It’s Happening Under Our Noses

 

Meet Amy. Not her real name.

Amy had just turned 12 years of age. She seemed like a normal kid. She went to school, had friends, and made good grades. She resembles the friends your children hang around and maybe invite to your home after school to hang out.

Amy was being trafficked to her mom’s landlord – by her mom – for sexual favors in exchange for lower rent payments and a supply of alcohol and cigarettes. It began when Amy was around 8 or 9 years old.

“This is how I keep momma happy. I don’t want momma to be sad,” Carol Merna remembers Amy saying. The landlord would occasionally slip her a $20 bill. The arrangement seemed perfectly normal to Amy. “Momma” no longer has custody. Amy is looking at a lifetime in therapy to help her process what has happened and recover from this trauma.

Merna is the CEO of the Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria, one of downstate (outside of Chicago) Illinois’ largest non-profit community service organizations dedicated to victims of interpersonal violence, human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault, or abuse, elder abuse and more.

Nevada, Mississippi, and Florida are the states with the highest rates of human trafficking so far in 2022. But it happens in all 50 states.

Disclosure: she’s also my sister, and I financially support their work. Amy was their first young client after they opened their Human Trafficking Services Department in 2018, with the help of a grant from the US Department of Justice.

The department began with a single director. It has grown to a staff of four.

Amy’s story is not unique. Nor is she their youngest victim.

“Our newest and youngest client is eight years of age,” Merna reports. “She was trafficked by her aunt to her boyfriend and his friends.”

“Victims of trafficking seem to be getting younger and younger. Family trafficking seems to be the vehicle for introducing young people into what trafficking victims call “the life,” which means sex trafficking or labor trafficking. It makes them more vulnerable as they get older,” Merna says.

There’s a difference, Merna emphasizes, between human trafficking and human smuggling. “Human trafficking is a violation of someone’s human rights. Human smuggling is a violation of a country’s immigration laws,” Merna says. “A person can consent to be smuggled into the country; however, if that person is forced or coerced into commercial sex or labor/services, then they may be a victim of human trafficking.”

Human smuggling is most recently associated with the flood of immigrants at America’s southern border. “Coyotes” and drug cartels are paid for help in crossing the US border. Members of criminal drug gangs, like MS-13, from Central America, falsely claim to be 17 years of age. They find their way into camps of unaccompanied minors to recruit new members. This can evolve into human trafficking.

However, two of the largest myths about human trafficking consist primarily of 1) trafficking always involves sex and 2) always involves violence.

“Our oldest client was 62,” Merna reports. Let’s call her Lynn, again, not her real name. She came from Southeast Asia and responded to marketing by an employment agency – come to America, live with a family, make $1,000 a month with no expenses, enjoy a better life, etc.

When she landed in the US, the employment agency took her passport. She was told that she could have her passport back once she made $7,000 to reimburse them. She was taken to an affluent neighborhood to live with a husband-wife team of doctors.

“She was physically and emotionally abused. For seven years, her bedding consisted of a yoga mat on the laundry room floor. She was forced to buy her own food and paid very little for her work. She experienced terrible cataracts. It was a classic case of domestic servitude. She came to America with a friend who was ultimately able to seek help from law enforcement. They were able to aid Lynn in relieving her from abusive living arrangements and helped her come to the Center for Prevention of Abuse for care,” Merna recounts.

One of the Center’s newest calls about human trafficking is especially tragic. As often happens, it came to their Human Trafficking Services staff from the emergency room of a local hospital.

A victim of labor trafficking had tried to cut off their own hand.

“I had to do this because I can’t work anymore,” the victim allegedly said.

Forced to work in a restaurant, they were physically abused, driven to work every morning, driven to their apartment at night, and locked away. They were a prisoner, a slave.

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In certain circles, you cannot call it “modern-day slavery.” It offends certain people who believe that using “slavery” is off-limits, except to them. This, from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, may help explain why.

When you start searching the internet for information regarding human trafficking, it is likely that within a few clicks, you will run across the term “modernday slavery.” This term has been used by everyone from local non-profits to law enforcement task forces to President Obama, and it has largely been accepted and solidified as a holistic descriptor of what human trafficking is.

