Scrolling through social media, Rachel Lloyd often sees young people who look familiar to her.

“They just look like our girls, but they’re not,” says Lloyd, founder and president of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS). The Harlem-based nonprofit helps 12- to 24-year-olds who have been trafficked or are otherwise involved in selling sex to advance their education, access transitional housing, get counseling, and, in some cases, leave what Lloyd refers to as “the life.”

“Knowing that whole population is out there and that now we aren’t coming into contact with a lot of them is really sad to me,” Lloyd laments.

Lloyd is talking about the recent drop she’s seen in the number of clients arriving at GEMS through the city’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts—which, contrary to their name, are the destination for everyone arrested on prostitution-related charges, whether or not they have been trafficked. (Under the federal definition, “human trafficking” refers to people who are engaging in labor as a result of force, fraud, or coercion.) These courts typically order those arrested to get counseling in exchange for having their cases dismissed, creating a potential entry point for other services. In 2015, 139 people arrived at GEMS through these courts, accounting for about a third of the organization’s clients; by 2018, that figure had fallen to just 41.

“Morally and philosophically, I don’t want to see girls and young women arrested,” says Lloyd, who moved to the U.S. in 1997 after leaving the sex industry in Germany. But, she added, “I also have seen incredible success through our program.”

This dropoff could be considered a good thing. There are serious potential harms associated with being policed, arrested, and going to court—even diversion court—and many who are arrested don’t actually want the services they’re offered. Even those who don’t experience such extreme consequences as being assaulted by a police officer, getting picked up by ICE in court, or landing in jail for not complying with a diversion program can still be traumatized by the process of going through the criminal justice system, according to service providers and those who have gone through the system themselves.

But just because fewer people are being arrested for prostitution and showing up in court—a phenomenon that has coincided with the NYPD’s declaration that it will focus more on arresting “pimps and Johns”—doesn’t necessarily mean fewer people are selling sex. And many people involved in the sex trades in New York have pressing needs.

In a survey of about 1,400 Legal Aid Society clients charged with prostitution-related offenses between 2015 and 2016, 78 percent indicated a desire for at least one type of assistance, most commonly citing a need for employment, housing, education, and health care, in that order. Almost all were women of color and, although the majority were U.S. citizens, a sizeable cohort (29 percent) had arrived from Asia speaking Mandarin or Korean. A minority of those surveyed—about 35 percent—reported having been trafficked into sex work at some point, with 20 percent indicating that they were currently being trafficked.

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(Scott Heins / Gothamist)

Admittedly, the term “human trafficking” has become overused and politicized. The NYPD, for instance, refuses to distinguish between “trafficking” and “sex work” and has unilaterally framed shutting down massage parlors that sell sex as a bid to rescue trafficking victims. But in some cases the term does apply.

The first of the five times Alexandra (a pseudonym) was arrested for prostitution and brought to the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, she was 17 and had zero interest in counseling. “I was telling the pimp I was with, ‘I don’t wanna go, I don’t wanna go,’” she tells Gothamist. “And he was like, ‘You have to go because this is what they mandated and you don’t wanna go to jail.’”

Alexandra says her plan for GEMS “was just to be quiet and not talk to nobody.”

“It didn’t work out very well,” jokes the now 28-year-old aspiring police officer, who eventually earned her bachelor’s and associate’s degrees with the financial, academic, and emotional support of GEMS’ Education Initiative.

There’s a troubling shortage of concrete data on the outcomes of services provided through the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. But GEMS has shared some encouraging results from its Education Initiative with Gothamist: Between 2015 and 2018, 119 GEMS members enrolled in high school or a GED program, 48 obtained a diploma or GED, 78 enrolled in college, six obtained an associate’s degree, nine earned a bachelor’s degree and three enrolled in a post-graduate program.

For Alexandra, it was one of GEMS’ group sessions with other young people who had sold sex that first got her attention. She says she felt empowered “hearing other girls’ stories and knowing that we related to each other and that they weren’t going to judge me.”

