Breaking Free, Inc: Breaking the cycle of sex trafficking

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities

Breaking Free

ST. PAUL, MN, July 13, 2013 – Breaking Free, Inc. is a non-profit organization serving women and girls involved in systems of abuse and exploitation / sex trafficking.  Breaking Free was established in October 1996 by Founder and Executive Director, Vednita Carter.  With headquarters in Saint Paul, MN, Breaking Free also has satellite offices in Minneapolis and Rochester, MN.  In this interview, Breaking Free will share their mission, vision, and services; and they will share an opportunity in which YOU can help them open a newly-renovated home in St. Paul.

Holly Smith:  What is the mission of Breaking Free?

Breaking Free:  The mission of Breaking Free is to educate and provide services to women / girls who have been victims of commerical sexual exploitation / sex trafficking and need assistance with escaping violence in their lives.  While based in African American culture, Breaking Free is committed to working with diverse populations of sexually exploited women and girls.  Over the last 17 years, Breaking Free has served more than 5,500 clients and reached over 22,000 individuals via street outreach while systematically growing its programming to embrace a full continuum of care. The primary target population is females in the age range of 16 to 59 years, who have been exploited sexually for commercial purposes.  They are predominantly African American and women of color (60%); and of low socioeconomic status, (most of them are single parents) with poor mental health, and chemical abuse issues.

Holly Smith: If faith-based, please tell us how faith has played a role in your organization?

Breaking Free:  Breaking Free is not a faith-based non-profit, but our founder and staff are all Christians. Because of the condition that many of our clients are in when they enter our programs, our philosophy is to show them the love of Christ though our actions and unconditional acceptance and love despite anything they have been through. Rather than force them to convert to receive housing and  services, we believe that we need to show them by example, lead them to Christ through our actions, and provide access to bible study and spiritual discipleship through our partnerships with our faith-based partners and volunteers. Then, we allow them to make their own choice if and when they are ready to accept Christ as their savior. We don’t tally conversions, but we know that each of our clients has the opportunity to hear the salvation message, and they are encouraged to learn more about being a disciple of Christ and growing in their relationship with Him.

Holly Smith:  Who are your board members and / or co-founders?

Breaking Free:  Breaking Free, Inc. has a Governing Board of five diverse directors from varying professional backgrounds and areas of expertise.  Breaking Free’s staff consists of fourteen full-time employees, seven part-time support staff, and many dedicated interns and volunteers. The majority of the staff is also composed of survivors of sex trafficking, which is important as survivors bring an element of understanding that others cannot.  Each survivor has a unique perspective and ability to relate with the women and girls whom we serve.  Many (25+) volunteers actively contribute to services at Breaking Free, each providing 10-20 hours of service per month.

Holly Smith: Can you tell us more about your services?

Breaking Free: We serve females 16 and up and their children in all of our programs. Breaking Free strives to empower women and girls to choose healthy, self-sufficient lifestyles. Our fundamental goals include strategies that focus on intervention, prevention, and education to ensure safe stable housing and family functioning, while operating in a culturally-appropriate and gender-specific context, with a secondary goal of decreasing the demand for commercial sex. Our services are as follows:

  • Provide education, crisis intervention, and advocacy to sex trafficked women and girls.
  • Decrease their exposure to and involvement in systems of violence.
  • Connect families with community resources to maintain stability and family functioning.
  • Provide and/ or coordinate safe stable housing for women / youth and their children.
  • Provide opportunities for education and life skills to enable them to move out of poverty and become self-sustaining and to improve the parenting skills of mothers.
  • Operate within a culturally-appropriate age and gender-specific context.
  • Educate the community about the effects of commercial sexual exploitation on women and girls and the negative effects on the community.
  • Bring change to  public policy regarding the treatment of victims and the prosecution of pimps and “johns” while working to educate men in an effort to decrease the demand for sexual sevices.

These goals have a direct impact on individuals, families, and the community. By providing survivors with the tools necessary to complete and improve their education and employability, Breaking Free is also helping to prevent the exploitation of the next generation, the children of the victims. Sex trafficking is a cyclical system of poverty, drug addiction, rape, abuse of power, and degradation.  This cycle will continue to be passed down from one generation to the next unless intervention occurs and women have the resources and opportunities to build a new life for themselves and their children.

Holly Smith: How can the public help you?

