highest volume in the country. Central Ohio rescue groups have served more than 700 human-trafficking victims since 2008; girls between the ages of 12 and 18 are at the highest risk.

For Herbert, his own awakening came during a routine court day in probably late 2008. A woman came before him on a misdemeanor charge. She was zombie-like, worn down, her eyes empty and her body broken.

"She was so distant, like she wasn't even there," he recalled. "The prosecutor told me she was a prostitute. I didn't understand what she'd been through. So I started researching to find out."

Since its inception 10 years ago, CATCH Court has graduated 58 women through the intensive, two-year program that includes treatment services. But Herbert said that number doesn't tell the whole story. Of the 334 woman who pleaded to misdemeanor charges and were accepted into CATCH, 73% of them have been significantly less involved in the system in the two-year period post-CATCH. And even most of those who didn't successfully graduate, he said, have gotten their driver's licenses, furthered their education, found steady and meaningful work and been reunited with their children.

"I am absolutely convinced the approach of CATCH Court works," Herbert said, reaching for a stack of letters on his desk. He reads aloud part of one from a woman who had her criminal record expunged after CATCH. She now manages an iHop and has seen her salary double since she started.

"I can now give my kids the life they deserve. Thank you for helping me change my life," she wrote.

"When I see multigenerational healing," Herbert said, "it makes me absolutely convinced that what we're doing is right."

Even after all these years, Perkins still looks off in the distance as she talks about her time on the streets. How her trafficker once shredded the clothes off her body as punishment, leaving her standing naked and afraid on Town Street, and about the beatings, the rapes, the feeling of hopelessness that swallowed her soul.

But her mind doesn't live in that space anymore. Years of therapy following CATCH helped her gain freedom. Today, she still attends recovery meetings and counseling regularly, is in a long-time committed relationship and has a healthy relationship with her 11-year-old son.

Before becoming Herbert's bailiff last year, Perkins worked for the Columbus city attorney's office for about six years. She worked her way through the ranks to eventually become executive assistant to the chief prosecutor, Lara Baker-Morrish, who is now city solicitor general to City Attorney Zach Klein.

Hiring Perkins was not without risks, Baker-Morrish said, of both the political and practical kind.

"At that time, human trafficking didn't have the same kind of understanding it does now," she said. "We wondered what the public perception would be."

As it turned out, the hire was one of the best decisions ever made, Baker-Morrish said.

"Too often a lawyer looks at a case and not the person in front of them. But with Vanessa, and all that she'd been through, she humanized that for us. We learned so much from her," she said. "You could see her self-confidence grow, and it was wonderful to watch the evolution.

"Vanessa stands as a beacon of hope that if you put in the work, you can improve your life in so many ways. And that you deserve it."