Average age of induction into sex trafficking: 13.
Total estimated global market value of human trafficking: $32
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
"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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
For more information on International Justice Mission, go to
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.