Federal law enforcement officer Nate Knapper ’08 was in church when he heard D’Lynn tell her story: Twelve years old, she ran away from home and met a man who gave her methamphetamines. For 18 years, he and others exploited D’Lynn’s addiction to traffic her for sex. She was beaten regularly. Near death after one beating, her trafficker left her at a hospital door.
D’Lynn’s story was not unfamiliar to Knapper. Assigned to a Detroit-area human trafficking squad, he’d met other victims. With D’Lynn, he formed a friendship.
Then the hospital that treated D’Lynn’s assault injuries sued her for medical costs. Just beginning to rebuild her life, she couldn’t afford a lawyer.
In 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 1,358 victims and survivors of trafficking in Michigan—sixth highest in the nation. Nearly all survivors face charges or other legal issues—without legal assistance. Escaped from trafficking, they’re still bound.
For Knapper, who’s also an attorney, the statistics became personal in D’Lynn. He found a lawyer who worked pro bono to get her debt paid through Michigan’s Crime Victim Compensation Program, freeing her to continue rebuilding her life.
That might have been the end of it. But Knapper also knew and loved the Old Testament story of Joseph, which he now read as an early record of human trafficking.
“I knew somebody should do something, and I knew the ‘somebody’ was me.”
Knapper founded The Joseph Project “to do for every survivor what happened for Joseph, to transition them from exploitation to empowerment by leveraging the law on their behalf.”
At the same time, in the fall of 2018, the president of the State Bar of Michigan urged attorneys to become “legal first responders,” offering pro bono work for urgent needs. Knapper contacted her to say he had just the project.
In October, The Joseph Project co-sponsored a human trafficking training event that attracted hundreds of attorneys and created a legal network committed to assisting survivors across Michigan.
“The law is a powerful tool that can be leveraged for good,” Knapper said. “The Joseph Project offers attorneys the opportunity to connect to a higher purpose, to become agents of the broken, restoring dignity and worth.”
To learn more, visit josephproject.com.