Breaking Free:  In the past year, Breaking Free has experienced a significant increase in the number of exploited women, girls, and children seeking assistance and services from our program. Currently, we are serving an average of 100 individuals and families each week from our St. Paul drop-in center and administrative offices.  While we are doing our best to keep up with the need, we are literally bursting at the seams with survivors and their children sitting outside, in our garage, and packed into our tiny conference room to participate in our weekly programs. Each week 20-30 children accompany their mothers to group and we need a safe place to provide care for them as well.

Breaking Free has just been presented with an opportunity to purchase a newly-renovated home just two doors down from our St. Paul location! This is a rare opportunity and a huge blessing as we struggle to figure out what will happen to these families in the winter when we literally have no room for them indoors.

We have secured over 75% of the funding, but we still need to raise the remaining $40,000 in the next TWO WEEKS.  We ask the public to please consider donating to this cause, and to share this opportunity with others.

To learn more about Breaking Free and to donate to this cause, please visit

PART TWO: Interview with Laurel G. Bellows, President of the ABA

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities

Laurel G. Bellows

CHICAGO, IL, July 6, 2013 – In the second half of our interview, Laurel G. Bellows, President of the American Bar Association (ABA) and Founding Partner of Bellows Law Group PC, shares recent and upcoming events related to anti-human trafficking efforts.  In the first half of our interview, Laurel shared her passion for the cause and the ABA’s current projects, including the ABA Task Force on Human Trafficking, the ABA Fortune 100 Report, and the ABA’s “Voices for Victims: Lawyers Against Human Trafficking Tool Kit.”

Holly Smith:  Laurel, please share any recent speaking events.

Laurel G. Bellows:  Recent speaking events have included the John Marshall Law School Dean Fred F. Herzog Memorial Lecture in Chicago, focusing on human trafficking. Herzog, who left his native Austria when Hitler seized control, was a long-time champion of human rights.

I also spoke on human trafficking at the third annual Human Rights Summit hosted by the ABA’s Center for Human Rights. The summit surveyed the ABA’s activities and explored the legal profession’s unique potential to advance human rights globally.

Judges have become involved in our effort, and I recently gave a statement for a panel discussion on “Human Trafficking: How We Can Make a Difference,” presented by the National Association of Women Judges and the ABA’s Task Force on Human Trafficking. The panel was an outreach and education program for judges, civil attorneys, prosecutors, law enforcement, and other allied professionals to begin to work together to eliminate human trafficking.

I also had the honor to speak before the National Association of Attorneys General and the Conference of Chief Justices on uniting our state’s top lawyers and judges to stomp out trafficking in our nation and other crucial topics, including the funding of our justice systems and cybersecurity.

Holly Smith: Can you tell us more about your concerns for funding and cybersecurity?

Laurel G. Bellows:  The ABA continues to emphasize our fear, not simply concern, about the destruction of our justice system caused by underfunding, both at the federal level and the state level. As we lobby for federal-court funding in our Capitol, we must also be talking about state-court budgets, which still only make up 2 percent of a state’s budget. Adequate court funding is an issue that the ABA is fighting state by state.

We are also very concerned about cyberattacks, which are probably the greatest short- and long-term threats to the financial and physical security of our country. The ABA is very concerned about protecting our lawyers’ and our clients’ confidential information.  We are in the process of developing a cyber-response guidebook with practical cyberthreat information, guidance, and strategies for lawyers and law firms of all sizes. The guidebook will also establish what legal responsibilities and professional obligations are owed to the client. The book will provide strategies to help law firms defend against a cyberthreat and how to respond if breached. We expect the ABA Cybersecurity Guidebook — A Resource for Attorneys, Law Firms and Business Professionals to be released in August.

Visit for more information.

Holly Smith:  Please share any recent awards or experiences.

Laurel G. Bellows:  I am proud to be the recipient of the Women of Legacy Award from Powerful Women International and the 2012 ATHENA International Leadership Award, presented to leaders for achieving professional excellence and for assisting and inspiring women to realize their full personal and professional potential. This year marks significant equality-related anniversaries: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, the upcoming 50th anniversary of the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This is a time to celebrate our progress and remind ourselves of the work yet to be done. I have had the privilege to work alongside the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the ABA’s Task Force on Gender Equity to combat gender inequities in our profession and promulgate specific action steps to eradicate bias.

As for experiences, it has been an extraordinary honor to serve as the ABA’s president this year. I am proud of all the outstanding work that the ABA volunteers and staff have done, and continue to do, to advance the legal profession, protect our justice system, and improve our nation.

