As a teenager, Joel ran away from a small, rural town in Michigan and eventually made his way to Chicago. At 21, he was addicted to crack cocaine and heroin. Fifty-seven arrests and six prostitution-related convictions later, Joel found himself off the streets and in prison.
It was difficult to see Joel as a victim at this point, but there was another side to his story. And legal aid would play a critical role in writing a new chapter.
Joel’s mom was murdered when he was three. He was sent to live with his mom’s family in Michigan, where he faced regular physical and sexual abuse. Growing up gay in an unwelcoming community only brought further abuse. He ran away from home as a teenager, ending up in Chicago in search of acceptance. Instead, he was introduced to crack cocaine and heroin by a pimp as a means to lead him into sex trafficking, and he suffered even more unimaginable abuse.
Somehow, during his time in prison, Joel found the strength and resilience to turn his life around against all the odds life had stacked against him. He got a GED degree, went to college, and worked his way up to a doctoral degree. But then, when he applied to get his professional license to take the next steps in his amazing revival, he ran into a legal brick wall due to his past contacts with the criminal justice system.
Attorneys from CAASE (Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation), one of the many outstanding organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign, took on his case and vacated his prostitution convictions using the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act, a law that CAASE’s End Demand Illinois campaign played a lead role in passing in Illinois. Dr. Joel Filmore is now a faculty member at Northwestern University in the Counseling Program of the Family Institute, where he also has a clinical practice. He recently married and is building a new life for himself thanks to the critical legal help he received from CAASE. And he is inspiring countless others to never give up hope.
CAASE is altering the response to sex trafficking and prostitution. With six laws passed in six years through End Demand Illinois, the law’s attention is shifting to hold perpetrators and purchasers of sex responsible for creating the demand for the sex trade rather than punishing victims like Joel.
Some of the End Demand Illinois successes include the state passing the first law in the nation that makes minors under 18 immune from prosecution for prostitution (research in Chicago suggests that a significant percentage of adults in sex trade entered between ages 14 and 16). One law expanded the definition of human trafficking crimes in Illinois, and another created a defense against prostitution charges if one can prove they engaged in prostitution as a result of human trafficking. In 2013, Illinois eliminated felony charges for prostitution.
An overwhelming majority of mostly women and girls who are bought for sex are people who do not want to be there, said Kaethe Morris Hoffer, CAASE executive director.
In the aftermath of a successful advocacy campaign, CAASE focuses on implementation work and ensuring the new laws are understood and implemented correctly statewide.
CAASE is the only organization in Illinois that focuses on ending sexual exploitation and rape through legal services, policy work, and prevention and education initiatives. It is also one of only a few organizations in the state, as well as the country, that provides legal help at no cost to victims of sexual assault and sex trafficking, regardless of income. CAASE additionally works on creating a statewide system of specialized services and resources for victims.
CAASE constantly challenges society’s misconceptions and attitudes on sexual crimes in their fight for victims’ justice.
Society and law enforcement only want to look at rape as being a stranger jumping out of a bush and dragging you into an alley in the middle of the night, said Christine Evans, legal director at CAASE.
The perpetrator, however, is likely to be someone known to the victim. Only a small fraction of rapes involve weapons. And the criminal justice system too often fails to investigate and prosecute sex crimes, making it incredibly difficult for victims to seek and secure justice.
Research shows that only about one-third of rape victims report to the police, and in Illinois, according to Human Rights Watch, only 11 percent of reported rapes result in an initial arrest. Far fewer result in filed charges, let alone prosecutions or convictions.
The small number of victims who go to the police face a great challenge: a continuing lack of trust and belief in survivors and their stories. It becomes he said, she said, and in those situations, Christine notes, He’ is always given the benefit of the doubt. Attorneys are up against continued unwillingness to see women as actual survivors in need of protection and advocacy.
However, thanks in part to longstanding work by many organizations and individuals throughout the state, a variety of protections and rights now exist for victims of sexual violence and exploitation in Illinois.
Research suggests that nearly 50 percent of survivors drop out of school or lose their employment within one year of being sexually assaulted. Because of this, CAASE attorneys represent clients in the realms of employment and education law. Thanks to the Illinois Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act, victims are entitled to take up to 12 weeks unpaid, job-protected leave to cope with the consequences of sexual assault or domestic violence. Because of the Illinois’ Safe Homes Act, victims who need to change their housing in the aftermath of rape have routes to safety that don’t lead to greater economic damages.
CAASE attorneys fight for students who have been raped, whether they need to take time away from a particular class or school altogether without seeing their finances destroyed or their academic record seriously tarnished by failing grades. CAASE attorneys also advocate on behalf of the many students who are now struggling to improve college and university responses to sexual violence on their campuses, including representing victims as they utilize campus-based disciplinary proceedings against perpetrators of rape.
CAASE also runs a growing Pro Bono Project that trains and connects lawyers in private practice with local survivors of sexual assault and sex trafficking.
Responding to and preventing sexual exploitation requires lawyers to be involved in the effort, added Kaethe. Lawyers and the law are important and active players in this movement for social justice.