But, she says, it was impossible for her to go to GEMS without being mandated by the court because her pimp wouldn’t let her. He was a guy who had showed her kindness in a vulnerable moment after her mom and stepfather passed away, only to later to order her to repay him by selling sex. “If you don’t do this for me I’m gonna kill you,” Alexandra recalls him telling her.

At one point, Alexandra says, she even considered getting arrested on purpose in order to go back to GEMS. (She ended up getting picked up by an undercover officer anyway.) Ultimately, she says, it wasn’t her multiple arrests, but rather the help of two close friends that allowed her to escape her pimp. Still, she credits GEMS with where she’s at today: “They saved my life, for real.”

Kim (also a pseudonym), a former sex worker who now answers phones for massage parlors, describes a very different experience with the diversion courts, expressing frustration that they simultaneously treated her as a criminal and a someone who needed saving. She was arrested after unwittingly making a date with an undercover cop who responded to her online ad, she says, and her instinct was to maintain her innocence.

“The police entrap you when they call you and then arrest you,” says Kim. “I’m not doing anything, come on.” She was advised to go through counseling to get her charges dropped, which she found both unhelpful and deeply unfair. Still, she says, she dutifully participated in the sessions and got her case dismissed.

Now that Kim is applying for citizenship, though, her court experience has come back to haunt her. She says an immigration officer asked if she had ever been arrested, and she worries her truthful answer will hurt her. “I worry a lot,” she says.

Ideally, Kim says, outreach should start before people get into the sex industry. She arrived in the U.S. in 2012 with some English and experience working in the import/export business in China, and immediately started applying for office jobs. She felt pressure to find something quickly because she was staying in a friend’s apartment in Flushing. But, she says, resources for finding a job were limited.

“Places like Flushing have so many Chinese,” says Kim, who found her first sex work gig in the classified section of the Chinese newspaper World Journal. “If you have certain agencies to help the newcomers figure out what you can do to get a decent job, [that would help]. They have no resources for that except the newspaper.”

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(Scott Heins / Gothamist)

For all their contradictions, the trafficking courts have for years been one of the city’s main forms of outreach to people in the sex trades. Now, with fewer people going through the courts and the debate about decriminalizing sex work ramping up, advocates and service providers are starting to look for new ways to effectively connect with everyone who needs assistance.

Organizations that provide services through the diversion courts already tend to receive referrals from multiple sources, including word of mouth, government agencies, and community-based organizations.

But some are now are seeking to expand their outreach methods. Sanctuary for Families, an organization that provides legal consultations and other services in the trafficking courts, has started visiting sex workers in Queens massage parlors in an effort to build relationships in the community. GEMS, meanwhile, has piloted an initiative where people who have left the sex industry create social media profiles to make contact with young people who are advertising sex online, and is also planning to send outreach workers into strip clubs. Lloyd says her organization, which serves about 300 people a year with 17 full-time and 13 part-time staff, has limited resources to experiment with these new outreach methods.

To help fund such efforts, the recently passed 2020 city budget devoted nearly $3 million to services for “persons involved in the sex trades.” (This is in addition to the $1.2 million that was renewed for services that are linked to the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts.) The new pot of money includes $300,000 for service providers to hire outreach workers in the community. Details have yet to be released about which organizations will receive funding for what services, but city council speaker Corey Johnson has said he hopes to create a service center where people in the sex trades can voluntarily access necessities such as health care, legal services and job training.

Several advocates and service providers have expressed support for the creation of a drop-in center. But they also say it’s just a part of the solution: For one thing, it likely wouldn’t be accessible to those currently being trafficked.