However, it is important for us as a movement to take a moment to reflect on why this term, and particularly the use of the word “slavery,” may intend to be helpful in relaying impact but in fact is exploitative.

We must hold ourselves to a standard that centers our collective humanity, and not advance our personal/organizational/movement ‘success’ at the expense of harming communities who’ve experienced (and continue to experience) oppression and marginalization. What I am commenting on below is specific to the American context of the word slavery. The history of this country’s use of the term and institution of slavery is unique and must be considered.

Thomas Sowell, an African American economist, historical, and social theorist, may disagree. According to a 2003 National Geographic article titled “21st Century Slaves:”

There are an estimated 25 million men, women, and children in the world who are enslaved — physically confined or restrained and forced into commercial sex or other work, controlled through violence, or in some way treated as property.

Therefore, there are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade [11 million total, and about 450,000, or about 4% of the total, who were brought to the United States]. Modern commerce in humans rivals illegal drug trafficking in its global reach and the destruction of lives. (Emphasis added)

Whether you call it slavery or human trafficking, it is a huge problem. Maybe we should worry less about semantics and focus on the victims.

Kate Mogulescu of the Legal Aid Society’s Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project defines trafficking as “a crime that involves force, fraud or coercion to compel someone to engage in labor, or commercial sex.” Grooming, which has entered the political lexicon in debates over education policies, is also a real part of human trafficking, especially among vulnerable children and young adults.

Fortunately, agencies like the Center for Prevention of Abuse, the Polaris Project, the Department of Justice, and many others are on the job.

You should be, too.

Source: Polaris Project

“Human trafficking, nationally, is a $150 billion industry,” Merna says. “It is a high profit, low-risk crime based on supply and demand.” And sadly, there is plenty of demand to keep people like Carol, her staff, and law enforcement busy.

And it shows up in a variety of ways, especially in rural communities in and around the “greater Peoria” area. “Panhandling and door-to-door sales are among the top five venues for labor trafficking,” Merna says. “It’s not just illicit massage businesses,” although that is also a top venue.

Even neighborhood brothels, especially in rural areas with no “neighborhood watch” programs.

I may have seen evidence of it myself. While waiting in my vehicle at a stoplight at a busy intersection one morning in Arlington, Virginia, last year – minutes from the Pentagon – I saw two people pile out of a white late-model sedan. They headed to opposite sections of the intersection and immediately began panhandling. The sedan sped away. I was unable to capture the license plate information.

“We’re never going to arrest our way out of human trafficking,” Merna says. As long as the demand is there, the supply will be there. Curbing demand is a problem. Fortunately, creative solutions are arising, including a brilliant idea praised by Merna that comes from a nonprofit named “Thorn,” developed by actors Aston Kutcher and Demi Moore to fight the exploitation of children. Thorn houses the first engineering and data science team focused solely on developing new technologies to combat online child sexual abuse – chiefly child pornography – another major gateway for human traffickers – with a registry of missing children. It’s a success.

What about law enforcement? “We are sanctioned trainers for law enforcement and other first responders,” Merna reports. “Do we see a concerted effort on their part? Not yet with all law enforcement. There is a high rate of violence in our area right now.  I believe police will eventually be able to associate a considerable amount of that violence with human trafficking. I am convinced that law enforcement and their leadership care deeply about our community and will ultimately take it as seriously as it deserves.” She reports that some communities are focused on human trafficking involved in the illicit massage trade, much of it tied to organized crime, reportedly from China.

Because so many human trafficking crimes involve people that victims trust – parents, spouses, caregivers, and “significant others” – prosecutions are difficult. Most of the significant laws against human trafficking didn’t exist until about 20 years ago.

“It’s hard to get victims to prosecute,” Merna asserts. “Victims often know, love, or trust those exploiting them. They are bonded through relationships and debt.

