Deborah Pembrook doesn’t remember exactly when she was first sex-trafficked, but she knows it was early—the images of abuse collide in her brain with images of childhood crayons and stuffed animals. When she finally escaped, she was 17 years old and all alone. Her earnings had gone to her trafficker, so she had no savings, and she was forced to move to another state, so she had no family or safety net. And because of the laws in California—the state where she eventually settled, to disappear among tourists on the crowded beaches of Santa Cruz—she had no way of getting what she really needed: cash.
Throughout the United States, thousands of human-trafficking survivors are struggling to make up for the wages stolen from them while they were enslaved. But unlike victims of other violent crimes—say, a mugging victim who can’t work because of their injuries, or a robbery victim who can’t work because of a stolen computer—trafficking victims are routinely barred from recouping lost income through state victim compensation funds.
Now, lawmakers in California are trying to change that. A new bill would secure the right of sex- and labor-trafficking victims to recover lost income through the state’s victim compensation fund—a decades-old institution that provides reimbursement for crime-related expenses like medical care, mental health services, funeral expenses, relocation, and lost income. In the last year, it paid out more than $57 million dollars to victims of violent crimes.
Trafficking victims aren’t explicitly locked out of the fund—in fact, many have received compensation for expenses like mental health services or relocation. But when it comes to paying back lost income, the devil is in the details: Under current state guidelines, any crime victims seeking reimbursement for lost income must submit a worker’s compensation report or a letter from their employer. In a trafficking case, that’s the same person who exploited the victim.
“Common sense tells you no trafficking victims could ask their employer for a letter documenting their trafficking,” said Stephanie Richard, a senior policy adviser for the nonprofit Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST). “Therefore if the victims compensation fund wishes to fully compensate all victims, they need to come up with a different system.”
The problem isn’t unique to California. A Daily Beast analysis of publicly available documents found that the majority of states require pay stubs, tax filings, or confirmation from an employer to apply for lost income—all documents that a trafficking victim would not be able to access. No states have statutes affirming that trafficking victims are entitled to lost income.
Richard first started working on a solution in 2015, when she realized that none of her organization’s nearly 300 clients would be able to access lost income through the California fund. At first, Richard and representatives from Bet Tzedek—a nonprofit providing legal services to low-income communities—tried working directly with the California Victim Compensation Board. But after nearly two years, the board said it didn’t have the regulatory authority need to make such a substantial change. They would have to go to the legislature.
The bill that CAST, Bet Tzedek, and Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez drafted in 2017 added language directly to state statutes affirming a trafficking victim’s right to lost income. It also set up a simple calculation for determining lost wages—40 hours a week at minimum wage, for as long as the person said they were trafficked—and capped payouts at $20,000. And it directed the state compensation board to determine what kind of proof was needed to establish the length of the trafficking, whether through police reports, advocate statements, or victim testimony.
In 2018, the bill passed the California legislature unanimously. Supporters included the California District Attorneys Association, the California College and University Police Chiefs Association, and the California Narcotic Officers’ Association.
But at the last minute, then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it. In a statement, his office claimed the plan would fundamentally “change the nature of the Board's system for compensating victims” and would place an “unsustainable burden on the Restitution Fund.”
The advocates were stunned.
“We felt like the policy arguments were there,” Richard said. “Governor Brown had signed numerous pieces of anti trafficking legislation that year, and it felt like he hadn’t signed the most important one for survivors.”
When the legislature founded it in 1965, the California Victim Compensation Fund was the first in the country. Along with money for victims, the fund paid out damages to so-called “good Samaritans” who were injured while trying to prevent crimes, and to California residents who were victimized in or out of state. In 2017, the fund paid more than $3 million to California-based victims of Harvest Festival shooting in Las Vegas. It also paid more than $11 million for funeral and burial expenses statewide, and $18 million to support victims’ mental health.
