Skip to main content
A view of a street in Buffalo, NY
One Day Magazine

In Buffalo, Repairing Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking

When the criminal justice system snares the victims of human trafficking, Amy Martoche uses her judicial powers not to incarcerate them, but to give them a new start.

By Leah Fabel

June 11, 2018

On a recent Tuesday morning in Buffalo, New York, a young woman wearing her long black hair in a puffy ponytail showed up for an appearance before Buffalo City Court Judge Amy Martoche (S. Louisiana ’93). The young woman had been arrested over the weekend on charges of prostitution and unauthorized use of a vehicle. But this morning, the judge didn’t focus on her offenses.

“Where are you living?” Martoche asked gently from behind the bench, her bright red fingernails providing a splash of color to the relentlessly beige courtroom. Martoche asked the defendant if she felt safe in her home and whether she was involved in drug treatment (yes to both). Were it not for Martoche’s black robe, which hid a bright pink blouse, and her gavel, which she’s never actually used, she could’ve been mistaken for a social worker.

A judge sits in court while two people stand and face her
© Photo SHAWNA STANLEY Judge Amy Martoche

Martoche is a legal force. She founded and presides over one of the first courts in the nation designed to help people who are victims of human trafficking. In its most basic sense, trafficking involves force, fraud, or coercion to compel someone to engage in work for someone else’s profit. On a practical level, that means that Martoche’s court takes in all commercial sex cases, “because we recognize that 95 percent of people doing commercial sex work are not doing it voluntarily,” she says. Despite Buffalo’s proximity to an international border, the vast majority of people who show up in her courtroom were born and raised in the U.S. Most are women. Many are parents. Some are high school dropouts; others have college degrees. Her goal is not to lock them up, but to clear their path to a better life.

“People have this idea that trafficking only involves Asian or Eastern European women, but in my experience that’s not what it looks like,” Martoche says. Instead, what the people who come to her court often have in common is trauma, like the loss of a parent or a history of sexual abuse. They’ve experienced, in many cases, the same inequities that she saw among some of the kids she taught 20 years ago in rural Franklin, Louisiana. In some way, each of the defendants in her courtroom has been vulnerable, she says. “And there are people out there looking for vulnerable people to disadvantage.”

Martoche’s court, called the Human Trafficking Intervention Hub Court, or HTIC, handles adults. But trafficking often starts when victims are school-aged. The International Institute of Buffalo, which partners with the HTIC to provide case management for trafficking victims, has seen clients—students—at most of the middle and high schools in the city and surrounding counties. Some are as young as 12 years old. (For advice on how to spot students who are at risk of being trafficked, and how to help them, see the story included below.)

“Trafficking is a part of the fabric of our society, but no one wants to talk about it being there.”

Judge Amy Martoche

Buffalo City Court Judge

S. Louisiana Corps Member 1993

The young woman standing before Martoche on that Tuesday morning grew up just outside Buffalo, and her story was not atypical. She had been a pretty good student, she said during an interview after her court appearance. But when she was 14 years old, her mother told her she could no longer support her financially. (“I needed socks, and my mom didn’t have the $12 to buy a pack at Walmart.”) She met someone—a boyfriend, she thought—who soon began selling her for sex in exchange for necessities like food, shelter, and socks.

Her school expelled her for poor attendance at age 16. She tried to right her life, re-enrolling in school when she was 18. But then, two years ago, she was held against her will and raped by her father over the course of several months. She returned to prostitution and started using drugs heavily until a different court program put her in treatment. When she appeared before Martoche, she was three months sober, six weeks pregnant, and facing fresh criminal charges.

Defendants like her are not legally obligated to cooperate with Martoche’s orders, which often require them to go to counseling or a drug rehabilitation program and then to keep multiple court dates with Martoche until the judge is satisfied the defendant is on the right track. They can choose instead to have their charges resolved in a traditional court setting and to face potential consequences. But if defendants do take advantage of the services Martoche suggests, they almost always receive a more favorable outcome from the district attorney’s office—criminal charges reduced to non-criminal violations, for example, that don’t carry the life-altering consequences of a criminal record. Martoche has also been able to utilize a New York law that allows courts to vacate a defendant’s criminal convictions when their crimes stemmed from having been trafficked. So far, at least five defendants who have gone through Martoche’s court have argued successfully for their criminal records to disappear altogether. One of them recently contacted Martoche to share that she graduated from a nursing program and will soon start a job with full benefits at a federal hospital.

