Imprisoned in the American Nightmare

Freeing the silent sufferers of human trafficking and bringing their captors to justice

     Other misconceptions surround the victims themselves.

     People often mistakenly believe human trafficking only involves immigrants. However, Flores stresses domestic teens are also being trafficked. "People look at teens and think they choose to be on the street, they choose to make money this way. But no child wants to be a prostitute or a trafficking victim," says Flores, whose traffickers forced her into the commercial sex trade at 15.

     "Traffickers prey on vulnerable populations," adds Jennifer Kimball, one of the founders of Stop Traffic Now, a student-led grassroots movement against human trafficking in Columbia, Missouri. "It is estimated that 80 percent of trafficking victims are women and girls, and 50 percent are minors." Northeastern University's study backs Kimball's statement, finding nearly 62 percent of all trafficking victims identified by law enforcement were younger than 25, 16 percent younger than 18, and nearly 80 percent were female.

Shed some light on the issue

     Northeastern University's examination also analyzed the factors associated with exposing human trafficking situations, considering things such as being located near U.S. borders and a community's size and diversity. But researchers learned the greatest influence lay within the police agency itself. Those agencies training officers about human trafficking, participating in a trafficking task force, and partnering with victim organizations were more likely to expose trafficking situations.

     The Human Trafficking Rescue Project in western Missouri is a federally funded task force, formed in the latter part of 2006 with a $900,000 Department of Justice grant. This task force consists of a working group comprised of representatives from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and a coalition of service providers. As the Rescue Project's law enforcement liaison, Det. Jason Young specializes in training both groups to identify and investigate human trafficking. He underscores the schooling's importance by saying, "Officers who have not been trained on human trafficking don't recognize it when they come across it in the field."

     Seattle, Washington, has also experienced the value of human trafficking education. This coastal city has been dubbed the "gateway to Asia" because of its easy port and air access to the continent. Being just 2 hours south of the Canadian border also makes this city of 563,000 ripe for human trafficking. Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske reports just last summer officers found 12 Chinese people stowed away in a cargo container, being trafficked for the slave labor trade.

     Seattle city officials quickly discovered it pays to be vigilant when battling these types of concerns. When Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000, it earmarked money for human trafficking education, and the Refugee Women's Alliance (ReWA) quickly applied for and received a grant to educate Seattle residents and law enforcement officials about this ever-growing trend. In 2004, the Seattle PD built upon this foundation and was awarded a $450,000 federal grant to become one of 12 U.S. cities to assemble a human trafficking task force. The subsidy enabled the department to employ Det. Harvey Sloan to investigate trafficking cases full-time and establish Wash ACT, the Washington Advisory Committee on Trafficking.

     Sloan has centered his attention on educating the public and officers about human trafficking — what it is and what it looks like — because as Kerlikowske says "it doesn't always look like a crime." Sloan teamed with ReWA to produce two DVDs: "The Invisible Victims: Human Trafficking Overview for Law Enforcement" and "I Just Keep Quiet: Voices of Human Trafficking." He's also conducted more than 200 presentations, touching more than 6,000 people. Seattle's efforts have paid off — since 2005, officers have identified more than 60 human trafficking victims.

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