Nashville’s one-of-a-kind human trafficking court gains momentum after difficult year

By: - June 21, 2021 5:02 am
Shelia Simpkins, manager of the residential program at Thistle Farms in Nashville and a survivor of hu

Shelia Simpkins, manager of the residential program at Thistle Farms in Nashville and a survivor of human trafficking. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Grant-funded government programs do not typically survive the kinds of challenges that Cherished Hearts, Nashville’s unique intervention court aimed at helping human trafficking suvivors, has faced since it launched.

In its five-plus years of existence, the program has spanned four judges, two executive directors, an unrelated criminal scandal involving one of those judges and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic.

On top of those obstacles, Cherished Hearts is an intricate program in terms of how it operates. Funded with a mixture of government grants and private foundation fundraising, Cherished Hearts relies on collaboration across multiple city agencies and nonprofit organizations.

The program targets human trafficking survivors, mainly women who have been used for sex against their will, and whose circumstances have put them in front of a judge whose easier option would be to hand down a jail sentence and move on to the next person on their crowded docket.

Thanks to a recently approved federal grant and the steadying leadership of General Sessions Judge Ana Escobar, Cherished Hearts is pressing on and poised to grow at a time when awareness of human trafficking is at an all-time high.

Nashville Judge Ana Escobar smiles during a session of the Cherished Hearts program to help survivors of human trafficking. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Nashville Judge Ana Escobar smiles during a session of the Cherished Hearts program to help survivors of human trafficking. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Largely flying under the radar in Nashville, Cherished Hearts represents a new frontier of criminal justice strategies where the goal is restorative, wrap-around services and an intensive, hands-on approach. 

State law helps few human trafficking suvivors in Nashville

By Nate Rau

A well-intentioned state law aimed at dismissing criminal charges against suvivors of human trafficking has been of little help in Nashville, multiple stakeholders say.

The 2019 law was passed to allow trafficking survivors to see their charges expunged if they meet certain requirements, including completing probation or jail terms.

The problem with the law, experts say, is that it requires at least one of the criminal charges levied against the individual to be for prostitution.

But, the vast majority of women found by Cherished Hearts, Nashville’s specialty court aimed at identifying and helping trafficking survivors, do not have prostitution charges.

According to Ana Escobar, the General Sessions judge who oversees Cherished Hearts, the majority of women participating in her court do not have pending prostitution charges. In fact, by its very definition, human trafficking survivors are not getting paid for sex, but rather someone else is benefiting financially.

“It’s pretty much useless. One of the (requirements) is they have to have a prostitution charge,” Escobar said of the law. “Most of our ladies don’t come to us with a prostitution charge.”

Sarah Wolfson Butler (Photo: Submitted)
Sarah Wolfson Butler (Photo: Submitted)

Assistant Davidsion County District Attorney Sarah Wolfson Butler explained that in addition to the human trafficking alternative court, the county also has a diversion program for people charged with prostitution.

“Our statistics have shown about 33 percent of women (who are also victims of human trafficking) have a prostitution charge at all, which means a very miniscule subset are ever actually picked up for the reasons spelled out in the law,” Butler said.

So in Nashville, 66 percent of human trafficking victims can’t take advantage of the state law passed in 2019. As for the remaining one-third who might have a prostitution charge, because Nashville offers a separate path for those arrested for prostitution to get their charges dismissed, the state law seeking to help trafficking survivors is superfluous. Those arrested for prostitution must complete an 8-hour class and other requirements, including a health screening, and then the DA’s office asks for the charges to be dismissed.

Butler called the law “well intentioned,” but said it could use some work. Butler said she has had those conversations to explain the loophole in the law to state lawmakers. She said stakeholders in Nashville’s anti-human trafficking community are aware of the issue as well and have also begun talking to policy-makers.

“We do see a lot of drug charges, a lot of possession charges, theft, robbery, burglaries,” Butler said. “They’re kind of survival crimes. We also see a lot of domestic violence where the person being trafficked is actually the victim in the case.

“We appreciate the legislature acknowledging that people who are victims in trafficking deserve to have their charges expunged. I absolutely have started having those conversations about, what can we do to strengthen this law?” 