On this day, the young woman opted to take up the services Martoche’s court offered. After her appearance, she met with Alicia Tabliago, the court’s resource coordinator. Tabliago has spent her career assisting rape victims and women in crisis. She listened to the defendant and offered comfort in equal measure. She made sure the defendant had medical care for her pregnancy and that she understood how she could reconnect with law enforcement regarding criminal charges against her abusers. The defendant promised to return for her next court appearance.

A woman behind a desk talks with another woman in a suit
© Photo SHAWNA STANLEY Martoche’s day often begins with a meeting with Alicia Tabliago (right) to discuss the defendants coming before trafficking court that day.

Martoche has spent most of her life in Buffalo, a city she defends fiercely for its scrappy spirit and its dissimilarity to New York’s other big city, a six-hour drive to the south and east. She left for college at Cornell University and spent three years in rural Louisiana, two of them teaching and one on staff at Teach For America. After law school at the University at Buffalo, she spent a long year at a large law firm in Washington, D.C., then returned home. “If there was a place I wanted to use my time, talent, and treasure to improve, it was the place I grew up loving,” she says.

The city of Buffalo has been a national leader in creating intervention, or problem-solving, courts. Last year, it started the nation’s first court for opioid addicts. Previously, it created the nation’s first veterans treatment court. In late 2013, Martoche started the trafficking court in response to the growing number of human trafficking cases in the city. She soon petitioned to make it a “hub” court, serving defendants throughout eight counties of Western New York. She and Tabliago have built it piece by piece into a model, often relying on their deep roots in the region to land essential allies and partnerships. “Good things are happening [in Buffalo], and I think I’m a small piece of that,” she says.

A woman walks with her daughter
© Photo SHAWNA STANLEY Outside of court, Martoche spends most of her time with family, including her almost 7-year-old daughter, Juliana.

Martoche fields phone calls from policymakers and researchers nationwide. She’s presented on her work dozens of times, from community groups to the annual meeting of the New York State Bar Association. She’s hosted international delegations from Lithuania and several countries in South America, and was preparing this spring for a group from Ukraine.

Worldwide, estimates of the number of trafficking victims vary widely. The U.S. Department of State puts the figure at about 12.3 million victims globally each year, while human rights groups like the Walk Free Foundation suggest that it’s closer to 46 million people. The United Nations estimates that about 80 percent of trafficking victims are a part of the sex trade, and the significant majority of them are women and girls.

It’s almost impossible to measure the reach of trafficking in the U.S. because in most places victims are not treated like they are in Martoche’s court. In part because prostitution carries a criminal charge everywhere except in parts of Nevada, trafficking victims often are reluctant to report their traffickers—or crimes associated with trafficking, like rape and abuse—to authorities. Some of the most frequently cited data comes from a 2012 report from the Urban Institute, where researchers analyzed eight American cities and found that their sex trafficking economies brought in between $39.9 million and $290 million a year. Backpage.com, the website that was shut down in April over allegations that operators engaged knowingly in sex trafficking and exploited minors, earned $135 million in 2014, based largely on adult ads, according to a U.S. Senate report.

“Trafficking is a part of the fabric of our society, but no one wants to talk about it being there,” Martoche says. Ultimately, that silence only helps traffickers who actively prey upon vulnerable people. “They’re out there,” she says. “They’re looking for your daughter, your sister, your brother.”

“People have this idea that trafficking only involves Asian or Eastern European women, but in my experience that’s not what it looks like.”

Judge Amy Martoche

Buffalo City Court Judge

S. Louisiana Corps Member 1993

When she was a first-year teacher, Martoche’s fourth graders ran all over her. “I had this idea that I didn’t need to have consequences,” she says. By her second year in the classroom, she learned to harness her authority—mostly—without suppressing her students’ spirit and curiosity. Today, she still sees herself in many ways as a teacher. She holds lawyers to a high bar and, especially with younger lawyers, offers them feedback when they’re not advocating for a client as well as Martoche knows they could. She always inquires about a defendant’s education and, when appropriate, links them with educational resources, including GED programs.