Holly Smith:  Can you tell us more about the ABA’s Task Force on Gender Equity?

Laurel G. Bellows:  The ABA’s Task Force on Gender Equity and Commission released the ABA Toolkit for Gender Equity in Partner Compensation in March. The tool kits were mailed to 120 major state and local bar presidents-elect and executive directors. We have also sent a message to the major women’s bars through the National Women’s Bar Associations. The tool kit outlines how to build fair compensation systems and how to implement them effectively. By the end of this summer at the ABA’s Annual Meeting, the ABA Gender Equity Task Force will release three more work products targeting three separate audiences: law firms, women lawyers, and general counsel. More information about these publications and more of the Task Force’s activities is available at

Holly Smith:  Please share any upcoming events.

Laurel G. Bellows:  I will serve as moderator for the panel “Combating Human Trafficking: Collaborative Solutions” at the fourth World Justice Forum in July in The Hague, Netherlands. The World Justice Forum is a global gathering designed to build and strengthen thriving communities by engaging business, government, civil society, academic, and other leaders to develop practical, multidisciplinary programs to strengthen the rule of law. During this panel, survivors will talk about their experiences, the services victims need, and what can be done to free them and prepare them for new lives.

Holly Smith:  What has been your greatest achievement or most meaningful moment while advocating against human trafficking?

Laurel G. Bellows:  Since undertaking this journey, I have been inspired by the numerous members of the legal profession and various stakeholders who have joined me in our shared mission to eliminate modern-day slavery in our nation. We have received an overwhelming response. We are opening people’s eyes to a crime, a human rights violation that happens next door, on the next block, or in the next town. We have also received many offers of assistance. People want to get involved, and we are encouraging lawyers and non-lawyers to step forward.

Holly Smith:  What message about human trafficking or human rights do you most want to communicate to the public?

Laurel G. Bellows:  Together, we must fight injustice in all its forms. The time is now to take a huge leap forward and stop our silence about the abuses that persist in our country. We must become the eyes and ears that give trafficking victims a voice.

Everyone has a role. The best way to get involved is through an experienced agency or organization that has assisted victims and is knowledgeable about the dynamics of trafficking. Many in the public have offered to donate time or money to the cause. Many of our collaborating organizations do not have enough funding to do the critical work they are doing to save lives. We are happy to help them every step of the way.

Holly Smith:  How can the public help with your plight?

Laurel G. Bellows:  Go to our website for more information and resources — Anyone can take action — corporations, lawyers, and members of the public.

Also, through the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline (888) 373-7888; you can find local resources and organizations with experience in safely helping victims of trafficking, and you can learn how to identify victims. You can donate time or money to these local organizations, many of which are often underfunded.

Holly Smith:  How can people reach you or your organization for questions or more information?

Laurel G. Bellows:

Visit our website:

Watch our video: Voices for Victims.

My email:

Twitter: @LaurelBellows and @ABA_Trafficking.

PART ONE: Interview with Laurel G. Bellows, President of the American Bar Association

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities

Laurel G. Bellows

CHICAGO, IL, June 29, 2013 – As President of the American Bar Association (ABA) and Founding partner of Bellows Law Group PC, Laurel G. Bellows has pioneered advocacy efforts for victims of human trafficking. This weekend’s featured advocate is both a vital voice and a powerhouse. In Part One of her two-part Interview, Laurel G. Bellows shares her passion and the ABA’s current projects.

Holly Smith: Laurel, how did you get involved with anti-human trafficking advocacy?

Laurel G. Bellows: Fighting human trafficking has been a longtime passion of mine. When I was president of the Chicago Bar Association, a group of young girls held in immigration detention asked for pro bono assistance to defend them instead of the lawyers the traffickers had sent to represent them.  The traffickers were trying to get these girls from custody to put them back into slavery.

Representing human-trafficking victims was an eye-opening experience, and I learned the extent of the crisis. Today, within our borders and across the world, human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises, generating an estimated $32 billion a year in illicit profits. This modern form of slavery is one of the most tragic and disgraceful criminal endeavors ever to exist. Millions of people across the globe — including thousands within our borders — are denied basic rights, such as sleep, food or pay, while forced to work or engage in sexual acts under constant abuse and threats. Some are killed or their family members have been threatened or murdered by traffickers in order to coerce their cooperation.