“It used to be called Stockholm Syndrome. Now it is called ‘Trauma Bonding,’” Merna says. Laws can be very difficult to prosecute without a willing victim and witnesses. Traffickers exploit vulnerable people’s weaknesses, including drug and alcohol addictions “and a place to lay your head at night.” Even gender dysphoria. Regardless of your views on transgenderism, people experiencing gender dysphoria are vulnerable to trafficking.

Many victims find an escape through hospital visits due to dehydration, malnourishment, or injury – like trying to cut off your hands. “Roughly eighty percent of victims seek medical care,” Merna says. Hospitality and health care industries are top targets for training on preventing and identifying victims.

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But that is not stopping her from partnering with local law enforcement on ways to reach potential victims. For example, offering to provide bottles of water for police to hand out to panhandlers and others with a label that includes the Center’s crisis hotline and other information for victims.

They have also prepared a card to help police identify possible victims with contact information – 24/7 hotlines – to help. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 888-373-7888. You can text them at 233733.

What can you do?

Merna notes that many victims are often under surveillance, so most importantly, if you suspect human trafficking, keep yourself safe. “Traffickers are watching,” Merna notes. “Pay attention to what you see. Did you get a license plate number? Catch a name? Do you have a personal description? Time of day, which direction? You know, the typical stuff you might see involving a crime.”

What you must know is that human trafficking is prevalent. It happens everywhere, including in rural communities. It involves forced labor and sex trafficking. And there are laws against it.

Help is available.

Amy and Lynn, and so many more, need your help.

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There are 17 comments.

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  1. Unsk Member
    Unsk
    @Unsk

    Absolutely great post. Great Research.

    But the powers that be won’t touch it, because you know too much money in it for the right people.

    • #1
  2. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    A few years ago the late Alex Tizon wrote movingly in the The Atlantic about the woman he eventually realized his Filipino parents kept as a slave.  It’s a complex story, well worth reading, and, I discovered after searching it out, inspired a series of pieces in response to it.   https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/06/lolas-story/524490/

    • #2
  3. Mountie Coolidge
    Mountie
    @Mountie

    It’s a great article and somewhat long. I know a lot of people have a habit of skimming a long article, dropping down looking at the comments and then moving on. If that’s your style and you’ve done that with this article I would implore you to go back and give it a good clean read. Good research great statements about defensible  positions, it’s something that you can dig into as far as possible policy is concerned. And at the end of the day this is a big problem for our country we need to understand it.

    I only hope that this article, this post, will get 12+ likes so that it can go to the main page. I already have two politicians that are running for office that I want to forward it to and then reach out to and have an extended conversation with them. And I have a number of people that work in the policy area that I feel strongly should read this thing.

    @soupguy thank you for posting it.

    And to others give it a like so that’ll get onto the main part of it. And give it a like 

    • #3
  4. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    A hard one to “like,” Kelly. Thanks for posting it.

    It’s one more reason to try to bring people out of the shadows. People who live here illegally, who come here illegally, who have to lie and hide, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Secure borders reduce the population of people who live in the shadows.

    • #4
  5. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Kelly D Johnston: Thorn houses the first engineering and data science team focused solely on developing new technologies to combat online child sexual abuse – chiefly child pornography – another major gateway for human traffickers – with a registry of missing children. It’s a success.

    It would be interesting to know more about how a registry is a success, but maybe if that information were known it could make it less successful? 

    • #5
  6. She Member
    She
    @She

    Kelly D Johnston:

    In certain circles, you cannot call it “modern-day slavery.” It offends certain people who believe that using “slavery” is off-limits, except to them. This, from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, may help explain why.

    When you start searching the internet for information regarding human trafficking, it is likely that within a few clicks, you will run across the term “modernday slavery.” This term has been used by everyone from local non-profits to law enforcement task forces to President Obama, and it has largely been accepted and solidified as a holistic descriptor of what human trafficking is. 

    However, it is important for us as a movement to take a moment to reflect on why this term, and particularly the use of the word “slavery,” may intend to be helpful in relaying impact but in fact is exploitative

    We must hold ourselves to a standard that centers our collective humanity, and not advance our personal/organizational/movement ‘success’ at the expense of harming communities who’ve experienced (and continue to experience) oppression and marginalization. What I am commenting on below is specific to the American context of the word slavery. The history of this country’s use of the term and institution of slavery is unique and must be considered. 

