On Jan. 4, 2010, President Barack Obama issued a presidential proclamation declaring that January would be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.
In that proclamation, Obama stated that “human trafficking victims cannot walk away, but are held in service through forces, threats and fear. All too often suffering from horrible physical and sexual abuse, it is hard for them to imagine that there might be a place of refuge. … We must join together as a nation and global community to provide that safe haven by protecting victims and prosecuting traffickers.”
We are now 10 years removed from that proclamation, and while our nation, our state and the city of Rochester have made some significant progress in this battle, much work remains.
The good news is that today, the enslaved and exploited – including those forced into the sex trade – are far more likely to be treated as victims, rather than as criminals. In 2014, for example, Minnesota began implementing its Safe Harbor law, which ensures that juveniles engaged in prostitution are seen as children in need of protection, rather than as juvenile delinquents. Instead of being tossed into the juvenile court system, such children are instead directed toward trauma services and safe housing, with the goal of giving them a chance to forever escape a brutal cycle of abuse, poverty and hopelessness.
The problem, however, is that for every person who escapes forced servitude, more fall into it.
While it's easy to think of human trafficking in terms of girls being swept off the streets of other countries and shipped to brothels in New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles, the reality is that poverty and homelessness put millions of American children and women at risk of being trafficked. While some might be marketed to strangers on the dark side of the Internet (where the selling of children for sex has increased one thousandfold over the past decade), others simply face the horrible decision of either sleeping under a bridge in January or “earning” a night on a stranger's couch.
People do what they must do to survive, and traffickers know how to recognize those on the brink, such as the teenage runaway, the single mom who can't pay her rent, the boy with a heroine addiction, or the undocumented worker who speaks little English and is afraid of anyone wearing a badge.
Addiction, mental illness, homelessness and poverty are not going away, which is why the battle against human trafficking must be fought on three fronts.
First, law enforcement should continue to target the traffickers and the “customers” who enrich them. We'd like to believe that potential “Johns” rethink their life choices when they hear about a sting operation that reels in dozens of perpetrators who thought they were chatting online with a 15-year-old girl.
Second, we need to redouble our efforts to help trafficking victims create space between themselves and those who once controlled them. Getting a victim out of a trafficking situation is often far easier than keeping them from going back to it. These victims need shelter, counseling, education and employment opportunities.
And finally, we need to do a better job of identifying and helping those who are at risk of falling through the cracks, because it's far better to prevent trafficking than to deal with its aftermath. Mental illness, drug addiction and poverty are obvious red flags, but really, any child or young adult who feels isolated due to his/her race, sexual identity or disability also is at risk.
These people need a reason to hope. They need to understand that they are not alone. And most importantly, they need to believe that their life – both body and mind – has value.
We all can play a role in fostering that belief.