Supporters of the bill, known as AB 629, know that reimbursing trafficking victims for lost income would require a conceptual shift. Unlike a mugging victim with a broken arm, a trafficking victim’s request would stem from income lost during the commission of the crime, not afterward. But advocates say that it is the government that is fundamentally changing the nature of the fund—not them—by effectively excluding trafficking survivors from full benefits.
“As long as we have a fund right now that purports to fund victims of crime, in my view there’s no reason why victims of [human trafficking] should be isolated and shunned from this group,” said Claire Lipschultz of the National Council of Jewish Women, which is supporting the bill. “If we have a structural system in place that California has identified as important, to not include this survivors just seems discriminatory."
When Pembrook first escaped her trafficker, she worked days at the boardwalk and nights as a janitor to afford a place to live. But she knows that the days of findings a $200-a-month apartment in Southern California—even a seedy one, like the places she stayed—are over. Today, as a counselor to other trafficking survivors at the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center she believes money from the victims compensation fund could help her clients pay for housing, education, or whatever else they need to feel safe.
Existing programs for trafficking survivors, she said, are “often very rule-intensive and they don’t give survivors choices.”
“What made me feel safe when I was exiting was having choice,” she added.
Other states have also tried to make it easier for trafficking survivors to access funds in recent years. In New York, lawmakers expanded the amount of time child sex abuse survivors are given to file civil cases and potentially win settlements. According to Mother Jones, hundreds of lawsuits hit state courts in the wake of the change, naming abusers like the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and financier Jeffrey Epstein.
But Matthew DeCarolis, a staff attorney for Bet Tzedek, noted that most human traffickers aren’t well-known multimillionaires like Jeffrey Epstein. Most are harder to pin down because—by the very nature of their enterprise—they move frequently, and purposefully hide their assets. Others may already be in prison, or otherwise financially insolvent, and thus unable to earn money to pay back judgements.
Victims can also access compensation through the criminal court system, DeCarolis said, but that would still require tracking the perpetrator down and forcing victims to relive their trauma through lengthy court proceedings.
“The [Victim Compensation Fund] is and always will be a payer of last resort,” DeCarolis said. “But the fact of the matter is, for a lot of trafficking survivors, there are no other options.”
As to whether the California fund can afford this change, that remains to be seen. The fund has always run a surplus; in 2008, the state borrowed $80 million from its coffers, according to a budgeting spreadsheet provided by CAST. But because of recent criminal justice reforms, the fines and fees from which the fund draws its revenue are decreasing. Both sides agree it may have trouble sustaining itself in the future.
But Richard says that’s no excuse for locking survivors out of their money.
“We are not questioning that in the long run the fund will have to be replenished and have different courses of funding,” Richardson said, “but we question the governor’s stance that it should be done on the backs of trafficking victims.”
According to CAST’s latest projections, passing AB 629 would cost the fund less than $300,000 a year. Currently, fewer than 200 victims apply for funding annually, and less than half actually receive a payout. Even if each victim applied for a full year of lost income—unlikely, because CAST says the majority of their clients were enslaved for six months or less—the total cost to the fund would be $256,000 a year. Currently, the fund pays about $11 million dollars annually in lost income to victims of other crimes.
This year, after the election of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assemblywoman Christy Smith reintroduced the legislation—this time with the coveted support of the state Women’s Caucus. Last week, the bill once again passed the legislature unanimously. Now, the final hurdle is seeing whether the legislation can get the governor’s signature.
Smith told The Daily Beast she is hopeful that Newsom will sign the bill, adding that it would help “support reintegration into society.” But for advocates like Richard and DeCarolis, it’s also a way for society to show a little faith in their clients.
“Not that any amount of money can compensate anyone for any type of exploitation they’ve been through, but [this is] at least some very tangible recognition that their case is taken seriously, even if the trafficker is never prosecuted or tracked down,” DeCarolis said.
Added Richard, “This allows people to get a little bit of justice from the system.”