    Thomas Sowell, an African American economist, historical, and social theorist, may disagree. According to a 2003 National Geographic article titled “21st Century Slaves:”

    There are an estimated 25 million men, women, and children in the world who are enslaved — physically confined or restrained and forced into commercial sex or other work, controlled through violence, or in some way treated as property.

    Therefore, there are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade [11 million total, and about 450,000, or about 4% of the total, who were brought to the United States]. Modern commerce in humans rivals illegal drug trafficking in its global reach and the destruction of lives. (Emphasis added)

    As with much else, I’m with Thomas Sowell on this matter.  Not least because I cannot fathom the tortuous logic of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center., which states that “we must not advance our personal/organizational/movement ‘success’ at the expense of harming [marginalized and oppressed communities],” but that we must center on “our collective humanity” in order to make sure we don’t use the word “slave” inappropriately and in a hurtful context.

    Singling out one type of “slave” and making it the only type deserving of the name is precisely “advancing our personal/organizational/movement ‘success'” in terms of that particular demographic.

    If we are–actually–to center on our “common humanity,” (inhumanity?) then we should start by acknowledging that slavery is, and pretty much always has been, a worldwide phenomenon of the human condition, and that it is still going on today in many parts of the world and, unfortunately, even here.  And that–wherever it takes place, and whoever is affected by it–we should speak, and act, to abolish it.  

     

    • #6
  7. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    Mountie (View Comment):

    It’s a great article and somewhat long. I know a lot of people have a habit of skimming a long article, dropping down looking at the comments and then moving on. If that’s your style and you’ve done that with this article I would implore you to go back and give it a good clean read. Good research great statements about defensible positions, it’s something that you can dig into as far as possible policy is concerned. And at the end of the day this is a big problem for our country we need to understand it.

    I only hope that this article, this post, will get 12+ likes so that it can go to the main page. I already have two politicians that are running for office that I want to forward it to and then reach out to and have an extended conversation with them. And I have a number of people that work in the policy area that I feel strongly should read this thing.

    @ soupguy thank you for posting it.

    And to others give it a like so that’ll get onto the main part of it. And give it a like

    Thank you very much.

    • #7
  8. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    She (View Comment):
    Singling out one type of “slave” and making it the only type deserving of the name is precisely “advancing our personal/organizational/movement ‘success’” in terms of that particular demographic.

    It’s interesting that the academic historians who study the history of slavery (and who all seem to be left-leaning or firmly planted on the left) keep finding out about the varieties of slavery, not only among the countries of the Americas (and elsewhere) but even within the United States of America.  Slavery is not just one thing. 

    There was perhaps less variation in the United States than in Cuba or Brazil as to what it meant to be a slave, but even here in the U.S. it wasn’t all one thing. 

    • #8
  9. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    A hard one to “like,” Kelly. Thanks for posting it.

    Yes, important but . . . awful.

     

    Kelly D Johnston: Because so many human trafficking crimes involve people that victims trust – parents, spouses, caregivers, and “significant others” – prosecutions are difficult

    That makes a sad story even sadder

    • #9
  10. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    Saying that Slavery is exclusively property of African-Americans is absolute insanity.  The word itself is derived from Slav, with no relation to Africans.  Are we to assume the descriptions of slaves in the Bible were all Africans?

    African chattel slavery is one distinct kind of evil, but it is no more the only form of slavery than the Holocaust was the only genocide in history.

    The story about two doctors having a house slave is pretty horrifying.

    • #10
  11. Unsk Member
    Unsk
    @Unsk

    Saying that Slavery is exclusively property of African-Americans is absolute insanity.

    Absolutely.

    Some  fun little sorta facts:

    • When the father and uncle of Marco Polo made it to the court of Kublai Khan, allegedly they found that the Khan had black slaves from Africa, which should not astound you because China was very active along the Silk Route which stretched to the mediterranean states of Islam which were very much into slavery.

