A call to fight human trafficking

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Average age of induction into sex trafficking: 13.

Total estimated global market value of human trafficking: $32 billion.

Estimated number of people trapped in slavery around the world: 28.9 million.

These numbers, the faces of tragedy behind them and what to do about it were the focus of "Human Trafficking: It's Real; It's Everywhere; and It's Here," a four-person presentation Nov. 8 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle.

Sponsored by the St. Francis Anti-Human Trafficking Committee and the Arlington diocesan Peace and Justice Commission, speakers called human trafficking an assault on the dignity of the human person. From faith-based, nonprofit and law enforcement perspectives, they explained the practice as a global and local crime that requires Catholics not only to act outwardly for justice, but also to turn inwardly in reflection and prayer.

Father Gerry Creedon, chairman of the diocesan Peace and Justice Commission, served as moderator for the event, which drew nearly 200 people from throughout the Washington metro region. Franciscan Father Kevin J. Downey, pastor of St. Francis, gave the opening prayer.

An affront to human dignity

Human trafficking has been a priority for the Catholic Church for many years, said presenter Hilary Chester, associate director of the Anti-Trafficking Program for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She said the church's longtime efforts have found a great supporter in Pope Francis.

"Let us not look the other way," the pope wrote in "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"). "This issue involves everyone."

According to Chester, human trafficking must have three elements: intention on the part of perpetrators to get someone under their control; ongoing control; and a commercial gain as the result of forceful, coercive tactics.

Most trafficking victims are controlled primarily through psychological manipulation, and while some are locked away, others are in the community working. "Perpetrators use manipulation to keep them bound," Chester said. She recalled one man telling a victim, "You can walk away any time you like; I'll just go get your little sister."

Because of such psychological abuse, "once rescued, there's a lot of restoration, a lot of long-term healing that has to go on," said Chester.

She said human trafficking often is hidden, with many victims not self-identifying. Undocumented immigrants who are being exploited may be aware that they are committing a crime, but not that they are part of much broader criminal activity. "That can be a real barrier for them in coming forward and asking for assistance," said Chester.

Victims also frequently have a mistrust of authorities, or they think a situation eventually will improve.

Chester said trafficking is prevalent in work where "people are almost invisible," for example, housekeeping, behind-the-scenes restaurant work or nail salon jobs.

From a Catholic perspective, human trafficking is an egregious violation of the human person, Catholic social teaching on the dignity of work and the pro-life ethic. "It really is an offense that is on a scale that is almost unprecedented," said Chester.

She highlighted the USCCB's largest anti-human trafficking initiatives, including Dignity of Work, a two-year pilot program providing employment and post-employment services to survivors; Amistad, a program focused on awareness-raising in immigrant communities; and Become a Shepherd, a parish-based education and training program.

Chester commended St. Francis of Assisi Church for its implementation of Become a Shepherd and called them "a great example" of the program's mission.

She closed by calling attention to the National Day of Prayer for Victims and Survivors of Human Trafficking Feb. 8, asking the faithful to lift up their prayers for victims regularly but especially on that day.

Global, national responses

Joe Farrell - director of Northeast Church Mobilization for International Justice Mission, a Washington-based nonprofit that works to protect the poor from violence in the developing world - gave a global perspective of the crime.

"Human trafficking is a vast and expanding epidemic," said Farrell, noting that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported that after drug dealing, human trafficking is tied for second as the largest criminal industry in the world.

The total market value of human trafficking is $32 billion, with 29.8 million people living in modern slavery, according to the United Nations and the Walk Free Foundation, respectively.

IJM works to rescue victims, bring criminals to justice, help survivors through therapy and implement programs to transform ineffectual justice systems.

Effective justice can serve as a strong deterrent to perpetrators, said Farrell. "Most of the people who violate the poor, who traffic other humans, they're not brave people."

Britanny Vanderhoof, a policy counsel for the Polaris Project in Washington, summarized U.S. human trafficking legislation and encouraged attendees to advocate for comprehensive legislation to protect victims locally and nationally.

Polaris, a nonprofit that works on all forms of human trafficking, operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, available around the clock in 170 languages.

The number is for victims and for tips about trafficking cases. "If you have any suspicion, reach out and call," said Vanderhoof. "Don't worry if it seems silly or if you're overacting. Call."

Vanderhoof said children in the welfare system particularly are vulnerable to being trafficked. Studies in New York and California found 60-80 percent of identified sex-trafficking victims had prior contact with the child welfare system. In a Connecticut study, it was 99 out of 100 victims.

The numbers "are staggering," said Vanderhoof.

Attack through education

Fairfax County Police Detective Bill Woolf, a member of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, was the final presenter, and he left attendees with some sobering local numbers and a plea to help.

A new human trafficking unit headed by Woolf was established last October with the aid of a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The Fairfax County Police Department received $500,000, and Polaris was awarded the other half-million.

As of October, the unit had recovered and offered services to 103 victims and identified 69 suspects, said Woolf, a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville. The average age of victims in the region is 15-17 years old, and most are U.S. citizens.

Even though Northern Virginia boasts some of the wealthiest counties in the country, human trafficking still exists, said Woolf.

In fact, he sees a lot of victims from wealthy families. Money is not their motivator; rather, teens are attracted by the prospect of excitement or peer pressure. Most are seeking a sense of identity and belonging, said Woolf.

The Internet makes it easy for traffickers to prey on young victims, many of whom expose the minutiae of their life via social media, he said.

Woolf challenged participants to educate themselves and others as well as look inward at how they view victims.

"These victims are out there, they're right in front of our face," he said. "The problem is we are not educated on the issue."

He said society looks at a prostitute as someone who is immoral and dirty. "We look down on that individual, and we should not. She is a victim."

Woolf said that there are physiological reasons why a sex-trafficked person can't make decisions on her own. A female brain does not stop developing until age 25. With the onset of commercial sex, cognitive function stops, said Woolf. "Because of the amount of trauma experienced over and over again, it's too much for the brain to handle."

The average life expectancy after someone enters the commercial sex life prior to age 25 is just seven years, he said.

"The No. 1 way to attack this issue is through education," said Woolf. "If we stick our head in the sand, we are just allowing more people to become victims."

Find out more

For human trafficking resources from the USCCB, including statistics, Catholic social teaching on the issue and ways to help, click here. For the Become a Shepherd toolkit, go here.

Find human trafficking information and resources for teens, parents and community members at justaskva.org, sponsored in part by the Fairfax County Police Department Human Trafficking Unit.

For more information on International Justice Mission, go to ijm.org.

For more information on Polaris, go to polarisproject.org.

National Human Trafficking Hotline

If you are a victim of human trafficking or have information about a potential trafficking situation, call 1-888-373-7888. All reports are confidential, and you may remain anonymous. Interpreters are available to answer the toll-free number 24 hours a day.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014