While Martoche sets the pace and commands a strong presence, she displays a rare humility in the courtroom, says Claudia Schultz, who has served as a public defender in Buffalo for 37 years. Martoche “doesn’t have what we call ‘the black robe disease,’” Schultz says. “If she doesn’t know something, she’ll pull out the law books and find out. She has no ego.”

The oldest of three siblings, Martoche also calls on personal experience. Her sister, Claire, was bright and active as a kid. But by her teens, she showed early signs of mental illness. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression in her 20s. She dabbled in drug use and had trouble holding a job. By her mid-30s, she had developed a vicious addiction to opioids.

From her place on the bench, Martoche sees how the opioid crisis is feeding the sex trafficking industry. When she started the trafficking court, 65 percent of her defendants struggled with addiction. Today, 90 percent of them do. Drugs, particularly opioids, have become a tool for keeping victims under the control of their traffickers, who are sometimes their suppliers, she says.

Martoche’s family spent countless hours in counseling with Claire, who moved for years between rehab centers, halfway houses, small apartments, and homelessness. Martoche remembers one session in particular when she balked at the therapist’s suggestion that she should refuse to help Claire when she got in trouble, or to give her grocery money when she was broke. She recalls the therapist pointing out that Claire’s family was full of highly successful individuals. “She looked at me and she said, ‘If you can’t change it...’”

Martoche trails off as she tells the story. That insight into the all-consuming power of addiction informed how she operates as a judge: She can provide resources and near-endless second chances, but she can’t overcome anyone’s addiction for them.

“If anyone could’ve changed” Claire’s opioid dependence, “I would’ve been the one,” Martoche says. “If it were in someone else’s power to do it, it would’ve been done.” Claire died of an overdose on January 19, 2017, the same day that she arrived home from a treatment facility.

Two women meet in a courtroom
© Photo SHAWNA STANLEY Alicia Tabliago's primary role is to ensure each defendant in the HTIC has the resources to stay safe and healthy, and to avoid future arrests.

Martoche evolves her court as new issues arise. She used to schedule all trafficking cases for Tuesdays. (The HTIC takes up about 20 percent of Martoche’s docket.) But she and Tabliago started to notice that traffickers would show up at the courthouse on Tuesdays, too, presumably to intimidate the defendants. So they changed course, mixing trafficking cases into Martoche’s schedule throughout the week. 

At the court’s outset, Martoche saw only defendants arrested specifically for prostitution. But she knew that trafficking victims could be snared for offenses like drug possession and misdemeanor larceny, too. So she and Tabliago developed a screening tool to help identify potential victims in other courts. Now when law enforcement, court officials, agencies, or attorneys suspect that a person facing charges is being trafficked, they’ll route her or him to the HTIC to be screened, regardless of the charge. (Serious crimes like homicide often are treated differently, but those defendants still have access to the HTIC’s resources.)

As opioid addiction has become more common in courtrooms, and its treatment better understood, Martoche and Tabliago have built partnerships with treatment facilities that offer medication to curb cravings. Opioid-addicted defendants who came before Martoche used to have to wait for weeks for a bed to become available at a long-term treatment center. Not surprisingly, they often couldn’t hold out. Now, Tabliago can get them into clinics immediately, providing one less reason to return to their traffickers.

Ultimately, Martoche says, the success of the court rests on an unwillingness to give up on the defendants. One woman wanted nothing more than to be rid of the tattoo her trafficker had used to “brand” her, so Martoche and Tabliago connected her with the International Institute, which found funds to have it removed. Another couldn’t understand why her rapist was never prosecuted, so Tabliago asked the detective from her original case to sit down with the victim and walk her through the investigation and the man’s conviction for a different sexual assault.

Of the 220 people who have been through Martoche’s court, about half have not been rearrested. That compares to a typical 80 percent recidivism rate for prostitution charges.

A woman riding up an excelator

Martoche sees dozens of defendants each week. She doesn’t see her sister Claire in all of them, but she does see her in some.

Melissa D. is 29 with long black hair she often pulls back tight. Growing up just outside Buffalo, she would read novels all day long. But when it came to keeping her papers organized at school or paying attention to lectures, she struggled. By high school, she felt like a misfit and had trouble navigating friendships and boyfriends. Amid the turmoil, she started experimenting with drugs.

