Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Human Trafficking: A Community Conversation

Last night I attended a Community Conversation meeting on the topic of human trafficking in Central Florida.

Dr. Joel Hunter, pastor emeritus of Northland Church and founder of The Community Resource Network, moderated the conversation. (Side note: As a former Northland member, I have known Joel since he and Becky came to Orlando 1985, but I hadn't seen him in several years. What a delight to chat with him after the meeting! I have always said he has a heart of gold, and now more than ever.) Northland is now a megachurch of 20,000 and Joel was a spiritual adviser to President Obama. He "retired" last year to devote his time to rallying the community around such issues as homelessness, addiction, and trafficking. That takes humility and courage! The Community Conversation meetings are a part of his initiatives. Please take the time to read this article in Christianity Today: Joel Hunter Is Done Pastoring His Orlando Megachurch.

The panel guests were Tomas Lares, founder of Florida Abolitionist; Ron Stucker, director of the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation; and Lisa Haba, Assistant State Attorney who specializes in prosecuting trafficking cases in Seminole County.

I took 8 pages of handwritten notes, scribbling as fast as I could to keep up with the torrent of information. Here is some of what I jotted down; I have attempted to synthesize and organize it, but it's a wild beast, so please forgive if it seems disjointed.


First, what is human trafficking? I looked up the definition this morning.
Trafficking means recruiting, abducting, facilitating, transferring, harboring, or transporting a person, by threat or use of force, coercion, fraud or deception or by the purchase, sale, trade, transfer or receipt of a person, for the purpose of subjecting that person to involuntary servitude, peonage, slavery, slave-like practices, sex trafficking, or forced or bonded labor services. (Source: www.gohttf.org)

Joel gave one real life example of human trafficking which hits way too close to home since I personally know the family. This past weekend, an 11 year old girl was lured online (via playing Minecraft) to leave her home in the middle of Saturday night to meet up with someone she thought was a female. Due to quick work by the FBI, she was located on Sunday in another state in a hotel room with a male perpetrator. We are so thankful for her safe return to her family but I am sure she is quite traumatized by the experience. She has a long road of recovery ahead of her.

What are some other examples of human trafficking victims?

  • any child/teen prostitute, regardless if she/he is doing it "willingly"
  • a prostitute who is being forced to work by a pimp
  • a migrant worker who is debt-enslaved to their "employer" - they can't leave until they pay it off, but the debt keeps racking up, so they are trapped.
  • an unpaid domestic worker (often foreign) who is enslaved in a home, even in an affluent neighborhood
  • an undocumented worker paid under the table and exploited using threats of exposure to ICE
Joel asked Tomas Lares, "Why don't more victims try to escape?" Tomas started with the word victimology. They don't feel like they deserve any better. They are psychologically powerless. They have been raped, battered, threatened, and otherwise intimidated by the perpetrators. They don't think they have a safe place to go. They may have no other means to support themselves or their children. Even if they do get away, they fear retribution against loved ones. Many have been sexually exploited hundreds or even thousands of times; they have been used and abused to the point that they perceive themselves as worthless and hopeless. Many have Stockholm Syndrome, which makes them sympathetic to those who are abusing them. Many have been numbed by (and become addicted to) drugs and alcohol. 

What can we do? We can start by using our power wisely.

If you have power - and you DO have power - how will you choose to use it? Will you EXPLOIT others, AVOID getting involved, or ADVOCATE for the vulnerable? Lisa Haba noted that we tend to avoid vulnerable people because we are afraid or because it is inconvenient. This only enables perpetrators who keep committing their crimes, because they think no one will bother to prevent them. Instead, we need to be like the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help the wounded Jew on the road to Jericho. You can make a huge difference if you change your mindset!

Ending sex trafficking requires a multi-faceted approach. Many of these strategies also apply to other forms of trafficking. 