For supporters of the Decrim NY coalition, which is seeking to decriminalize the sale and purchase of sex by consenting adults, the most important way to help sex workers and trafficking victims alike is to prioritize, as the slogan goes, #RightsNotRescue. In addition to making it easier for people who make their living off of sex work to continue to make ends meet, they have argued, decriminalization would also make it possible for those in the sex trades to report instances of trafficking or exploitation without fearing arrest. Decrim NY supports Speaker Johnson’s initiative to provide assistance to people in the sex trades outside of the courts, but has denounced his position that people buying sex should still be arrested.

GEMS and SFF are among those that vehemently oppose the Decrim NY platform, saying sex work is inherently exploitative and unsafe. They agree that the police should stop arresting people for prostitution, but instead want to shift the focus to arresting people patronizing and facilitating the sex industry. It’s a stance that, at least in theory, would still empty the courts of sex workers.

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Though the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court opened under a different name in 2004, the city didn’t start formally tracking data on these courts until 2011. (Caroline Lewis)

The courts, in fact, are already much emptier than they once were. In 2018, the city’s five trafficking courts saw fewer than half the cases they did at their peak capacity in 2014, with the Queens court, which is the busiest, seeing a steep drop in cases in the last two years, according to court data. With a growing number of city and state elected officials joining advocates in calling for an end to prostitution-related arrests and legislation pending at the state level to fully decriminalize sex work (or at least rein in discriminatory policing), those numbers could drop further. Tiffany Cabán, who could become the next Queens District Attorney after declaring victory in the still officially undecided primary last week, has said she would stop prosecuting sex workers as well as customers and promoters, aligning her with Decrim NY.

“As long as the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts are going to be in operation, of course, we are interested in being there and offering services,” says Aya Tasaki, manager of advocacy and policy at Womankind, a group that provides resources such as legal assistance, emergency housing, and economic empowerment programming, primarily to Asian victims of labor and sex trafficking. But she argues that resources poured into the criminal justice system undermine the services offered by her organization (which is a member of Decrim NY).

“With the clients who come through the courts, just so much of it is dealing with the trauma of arrest. It takes a long time to get to what they actually need support for, which is their exploitation,” Tasaki says.

Still, she acknowledges, “You can’t just set up a center and say, ‘If you identify as a trafficking victim, you go here.’ There does need to be a lot of investment in holding space for directly impacted people and people doing this work a long time to come together and hammer out some details.”

Safe Horizon, another organization that serves labor and sex trafficking victims, doesn’t take a position on decriminalization but already refuses to work with the trafficking courts, instead casting a wide net for referrals. “A victim should not have to be arrested in order to be connected to services,” says Anita Teekah, senior director of the Anti-Trafficking Program at Safe Horizon. Yet Safe Horizon doesn’t eschew working with law enforcement. The organization provides training on how to recognize signs of trafficking to the NYPD, medical providers, nonprofits, and government agencies, including ICE. “As we’re doing trainings we get referrals from those sources,” says Teekah. “The next big one we’re doing is shelters.”

Ultimately, the goal should be to ensure that people in the sex trades have a seat at the table when crafting new policies, including alternatives to the trafficking courts, says Cecilia Gentili, a former sex worker who is a member of the Decrim NY steering committee. Decrim NY is currently in talks about conducting an independent needs assessment of people in the sex trades that could inform the services the city funds moving forward.

“There’s a long history of non-sex workers making decisions for sex workers and this is a great opportunity to craft those services from what people in the community say they need,” Gentili said.

Asked about the concerns some anti-trafficking groups have raised about the challenges involved in reaching people who wouldn’t be able to access services voluntarily, Gentili counters, “First you should ask them what happened to Layleen Polanco, who was sent to their intervention court and ended up dead in solitary confinement on Rikers Island.”

But she then softens her approach. “I really support their work,” says Gentili, who says she was trafficked at one point. “It is noble and necessary because nobody wants people to be trafficked.” Given that “we are all smart and have great intentions,” she adds, “I’m sure we can all find ways to find victims of trafficking and help them” without criminalizing them.