“They took my passport and my money,” Cerpa said. “They told me that I owed them a lot of money. The amount kept growing. They told me that the only way to pay it off was by working in a brothel that was run on Roosevelt Avenue. I was trafficked over the next three years.”
Cerpa told her heartbreaking story at a press conference last week welcoming the new Queens human trafficking intervention pilot project, which will provide pro bono legal representation for victims of sex trafficking on immigration law matters.
“I’m speaking out so that no girl or young woman will suffer the abuse that I did,” Cerpa said.
She described how her best friend, a woman who was trafficked by her family from the Dominican Republic, was murdered in front of her by a drunk customer. Cerpa said that she once told her boyfriend that she was going to go to the cops to report him.
“He told me that if I did, I would be deported,” she said.
The intervention project is a partnership with the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence; Sanctuary for Families, which provides services for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking and related forms of gender violence; and the already-successful Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court (HTIC), founded in 2004, which provides social services and alternatives to incarceration for individuals arrested for prostitution and other related charges.
Since their opening, over 120 sex trafficking victims have sought services at the four New York City Family Justice Centers, and 56 percent of those victims sought services at the Queens Center.
That is because, according to State Senator Jose Peralta, Roosevelt Avenue is a “hotbed of human trafficking activity.”
Judges Judy Kluger, the executive director of Sanctuary for Families, and Toko Serita, the presiding judge of the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, spoke of the importance of addressing this issue with legal help for victims in court.
“Trafficking victims almost always are in the shadows, trapped by incomprehensible, brutal conditions that are hard for most of us to imagine,” Kluger said. “Every victim now that appears in Judge Serita’s court has access to services and our focus is on the immigration issues that they have. Immigration issues can be a powerful, powerful tool, that can mean the difference between freedom and continued slavery.”
Cerpa’s story is a testament to this reality, and as a client of Sanctuary for Families, she said her life was changed with the help and services they provided.
“The other trafficking victims and I were arrested over and over for prostitution,” she said. “Never did the police, the prosecutor or the judges ask if we were trafficked. Never did they offer us help and protection. All of this has changed. With the new trafficking intervention court, finally our court recognized that women like me should not be treated as criminals but as victims.”