Ateba Gaines is raising awareness about a bill that would expunge the records of human trafficking victims in Virginia.
She got inspired at a retreat hosted by Debbie Smith, a Williamsburg woman who was raped and now advocates about the backlog of DNA rape kits and training first responders.
“It gave me a voice,” Gaines said of the retreat and her own experience about sexual abuse. “When a woman is raped by someone on the street, she doesn’t have Thanksgiving with them.”
Gaines said she was molested by her father at the age of 7. She became a prostitute at 19 and did that for a couple of years while raising her son.
Gaines was able to leave the industry, graduate with her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, work for major corporations like Nike and start multiple nonprofits. She said she realized she was lucky since she could have gotten charged with prostitution.
With a criminal charge like that on her resume, how could she be successful in her career?
Once she heard about the bill, she wanted to raise awareness about human trafficking — she said if she was a victim of human trafficking, she would not have had the choice to leave.
Where can women who are victims of human trafficking go if they have a prostitution charge on their criminal record, she asked.
The bill, HB 268, allows the victim to petition the court to expunge the police and court records if the criminal charge happened while the person was being trafficked.
“The bill provides that there is a rebuttable presumption that a person’s participation in an offense was a result of having been a victim of human trafficking if there is official documentation, defined in the bill, of the petitioner’s status as a victim of human trafficking at the time of the offense,” according to the legislation.
In other words, a person would need to prove at the time of the criminal charge, he or she was a victim of human trafficking at the time of the alleged offense.
Gaines said such proof could be in the form of a counselor, clergy member or a track record of not continuing the behavior.
“The bill is the most victim friendly,” Gaines said. “It allows the victim to tell their story.”
When asked why people should care or support this bill, Gaines said because people are human.
“We’re all prone to fail, we are not perfect,” she said. “We should have a greater understanding that everyone deserves a second chance.”
“You are not defined by your past more or less you are defined by your future,” she added.