Escobar and other stakeholders are expecting an uptick this year.

“It’s a sweet little program that has been through a lot including the pandemic,” Escobar said. “But, it’s still here. It’s kicking strong and it’s not going to give up. So I’m very proud of it.”

A successful program with a rocky past

The Cherished Hearts program was the brainchild of Davidson County assistant district attorneys Deb Smith and Tammy Meade, Escobar said. The DAs had been handling the prosecution of individuals charged with human trafficking related crimes. After a professional conference, the two DAs learned of a survivors’ court and began pitching the idea in Nashville, eventually leading to launching Cherished Hearts with Judge Casey Moreland overseeing the court.

Aided with a startup grant, which expired last October, Cherished Hearts was well received when it launched, receiving positive coverage in the Tennessean when its first class of graduates completed the program in 2016.

The first major problem arose when General Sessions Judge Casey Moreland, the first judge to oversee Cherished Hearts, was the subject of a criminal investigation that culminated in guilty pleas for obstruction of justice, retaliation against a witness, theft from a federally funded program, destruction of records and witness tampering.

The theft from a federally funded program charge stemmed from Moreland using a foundation affiliated with a drug court foundation. Similar to Cherished Hearts, the drug court was an alternative to prosecution programs aimed at helping individuals battling addiction.

The criminal investigation affected Cherished Hearts in two ways. First, it meant the program needed a new judge to run it. Secondly, it put increased scrutiny on similar private foundations used to help fund court programs.

Elected in 2018 after a career as a prosecutor, public defender and the appointed Metro Clerk, Escobar told the Tennessee Lookout she did not know she would be handed the reins to Cherished Hearts.

“It has opened my eyes,” Escobar said, explaining that the vast majority of women who have gone through the program battle drug and alcohol addiction in addition to other problems. “I have so much respect for people going through recovery and trying to turn their lives around. Most of them come week to week, so I get to know them personally. The court is very informal. We all sit around the table, I don’t wear a robe. It’s like friends sitting around talking.

“We celebrate accomplishments, we mourn when things go wrong. I wish all court was like this, because you get to know how people got in these situations and how hard it is to stop addiction. That has really benefited me in my regular courtroom role.”

Earlier this year, Metro Council approved a $250,000 federal grant, passed through the state, as well as $62,500 in local matching funds, which will be used to pay for a licensed clinical counselor. Escobar also recently helped launch the obviously-named Human Trafficking Court Suvivors Foundation. To avoid the kind of conflicts of interest that Moreland faced, Escobar said her role with the foundation is strictly reporting on the progress of the program, and not directing how the money is spent.

“My name’s not on the checking account or anything like that. I show up, I give a report, and I leave and allow the board to make its decisions,” she said.

While the addition of the grant funds and the re-establishment of the foundation will help with finances, the second problem Cherished Hearts had to overcome was the pandemic.

The program relies on prosecutors, judges and others working around the court to screen individuals who fit the definition of experiencing human trafficking. But, with the pandemic taking away attorney-client interactions as well as the bond docket, the number of opportunities to identify people who could be helped was diminished, she said.

A day in Judge Ana Escobar's courtroom. (Photo: John Partipilo)
A day in Judge Ana Escobar’s courtroom. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“They’ll have somebody in court and they’ll start thinking, ‘Well there’s a little more to this,’” Escobar said, explaining how a district attorney or general sessions judge might recognize a person who could be caught in the snare of human trafficking. “So then they’ll ask our director to go screen the person to see if they qualify. Because, first of all, we didn’t have any bond dockets during COVID, so that limited the amount of people we were exposed to. Second of all, you wouldn’t believe how many times the jail went into quarantine, so most of the time attorneys were not able to talk to their clients except via video. That process was horrible.”

Despite being hampered by the pandemic, 20 individuals participated in the program in 2020.

How it works

Cherished Hearts is equipped to help women, men and transgender individuals who are victims of human trafficking, but Escobar said the program has mostly identified women up to this point.

Once a person is screened and identified to fit the criteria, there is an intake process where their needs are ferreted out. That’s where nonprofit partners come in, providing therapy, drug rehabilitation, and help navigating the bureaucracy of the court process.