  • Eliminate the supply of victims. Empower and educate potential victims to prevent them from falling under the power of perpetrators. Many prostitutes were vulnerable to trafficking because they had been sexually abused during childhood, or they were teen runaways, or they were domestic violence victims. They have extremely low self-esteem. They feel worthless. They may be addicted to drugs or alcohol. They don't have education or job options. They might be lured into trafficking by the promise of a modeling career. Young people need to be warned about trafficking so they won't be deceived by perps. And they also need a clear path to healthy living. Mentoring can be a huge help with this. (Side note: One of my daughters, who has a masters in counseling, works as a school-based therapist in a country school system. One of her goals is to create resiliency programs for teenage girls.)
  • Protect the victims. Officers will first attempt to physically separate a victim from the perpetrator, who is either the pimp (someone who is selling the prostitute for profit) or the john (the "customer"). If the situation is not clear, but there are other valid charges such as drug possession or probation violation, they can jail a suspect immediately to create extra safety for the victim. The officers must build a sense of trust with the coerced prostitute, who may not yet acknowledge that she is a trafficking victim rather than a criminal. Building trust is a challenge since pimps often threaten their "girls" that they will be arrested for prostitution or drug charges if they ask law enforcement for help. Child victims will be referred to DCF for on-going care. Adult victims may be placed in a secure shelter and offered counseling, addiction treatment, and job skills. (We need more of these shelters and services!) For immediate assistance, they may be given a backpack with basic supplies. The key is to not criminalize the victim, but to give her a sense of value and dignity, and then practically equip her to take a different path.
  • Refer victims to qualified care for counseling and protection. Do not attempt this by yourself! This is extremely complicated, and you will do a disservice to the victim. It can also be really dangerous to bring a trafficking victim into your home due to mental health, addiction, or retribution by perpetrators. Don't give them cash, because it could end up in the pocket of the pimp instead. Instead, call law enforcement for help, and they can arrange a referral to competent and comprehensive care. 
  • Eliminate the demand. Enforce stiff penalties for both johns and pimps. Allow victims to sue perpetrators with civil law suits. Change the cultural conscience so that no one will even want to exploit others. Expand the availability of sexual violence awareness classes for offenders. Block the gateway of pornography, which becomes addictive, rewires the brain, and demands more of a "thrill" to satisfy desire; if a magazine photo or online video isn't enough, a real life girl might do the trick. This is heinous. Pornography must go! You can find a lot of information here: Fight the New Drug.
  • Educate the public about the signs of trafficking. Everyone should be aware of this, but special efforts are underway to train hotel clerks and maids, medical personnel, teachers, transportation workers, bartenders, etc. The woman who sat next to me has worked for Marriott in this area, and says they are making huge efforts to equip their employees to spot trafficking situations. An ER nurse called authorities after a prostitute was brought in with a bull-whip slash on her face. An airline clerk stopped two teenage girls who were trying to check in without proper identification, flying to another state on what turned out to be a one way ticket. Truckers Against Trafficking is training truckers to be vigilant to red flags of trafficking at truck stop; they also have training videos right on their web site. 
  • If you see something, say something! If you notice someone you think might be vulnerable and in trouble, CALL 911 ASAP. Let law enforcement assess and investigate. The sooner they can do this, the more likely they are to be able to rescue a victim and prosecute the perpetrator. You don't need to figure it out first; go with your enlightened intuition. You can often sense if a situation seems "off" - such as an older man traveling with a young girl, with no apparent family relationship, and she seems afraid or unkempt... What are some red flags of possible trafficking? Read the list here: Recognizing the Signs. I repeat: If you see something, say something. You could save a life.
  • Penalize businesses which enable trafficking. These include hotels/motels that knowingly allow prostitution, tattoo parlors, massage parlors, bars, Backpage and Craigslist web sites. Joel gave one example of a young girl who was being trafficked by her own mother at a local motel. At age 11, she asked a friendly looking new employee for help. The woman walked away, not wanting to get involved. The girl was trafficked for another several years. Many of these workers are afraid of being fired. We need to enact mandated reporting, with legal protection for employees who, in good faith, report suspicious behavior.  The Florida House of Representatives Judiciary Committee is voting on HB 167 tomorrow morning (Wednesday, February 21, 2018). This bill would, along with Senate Bill 1044, allow victims to sue these businesses which enable the crimes! Please call your legislator and demand that these bills be passed! Pennsylvania and Texas already have similar laws on the books. The other 48 states need to get with it!
  • Support and extend the #metoo movement. Right now we have such wide public awareness about sexual abuse and harassment. Now is the time to expand that awareness to the issue of human trafficking. We are at a tipping point, a watershed moment. Let's push this through while the light shines bright. Let's fight against compassion fatigue and issue saturation, so we don't lose interest and give up before the problem is solved. Keep it in the news. NO MORE! NOT ON OUR WATCH!

What about other forms of trafficking?
  • Undocumented workers who are being trafficked often fear they will be jailed, deported, or separated from their children if they report abuse. They are now eligible for two specialty visas with a path to citizenship. The T Visa is for people brought into the USA by traffickers. The U Visa is for people who came on their own, but were later trafficked; the stipulation here is that they most cooperate with authorities to expose and prosecute the traffickers.

I know this is a lot of information to process. Please take the time to think through this thoroughly, and decide how you will take action in the fight against human trafficking.

On a personal note: I have been seeking God's wisdom on my own future. As I write this, I am in the middle of applying to Asbury Theological Seminary (Orlando campus) for a masters degree, probably in chaplaincy or pastoral counseling. For a regular job, I plan to work with the elderly and hospice/hospital patients and their families. However, my hope is that I will be equipped to also extend basic frontline ministry (comfort, encouragement, referrals to more comprehensive care) to women in the community who are at risk from domestic violence, homelessness, sex trafficking, and faith crises related to spiritual abuse. Please pray for me as I take each step by faith. 

Virginia Knowles

I have other blog posts about human trafficking and related issues: