Should a 14-year-old child trafficked into the sex trade be considered a criminal, or a victim?

What about a 42-year-old adult who was trafficked at 14 and didn’t escape “the life” for 28 years? Aren’t both deserving of a second chance?

Until 2012, the only life I knew was one of prostitution. It started in my early teens when I was trafficked by a pimp who first pretended to be my boyfriend. It didn’t end until nearly three decades later when a probation officer told me about a local nonprofit, Breaking Free.

During those dark years, I was beaten countless times, convicted of five felonies, went through treatment for drug and alcohol addictions 13 times, and had four children. While I told myself prostitution was a career I wanted, I now know that being exploited is never a choice.

Now, at 47, for the first time in my life I am truly on my own. Free from pimps, drugs and a destructive lifestyle, I now work as an advocate for other sex-trafficking survivors. But that freedom hasn’t come easy for me, and it is not a given for the women I work with every day who are struggling to fully recover from an experience most people can scarcely imagine.

I believe lawmakers in Minnesota and in Congress can help trafficking victims regain a safe, productive life by passing what’s known as “vacatur” laws. Enacted by more than a dozen states, vacatur laws enable survivors of human trafficking to vacate, or get rid of, convictions and expunge arrests for non-violent crimes committed as a direct result of having been a victim of trafficking. These important provisions transfer blame from the victim to the trafficker, where it belongs. They give survivors a second chance.

For me and so many others, one of the biggest challenges as a sex trafficking survivor is finding a job and affordable, safe housing. When landlords or potential employers see a record of convictions — or even arrests without convictions — they are often reluctant to hire or rent. Criminal records can also prevent trafficking survivors from getting driver’s licenses, loans or visas. Minnesota law allows the court to expunge, or seal, a crime victim’s convictions if a survivor can demonstrate that she or he was a victim at the time of the criminal act. However, the criteria for expunging records is restrictive for many survivors.

I believe Minnesota should pass and enact a strong vacatur law that 1) does not require the survivor to present official documentation certifying them as a victim of trafficking; 2) is not limited to vacating only certain prostitution offenses; 3) does not require the survivor to prove that he or she has left the sex industry or been “rehabilitated”; 4) offers confidentiality to protect victims’ identity, and 5) ensures all trafficking survivors can benefit from vacatur by funding legal-services lawyers to work with survivors.

At the federal level, our representatives in Congress can also play an important role by supporting the Human Trafficking Survivors Relief and Empowerment Act. This legislation provides a process by which a trafficking survivor can move to vacate any arrest or conviction record for a nonviolent federal offense committed as a direct result of human trafficking.

Of course, nothing will change if people are not aware of the challenges facing survivors of human trafficking, so it’s also important to educate others. I recently witnessed just how powerful education can be after Breaking Free survivors spoke with students at the University of St. Thomas. While we initially met with them to have our own speaking skills evaluated, students became passionate about human trafficking after hearing our stories, and conducted research of their own that supports the need for Minnesota to implement vacatur laws that match those of other states.

It was gratifying to educate others, and I was moved to see the students translate their passion into the fight for survivor rights. I’ve gotten a second chance in life, and am making it my life’s work to help other trafficking victims get theirs.

It is my hope that more Minnesotans will learn, understand and act by calling on our lawmakers to implement vacatur laws.

Jenny Gaines, of St. Paul, is an intake specialist with Breaking Free.