Noelle Volin, JD ’11, originally went to law school to be an FBI agent, “to get the bad guys.” But it wasn’t too long before Volin figured out that, “Fighting for victims is what I’m meant to do.” Volin was awarded the Hamline Law Student Bar Association’s inaugural “Young Alumni Award,” at its Barrister’s Ball in February, for her groundbreaking work with the Saint Paul-based nonprofit Breaking Free.
Breaking Free was founded to help victims of sex-trafficking and sexual exploitation. The organization advocates for victims in court and then helps them develop tools and skills to improve their lives. Volin is the staff attorney and public policy manager at Breaking Free, working in court and at the legislature to bring about systemic change for victims.
Another goal of Breaking Free is to deal with what Volin terms “demand education.” Breaking Free provides training to professionals and to the larger community to stop the cycle of supply and demand that victimizes primarily women and girls. “Community members need to learn more about the trafficking demand, if we’re ever going to stop it,” said Volin. “We need figure out what in our culture and laws makes it okay to purchase or rent another person.”
Volin doesn’t mince words when it comes to the problem of sexual trafficking. All women and girls who engage in prostitution (Volin rejects the word “prostitute”) are victims of trauma, violence and emotional abuse. “Women involved in prostitution are not in the same place emotionally as the men who purchase them,” said Volin. “They are coming from an entirely different position psychologically. They’ve been trafficked, pimped, and in many cases have suffered domestic abuse.”
Volin thanks Hamline Law Professor Mary Szto for inspiring her to follow a nontraditional path to her career. Having received her master’s degree in Japan as a Rotary scholar, Volin wrote her seminar paper for Professor Szto’s class on Sex Trafficking in Japan, China and the U.S. Living in Japan, Volin was struck by incongruity of this highly civilized society allowing women and girls to enter the country on visas to be sold as sexual companions.
Following Professor Szto’s suggestion that she pursue the issue, Volin started volunteering for Breaking Free while waiting for the results of her bar exam. Volin's volunteer work led to making victims’ advocate appearances, and researching legislation to de-criminalize women exploited in this way. Meanwhile, Breaking Free was seeking funding for just such a position. When Volin received her law license, Breaking Free hired her for the job.
Volin is proud of Minnesota for its work to help create options for victims of sex trafficking. She was especially gratified when Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, JD ’95, made news asserting, “[Prostitution] is not a victimless crime.” Because of his great work, Ramsey County is a leader in the fight against sex trafficking (as are county attorneys in Olmsted, Dakota, and St. Louis counties). Ramsey County sets an example to other counties working to help victims and end the demand sex trafficking. The Saint Paul Police Department strives to give women in prostitution an opportunity for pre-court diversion. For women and girls who participate, Breaking Free’s “Sisters of Survival” facilitate a 14-week program aimed at giving them the skills and tools to rebuild their lives. “They need to understand,” said Volin, “that recruitment IS exploitation.” When those arrested in Saint Paul complete the program, their arrest citation is “torn up.” Breaking Free and law enforcement know that it can be long struggle, and are creating avenues to support repeat offenders.
Meanwhile, Breaking Free works with its partners in Saint Paul to operate the Offenders Prostitution Program (or, “John School”), a program to educate first-time offenders who buy sexual services. They learn how they are perpetrating a system of supply and demand that victimizes others. “Prostitution really hurts people,” said Volin. “It hurts the families of the victim and it hurts the families of the perpetrators.”
As Breaking Free’s staff attorney, Volin works with public defenders to educate prosecutors and judges about the desperation of women, victimized in this way. “I explain why these victims often have criminal records that include drug use, fraud and forgery,” said Volin. “These crimes are often committed by women attempting to satisfy the unrelenting demands of their pimps.”
Volin, who co-chairs the Legislative and Policy sub-Committee of the Minnesota Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force, is also working with task force members to change the public perception of victims of sexual exploitation at the legislative level. Volin notes that the Minnesota Legislature in 2011 passed the “Safe Harbor Law” (effective in 2014). Under the law, juveniles engaging in prostitution, when encountered by law enforcement, will be treated as victims and referred directly into social services.
This session, the task force is working on the funding component of this law, called the “No Wrong Door” law, intended to provide the necessary funds so that any responsible person, teacher or social worker, who encounters a child victim of prostitution may refer these children into appropriate social services and safe housing.
Volin also invites her fellow alumni to get involved in the Volunteer Lawyers Network/Breaking Free pro bono legal clinic. The clinic is held every fourth Friday of the month at the Breaking Free offices in Saint Paul. Clinic hours are from 3-5 p.m. Breaking Free is always looking for volunteers! All attorneys need to do is fill out an application to become a VLN attorney and complete a Breaking Free Volunteer Application. For more information, attorneys can contact Volin at firstname.lastname@example.org.