“I was taught the world was good, and to be good to each other,” she says over a cleared table in her otherwise empty wood-paneled dining room. “That’s fine, but schools should also be teaching kids to be aware of people who are not so good for you.”

Melissa made her first appearance in trafficking court in the spring of 2015, deep into an addiction to cocaine. Her 20s had been a blur of arrests, stints in rehab, and court dates missed (and a handful made). In 2014, she gave birth to a son who went immediately from the hospital to foster care. She turned to prostitution to earn money to feed her addiction.

Over the next three years, Martoche called on the insight she developed in part as a teacher and further as a sister and a judge: Be generous with second chances. Melissa needed one chance after another after another. “It’s easy to give [defendants] chances” once you understand what they’re up against, Martoche says.

In September, police picked Melissa up on an outstanding warrant and noticed she had painful welts on her cheek, chest, and back. She was brought to the doctor and diagnosed with MRSA, a skin infection that can lead to organ damage and death if left untreated. For Melissa, after a decade of addiction, she had finally hit bottom. “I couldn’t do it anymore,” she says.

Melissa stayed in jail until a bed opened up at a rehab facility. (Medically assisted treatment doesn’t work for cocaine addiction.) After almost a month in rehab, she moved to a halfway house for about four months. Then she moved home with her parents for a couple of weeks. In March, Melissa settled into a pale yellow duplex in a small town outside of Buffalo with two other recovering addicts. She attends counseling several times per week and has taken up gardening. She often visits her son, who lives with his father but spends Sundays with her parents. “We’re working on establishing the fact that I’m his mother,” she says, adding that so far, it’s going smoothly. On a recent visit he presented her with a gift: “My first macaroni necklace,” she says.

On a Wednesday afternoon in March, Melissa showed up one last time in Judge Martoche’s court. Her dad sat with her until her name was called, looking as proud as the father of a newborn. Wearing jeans and a black shawl, she approached the defendant’s podium with her lawyer. Martoche looked genuinely pleased. “You look great,” she told Melissa. “Are you doing as great as you look?” Melissa smiled and said she was.

They talked through her progress and went over some formalities. “I’m happy to dismiss your case,” Martoche said. “You’ve made significant progress.” Melissa’s voice broke as she thanked her lawyer and the judge. Then Martoche’s voice caught, too. “You’re the one who did all the work,” she said.

Later that day, Martoche explained why she got emotional. She was thinking not only of her sister Claire but also about how hard Melissa had worked to survive for her family and her son—and how lucky she was. “She did it,” Martoche said, smiling. “For each person who makes it, it’s a victory.”

An empty courtroom
© Photo SHAWNA STANLEY Martoche's courtroom at the Frank A. Sedita City Court in Buffalo.

How to Spot Teen Trafficking

When a student is at risk of being trafficked, signs may show up at school. Lisa Zulawski of the International Institute, a nonprofit that does case management with defendants in Martoche’s court, has worked with trafficking victims in nearly every school in the Buffalo area.

While the Internet has erased boundaries between traffickers and the people they seek to exploit, Zulawski says, more typically, vulnerable kids are preyed on at parties, at public places like bus stations, or through friends of friends. Traffickers are so manipulative that kids might not even know what’s happening to them, she says, or they might not be able to explain it. They might suspect what they’re getting into without understanding how destructive it will be.

Zulawski suggests educators look for certain warning signs. Students who have multiple phones or have recently been kicked out of their homes. Students, both male and female, who have older boyfriends or partners, or older men picking them up from school. They may be frequently absent or develop patterns of late arrivals or early dismissals.

Ask questions about why they’re missing school, Zulawski says, but nothing too direct; they may not even know the term “trafficked.”

The best thing a school can do, she says, is to be aware of the threat and keep track of students’ attendance. When educators suspect a student is being trafficked, schools should be ready to connect kids to counselors or social workers in the same way a school might be ready to connect families to free health clinics or food pantries.

When students who were pulled into the sex trade later return to school, Zulawski says, they often feel completely out of place. As educators work with kids to determine what they need, whether that’s academic support or help quashing rumors, “try not to become overly involved in the personal details,” Zulawski advises. “Treat them like a normal kid.”