Unconventional court program in Cleveland gives human trafficking survivors a 2nd chance

Published: Mar. 31, 2023 at 5:50 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - It’s a second chance at life for human trafficking survivors.

We’re profiling a unique program in Cleveland that is giving survivors hope and turning their lives around.

The Human Trafficking Specialized Docket at Cleveland Municipal Court is not your average court experience.

The specialized docket is run by Judge Marilyn Cassidy.

The two-year program focuses on treatment.

When you enter the courtroom, the first thing you may notice is the cookies and coffee, and a more relaxed atmosphere than you may expect.

You won’t find Judge Cassidy treating people like criminals here.

“I’m not on the bench in a robe way up above where the women are. I come down to their level, we try to keep it more conversational,” she said.

The idea for this specialized docket started 10 years ago, when Judge Cassidy said they tried to address human trafficking in a new way, after they noticed “soliciting” was one of the offenses they kept seeing.

“Interestingly enough, the penalties for soliciting are actually worse than a first DUI. It carries a minimum mandatory fine of $400 and minimum of 10 jail days. For your first offense of soliciting,” Cassidy said.

And typically it’s the women who are arrested.

Many of them are victims of human trafficking.

The Human Trafficking Specialized Docket is run by Judge Marilyn Cassidy.
The Human Trafficking Specialized Docket is run by Judge Marilyn Cassidy.(WOIO)

So Judge Cassidy and Karen Stanton, coordinator of the docket, learned how to clinically identify these victims so they could get them help with trauma.

“These women tend to run away. They go to treatment, they’ll go to jail, we’ll put them in a structured living situation, they’ll go get a shower, maybe get lunch first, get a shower and then run away,” Cassidy said.

“We’re lucky when they come back alive, to be honest. We’ve lost a few to overdose. So when we see them come back alive we’re pretty happy to see them,” she said.

Stanton, who is also a probation officer, said says these women often get stuck in the court process.

“I always tell clients when I speak to them even in jail, like I don’t know necessarily know what the right path is, but we’ll figure it out. Let’s do it together. They feel like they’re part of their own recovery and then they do better,” Stanton said.

The two-year program is not easy to complete.

Some women have even given birth to babies during it.

There’s something special they find here that keeps most women coming back.

“But this is a place I can go and get help and no one’s going to slap cuffs on me. I’m not going to jail. They’re gonna listen hear me out and it’s gonna be figured out,” Stanton said.

Their courtroom is a “safe space.”

And even though they can still get into trouble here, the focus is rehabilitation.

In the beginning, the goal was to save one life.

But now they’re continuing to change more lives every day.

“If we can help save a life and have a healthy baby born and have a mother present in that baby’s life. I feel like it’s it’s all good. It’s all worth it,” Cassidy said.

The Human Trafficking Specialized Docket has identified more than 160 victims in the city of Cleveland.

27 women have graduated from the program and are living on their own with jobs.

Annette Mango is a human trafficking survivor.
Annette Mango is a human trafficking survivor.(WOIO)

Annette Mango is one of their success stories.

She said the program saved her life at a time when she didn’t think she would survive.

“I never thought I would make it out. I used to always say this is what I’m going to die doing. This is all I knew,” she said.

Years ago, she lost her job and a place to call home. Then she became addicted to drugs, and she said nothing else seemed to matter.

That’s when she became a victim of human trafficking.

The people who pretended to help her and provided her with those drugs were really preying on her.

“Met a young lady, a young lady seen me out there [sic] and she asks me if I needed some place to stay,” Mango said.

“She said she can help me, you know, stay warm, it was cold and I said yes and that’s where it began,” she said.

She had no idea what was happening at first.

“They’re setting me up with another John and I have to do with what they’re saying to do,” she said.

“I would get assaulted. I would get raped,” she said.

Annette was caught in a vicious cycle for 15 to 20 years.

She scraped by, day by day, to survive.

She would get arrested, land in court, then in treatment and halfway houses.

But she couldn’t get out.

Her addiction always won.

“I kept repeating the same thing, repeating the same thing,” she said.

Until finally something changed.

The next time Annette wound up behind bars, she qualified for the Human Trafficking Specialized Docket.

“I had no idea, I never heard of it,” she said.

She learned that this prison she couldn’t seem to escape had a name.

“I didn’t know what human trafficking was, I had no idea, had never heard of it,” she said.

And what she had suffered became clear.

“If you cannot walk out that door, no matter what someone gave you or what you owe someone, they’re holding you,” she said.

They came up with a plan and Annette also got some help from some non-profit groups.

And now, she has a place to call home and a steady job that she loves.

“And my life has changed completely around,” She said.

Now Annette is an inspiration for other women going through the program, trying to rebuild their lives after so much trauma.

She speaks out against human trafficking now.

She said there is so much more work to be done.

“I don’t think we’re spending enough time on the streets. What about our council people in our neighborhoods, you know? So we have a lot of people helping, but that’s still not enough,” she said.

Annette is so thankful for the human trafficking docket for helping her rebuild her life.

But she pointed out, it’s a program not every survivor qualifies for.

“I don’t know how it’s gonna sound to say I was one of the lucky ones because I was in trouble with the law, but I was in trouble with the law because of my addiction and everything worked out for me. We need to do better, we need to do better,” she said.


-Cleveland Rape Crisis Center

24-hour hotline: 855-431-7827

-Collaborative to End Human Trafficking

-Renee Jones Empowerment Center

-Ohio Department of Health Human Trafficking Resources