It’s a wonderful feeling to celebrate victories. Especially in this line of work. The headlines are amazing.
“Nearly half a million pounds in funding awarded!”
“Landmark Anti-Slavery Legislation Passed!”
“Convicted Traffickers sentenced to 43 years in prison!”
These headlines represent some of the absolute highest highs in my time setting up and working for Snowdrop over the last six years. These are the times we’ve danced and jumped up and down and just celebrated the amazing result of hard work, passion and commitment to the cause.
These are the moments that we hold onto when the going gets tough, when there are challenges or setbacks and lows, which happen quite a bit in this line of work.
Over the summer I had the privilege of supporting a client through the process of giving evidence against their traffickers which resulted in a combined sentence of 43 years.
What is it like to support someone through giving evidence in court?
First, some statistics, so you can understand how very rare it is that a victim has the opportunity to do this…
The UK is getting better at recognising and responding to modern slavery and human trafficking – in 2014, the Home Office estimated that there were 10,000 to 13,000  victims of modern slavery in the UK. This was a big underestimation. Today, the Global Slavery index estimates there are 136,000  people trapped in slavery. Last year, 5,145 were referred to the NRM . In 2016, there were 81 prosecutions, and of those, only 55 led to convictions .
That adds up to 4 convictions for every 10,000 victims.
These convictions are hard fought. This client originally gave evidence to the police three years ago. This was a massive operation that spanned the continent, and it took this long for the case to get to trial. It has been weighing on my client’s mind and heart for years, and it was no small thing for them to testify.
All of this adds up to a situation where those who are profiting from this horrific crime continue to avoid facing any consequences for their crimes.
As a support worker my role was to provide emotional and practical support to my client through this process. This involved liaising with the police, Victim Support and the interpreter. It was very much a team effort.
So how did it go?
The first step was sitting with my client while they viewed more than 8 hours of their video interviews from nearly 3 years ago in order to be reminded of the evidence they gave. Just watching these interviews was gruelling. With the help of an interpreter, we sat for two and a half days to go through the videos in preparation for court.
I found the process both fascinating and intense. It was a lot of work for me to stay focused both on what was being said, and also my client’s emotional response, so I could help them to ask for breaks when they needed it; and make sure they ate lunch and were drinking enough water.One thing I realised throughout the process, was how much my client had told me over the two years we had worked together. I realised that as they started trusting me they revealed little pieces of what had happened to them over a long period of trafficking. As I listened to the video evidence, specific details and memories that my client had shared finally came together. It really struck me how many experiences my client had trusted me with, and what an honour that is to be one of the people who they shared with.
Once we had finished reviewing the evidence, we were able to visit the court through Victim Support before giving evidence at trial. In this case, special measures had been put in place, so my client was able to give evidence via video link from an entirely different location to the trial, which helped my client to feel as safe as they could, given what they were about to do. At the visit we were able to see one of the witness waiting areas (which we spent a LOT of time in!), and a video link room, so they could see where everyone would sit. The volunteer from Victim Support was able to answer any questions we had. She was really patient and kind. Despite all the measures taken to help, my client still experienced significant anxiety during this visit.
On the first morning of giving evidence we attended court first thing, and there was a lot of waiting. We were waiting in a witness waiting room with the interpreter, victim support and a police officer. We had been told there would be a lot of waiting around, and in preparation for this I had brought some cards and games to try and provide some distraction. As it turned out, my client was so anxious they didn’t feel like they could even concentrate on a game.
I had received special permission from the Judge to be present in the video-link room while they were testifying, under strict instruction of silence. No matter what was said or asked by the barristers, or how distressed my client became, I could not speak or intervene in any way.
The process of giving evidence was exhausting. In my client’s day to day life, they often became distressed when they remembered their experiences. They suffered from intrusive thoughts, so giving evidence and having to systematically go through everything they experienced in as much detail as they could remember was one of the most intense and heart-breaking things I have ever witnessed. And this was before they were cross-examined.
My client was scheduled to give evidence for two days, and for a number of reasons I can’t disclose publicly, this turned into 5 days at court. Once it became clear it was going to take additional time, we at Snowdrop had to call in for extra help. I don’t know if words can fully express how much of a team effort this was. The week this client was giving evidence also happened to fall on a week we were conducting job interviews as well as a house renovation for another client. There was no wiggle room, and there was no way we were about to let this client go through this alone.
I had booked out both days to be in court with my client—but I was fully booked conducting job interviews on the next two days. Thankfully we had volunteers who had worked with this client who were available on the third day, and we juggled around staff members from the renovation for the fourth day. Thankfully for the last day of cross-examination I was available. It was intense for the client as well as for our staff and volunteers who were involved.
We booked in debriefing for the volunteer and extra staff members, and our counsellors were available for the client, as they experienced an increase in panic attacks during and after their evidence giving. They found that bringing in ice packs to hold during their testimony and cross-examination helped. I also got some extra sessions with my counsellor to ensure that I had space to process what I had witnessed.
In this case there were six defendants, and each of them had their own barrister who had the option of cross-examining my client. Five of them chose to do so, and this process took nearly three of the five days we were in court.
Barristers don’t mess around.
In order to do the best job possible for their client, Barristers need to ask tough questions, we knew this. The process was still excruciating to witness.
They asked if my client was making it all up, insinuated they were lying or embellishing the truth.
They asked if my client had been promised immigration status in exchange for testimony.
They asked my client things I will not repeat.
And my client stood their ground, stood by their testimony despite the high personal cost.
Once it was over, my client’s overwhelming feeling was gratitude. Gratitude to the Judge, who was kind, firm and fair. Gratitude towards the police, for all their support and the work they had put in. Gratitude to the court for the special measures which meant they didn’t have to be in the same physical space as their abusers. Gratitude to the interpreter, for helping them to understand, and be understood by the court. Gratitude towards God, without whom they said they would not have made it through the trial.
They were exhausted as well. We advised they be kind to themselves, to let the adrenaline work its way through their body, to expect to feel strange over the next few days. And we were there for them. We still are.
Then we waited. It took another two months for the trial to be complete, and the police officer who worked with us kept us informed of the progress, she was superb.
Not only were this gang convicted, they were given a combined sentence of 43 years.
And we celebrate. We honour that the difficult decision to testify, to pay the high personal cost of putting their trauma on display at the mercy of the Judge and jury, this time resulted in a conviction.
This isn’t the end of the journey for my client. We will continue to work with them to help them live independently, to find employment, to move forwards with their life and to build a future.
We celebrate, and we carry on…
 Bales, K, Hesketh, O & Silverman, B 2015, ‘Modern slavery in the UK: How many victims?’. Significance, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 16-21.