End Slavery Tennessee, Thistle Farms, Magdalene House and the Mental Health Co-op are among the nonprofit groups that participate, offering many of their services free of charge to the government.

Shelia Simpkins, a survivor of human trafficking, says Escobar is "doing a phenomenal job." (Photo: John Partipilo)
Shelia Simpkins, a survivor of human trafficking, says Escobar is “doing a phenomenal job.” (Photo: John Partipilo)

Shelia Simpkins, the director of residential services for Thistle Farms and also a human trafficking survivor herself, said the creation of the program was important, becasue for many years the jail was a revolving door for people who were caught up in criminal behavior derived from their circumstances in human trafficking. Simpkins said she believes Escobar is doing “a phenomenal job” stabilizing and running the specialty court.

“They created this court that is one of five in the country to use a victim-centered approach to victims of trafficking,” Simpkins said. “It’s the first time, really ever, where the court system was identifying victims and using community resources to empower them to be the best person they can be. Because it’s through a court system, it also holds them accountable, which I think is a good thing. I don’t think that jail is the answer. So, Cherished Hearts focuses more on rehabilitation, while also holding people accountable.”

While awareness around global issue of human trafficking has risen in recent years, with bipartisan support among politicians to address the problem and faith-based groups especially raising money for the cause, Assistant District Attorney Sarah Wolfson Butler said there is still a misconception about the typical victim’s situation.

“The tide turned in terms of people being willing to acknowledge that it’s happening here,” Butler said. “There was a view of what human trafficking was, and thats that it was happening abroad in impoverished countries. It wasn’t happening here, or certainly not in Nashville.”

According to Butler and other experts interviewed for this story, the most common Cherished Hearts participant is a woman targeted for human trafficking by someone she knows, normally a boyfriend. The relationship becomes abusive and the man forces the woman to perform a sex act to help solve a financial hardship, or sometimes to pay for drugs.

Women participating in Cherished Hearts are often not charged with sex-related crimes, but more often theft, assault or drug-related charges. Most often, the women had experiences with sexual or physical abuse before they entered into the relationship.

In her role as senior director of programs for the Metro Office of Family Services, Becky Bullard regularly works with the survivors’ court. She said the misconception that human trafficking is the result of kidnapping, the sort of stranger-danger scenario where a shadowy figures wrestles a young woman into a white van, makes identifying the more common case of human trafficking very difficult. In the typical scenario, a woman has been forced into sex without getting paid, and since they know the person who made them do it, may not even recognize themself as a victim of human trafficking.

“The majority of the women who come into the court do have substance abuse disorder… It can be a control mechanism,” said. “That goes hand in hand with the trauma they’ve experienced. It’s a long journey, as far as the trauma, healing from being sold for commercial sex. There’s a lot of trauma bundled up in the trafficking experience, and there’s also typically trauma that was experienced before the trafficking. The majority have been before when they were minors, or before the commercial trafficking happened.”

To address those different layers of trauma, Cherished Hearts works collaboratively with the experts at the nonprofits for targeted therapy catered to survivors.

Escobar said case managers can also address more mundane issues, like helping a woman get reading glasses repaired, and with personal relationships, like reconnecting with estranged children.

Once immediate needs like housing and drug counseling have been met, the court expands its focus to helping find employment and there are regular check-ins with Escobar.

“Eventually our goal is for these ladies to live independently, have full-time jobs,” she said. “What I love the most is that many of them are reunified with their kids, because a lot of them have lost custody of the kids. So many of them go back to juvenile court and try to get custody or partial custody back from their kids.”

Butler said she is grateful to her boss, District Attorney Glenn Funk, for emphasizing programs like Cherished Hearts. She said she views it as “the future of the criminal justice system.”

“When we’re looking at the future of what our criminal justice system should look like, it’s cherished hearts,” Butler said. “We’ve created a team that’s so dedicated to actually addressing the needs of offenders.”

(Featured photo: Shelia Simpkins, manager of the residential program at Thistle Farms in Nashville and a survivor of human trafficking. Photo: John Partipilo)


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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.