    • It is said that at the height of Rome, one third of it’s residents were slaves. 

    • The word “symposium” allegedly comes from the Greeks which described  this high minded soiree    where the great intellects of Athens would discuss the great issues of the day while at the same time having their way with little slave girls and boys. 

    • #11
  12. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Unsk (View Comment):

    Saying that Slavery is exclusively property of African-Americans is absolute insanity.

    but that seems to be the case.  Far as the American public and the Left is concerned slavery is something white GOP did to all blacks world wide.

    • #12
  13. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Unsk (View Comment):

    • The word “symposium” allegedly comes from the Greeks which described  this high minded soiree    where the great intellects of Athens would discuss the great issues of the day while at the same time having their way with little slave girls and boys.

    Plato’s Symposium is a nice book.

    It’s complicated.

    There was plenty of talk of gay sex.  There was no talk of sex with slaves that I can recall.

    They banished the flute girls at the beginning so the men could have a very manly, cultured conversation, taking turns giving speeches in praise of love! Pausanias praised Athenian gay culture very highly, and it was mostly about young upper-class mentees giving sexual favors to their mentors.  Pausanias, seemingly, was an older gay guy who wanted some love from hot young Agathon.  Aristophanes gave that moving story about how we’re all searching for our other half, separated from us by the gods long ago when we were whole, and double what we are now–four arms, four legs, no genitalia, no loneliness.

    And then Socrates gave his moving speech about moving past the love of this world and of beautiful bodies–learning to love Beauty Itself!  The divine reality that is Beauty Itself beyond this lowly physical world!

    Then drunken Alcibiades shows up with a crowd of groupies and ruins things by telling the story of how Socrates would never have sex with him.

    Yep.  That’s philosophy for you.

    No, I’m not making any of this up; I left out a lot, actually.

    • #13
  14. Mountie Coolidge
    Mountie
    @Mountie

    Mountie (View Comment

    I only hope that this article, this post, will get 12+ likes so that it can go to the main page. I already have two politicians that are running for office that I want to forward it to and then reach out to and have an extended conversation with them. And I have a number of people that work in the policy area that I feel strongly should read this thing.

    @ soupguy thank you for posting it.

     

    Thank editors for the promotion. 

    • #14
  15. hoowitts Coolidge
    hoowitts
    @hoowitts

    Maddeningly heartbreaking

    A tough read but awareness is urgently needed

    thanks for sharing Kelly and thanks for Merna doing such G-d-awful, difficult work

    • #15
  16. Ammo.com Member
    Ammo.com
    @ammodotcom

    Fake John/Jane Galt (View Comment):

    Unsk (View Comment):

    Saying that Slavery is exclusively property of African-Americans is absolute insanity.

    but that seems to be the case. Far as the American public and the Left is concerned slavery is something white GOP did to all blacks world wide.

    Can’t weaken your brand by giving up your monopololy over its product.

    • #16
  17. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    Singling out one type of “slave” and making it the only type deserving of the name is precisely “advancing our personal/organizational/movement ‘success’” in terms of that particular demographic.

    It’s interesting that the academic historians who study the history of slavery (and who all seem to be left-leaning or firmly planted on the left) keep finding out about the varieties of slavery, not only among the countries of the Americas (and elsewhere) but even within the United States of America. Slavery is not just one thing.

    There was perhaps less variation in the United States than in Cuba or Brazil as to what it meant to be a slave, but even here in the U.S. it wasn’t all one thing.

    By the way, I’m currently reading a recently published book titled Patchwork Freedoms about the patchwork of ways in which slaves became free (or partially free) in Cuba.  Being or becoming free wasn’t all one thing, either. 

    Although the topic is very interesting to me, I’m spending more time with a book titled The Origins of Slavic Nations, which provides some historical context for Putin’s bizarre rants about Russia’s claims on Ukraine, or Ukraine’s counterclaims, described by one Ukrainian blogger as “How Russia stole Ukraine’s history.”   Spoiler alert: Neither is historically accurate, though one of them is less dangerous than the other.

    So it’ll be a while before I finish Patchwork Freedoms.

     

    • #17
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