Slavery flourishes in our own backyards — in urban, suburban, and rural America. Men, women, and children are being exploited by traffickers and are suffering unspeakable atrocities. It is time for Americans to unite in our commitment to eradicate modern-day slavery in our nation, and assure that all citizens of our great country enjoy the freedom and liberty that our country guarantees.

Holly Smith: Thank you so much for your passion to represent men, women, and children who are being exploited across the country.  Can you tell us about the ABA Task Force on Human Trafficking?

Laurel G. Bellows:  The ABA is marshaling the energy and resources of our nation’s lawyers to change the way our legal system approaches human trafficking. We know that trafficking requires more than just a criminal justice system response. Our approach includes public interest lawyers, family law attorneys, corporate lawyers, torts lawyers, and of course prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Recognizing the complex barriers to prosecuting traffickers and identifying victims, the ABA Task Force on Human Trafficking has conducted training sessions across the country to help stakeholders learn to identify and treat victims as victims and to prosecute and punish perpetrators. These training sessions also shine a spotlight on the thousands of victims funneled through criminal justice systems as defendants.

So far, we have trained more than 500 lawyers and allied professionals.

Training programs help those who come into contact with trafficking victims to understand the barriers victims encounter in accessing help and resources. In addition, we are supporting lawyers who represent trafficking victims in legal services and legal aid offices. We are connecting trafficking victims to lawyers who can provide much-needed pro bono representation.  We are also developing a comprehensive online database of resources, materials, and legal-services programs for training and supervising volunteer lawyers.

You can follow our efforts on Twitter @ABA_Trafficking.

Holly Smith: You are also working with the business sector, correct?

Laurel G. Bellows: Yes, the ABA also recognizes that slavery needs to be addressed within the business community. Many corporations do not know that their suppliers are using slave labor. We are working with business lawyers and corporate leaders to develop voluntary business-conduct guidelines to eliminate labor trafficking from supply chains. In addition, we are developing a database — the ABA Fortune 100 Report — in partnership with Arizona State University College of Law.  This public database will list those U.S. corporations who have adopted business conduct standards addressing human trafficking. The report will also analyze the business conduct standards adopted by the largest U.S.-based companies.

Holly Smith:  Is the ABA working to change state laws as well?

Laurel G. Bellows:  Yes, our efforts extend to modifying and improving laws. We are working with the Uniform Law Commission to develop a uniform state-trafficking law.  Our goal is to create tougher penalties and to make certain that every state has a strong law addressing human trafficking on the books.

As the ABA works to change the way the legal system approaches human trafficking, we also recognize the dire need to increase awareness. As part of this effort, we are encouraging employers in our country to include in their employee handbooks information on how to identify a victim, whom to call, and a summary of the human trafficking issue.

Holly Smith: Can you recommend any resources for lawyers potentially working with victims?

Laurel G. Bellows: The ABA’s “Voices for Victims: Lawyers Against Human Trafficking Tool Kit” includes resources on how to choose potential speakers. The tool kit has a link to our award-winning video, “Voices for Victims.” The video gives an up-close-and-personal look at modern slavery and how lawyers can, do, and should respond. Common myths, a glossary of terms, and national resources are also included in the tool kit for bar associations. The electronic version of the tool kit is available at A similar tool kit for law schools and law students is scheduled to be released by the task force during the ABA’s 2013 Annual Meeting in August.

I have continued to speak out to mobilize lawyers and non-lawyers to join our fight to combat modern-day slavery. Our goal is to recruit anyone who is interested in being active on this issue. I am moved that our efforts and hard work are effectuating change now and will continue to do so even after my term as ABA president.

Holly Smith:  Can you tell us more about the video, Voices for Victims? I see it features another powerful advocate, Brenda Myers-Powell, with The Dreamcatcher Foundation.

Laurel G. Bellows:  Our video, “Voices for Victims,” produced by the ABA’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, in partnership with the ABA’s Communication and Media Relations Division, has been recognized by the best in the video industry. It was awarded a Bronze Telly Award (runner-up to first place) in May. The Telly Award is the premier award honoring the finest film and video productions nationwide.  Our video also won a Bronze Stevie Award in June. The video is a crucial component of the ABA’s year-long effort to mobilize our members in the fight against modern-day slavery. More than a call to action, the video includes tangible courses of action to meet the problem head-on.

Stay tuned for the second half of Laurel G. Bellows’ interview.  To contact Laurel, please email her at or connect via Twitter @LaurelBellows.