Monday, December 28, 2020

A Safety Net Seeks to Save Trafficked Women

By Kristin McKee

Jennifer Gaines, a survivor advocate at Breaking Free, was pampered by her first trafficker before being sold to his friends at 14. Tom Jones, founder and director of The H.O.P.E. Project, used prostitution to network after being in the Navy for four years. Santiago Navarro, a restaurant worker in San Diego, had his immigration on the line by a woman named Betty while doing labor work for her. 

These are just some of the survivor stories told through the World Without Exploitation organization that make human trafficking a kaleidoscopic nightmare.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline defines human trafficking as “the business of stealing freedom for profit.” The National Hotline adds that it is a multi-billion-dollar criminal industry that affects 24.9 million people around the world. 

Since 2007, the hotline has received 246,267 contacts and 56,504 reports of distinct human trafficking situations. The most recent data was recorded in June 2019 with 23,784 contacts and 4,585 reports from the beginning of that year up to the end of June. However, the hotline emphasizes that this data does not reflect the totality of human trafficking as many cases go unreported.

“Legally, the definition of human trafficking is that there have to be elements of force, fraud and coercion,” explained Shaina Fuller, coordinator of the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force. Minors are an exception to this under the Illinois Safe Children’s Act, which protects minors from prosecution for prostitution.

“I think I still hear the term ‘child prostitute,’ and that’s not accurate because if you’re under the age of 18 and you’re engaged in the commercial sex trade, you’re considered to be a victim of human trafficking,” Fuller said.

Fuller leads the healthcare subcommittee of the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force, a multi-disciplinary task force that unites law enforcement and social and legal service agencies to combat human trafficking. The task force utilizes a “victim-centered approach” in investigating and prosecuting human-trafficking crimes and provides social services to victims. 

“The task force’s role in Cook County is to bring folks to the table that have different areas of expertise because human trafficking is an issue that touches so many different areas of the community…” Fuller said. “It’s important to have as many folks at the table as possible to really be able to effectively address trafficking.”

The idea of human trafficking has been paired with common misconceptions and certain imageries for a long time. Like the imagery depicted in the 2009 action thriller “Taken,” many believe that human trafficking is either prostitution or a foreign affair in which a young girl or woman is kidnapped and is forced into sexual activities for profit.

“Often, in training, I ask people if they’ve seen the movie ‘Taken,’ and almost everyone raises their hand, and I explain that that’s not what trafficking is all the time,” Fuller said. “Yes, it’s possible that it can look like that, but more often than not, it’s not random strangers in unmarked vans picking people up and then chaining them…”

Fuller describes a common theoretical image of human trafficking in which a young girl is chained up. According to Fuller, the task force discourages that kind of imagery because it gives people the wrong idea of human trafficking.

“First of all, it communicates that only women can be victims, and (the task force) knows that’s not true,” Fuller said. “It communicates the idea that physical force or physical restraint has to be an element of a trafficking situation, and (the task force) knows that’s not true.”

The most discussed and represented form of trafficking is sex trafficking, but Fuller says labor trafficking is also a reality people tend to forget such as the one encountered by Navarro. The National Hotline defines labor trafficking as individuals performing labor through force, fraud or coercion and can include situations of debt bondage, forced labor and involuntary child labor. According to Fuller, labor trafficking cases can be more difficult to identify and prosecute, but they have been seen in Cook County, the state of Illinois and nationwide.

Fuller references a video series created by the Office for Victims of Crime titled, “Faces of Human Trafficking.” The series is a collaboration of interviews with human-trafficking survivors and experts from across the country that aims to raise awareness of the significance of this crime. Fuller says that the series mentions the idea that “freedom of movement does not equal freedom of choice.”


“Just because they walk around - maybe they’re allowed to walk to the store, they’re allowed to go to the hospital if they need medical assistance - doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily ‘free’ and that they’re not under someone’s control,” Fuller explained. “It just appears that they’re not.”

Fuller relates this idea of control to domestic violence. Like with human trafficking, many people do not understand why someone stays in an abusive relationship when they can supposedly “just leave.”

“If you know about domestic violence and understand, again, that power and control that takes place in that relationship, it’s not that simple,” Fuller said. “They can’t just walk away and leave even though they’re not being physical restrained or trapped anywhere.”

Stephanie Daniels-Wilson, cofounder of the
Dreamcatcher Foundation

Stephanie Daniels-Wilson and Brenda Myers-Powell co-found The Dreamcatcher Foundation, a survivor-led and survivor-focused nonprofit organization agency that aim to end human trafficking in the Chicago area through outreach, intervention and prevention of sexual exploitation of at-risk youth. Daniels-Wilson and Myers-Powell both addressed the misconception of human trafficking being a choice.

“One of the things that people do think is that a lot of us do this by choice - it’s not a choice—and that it’s easy to get out of—it’s not,” said Myers-Powell. “Also, they don’t understand what links us and holds us in human trafficking...why we stay, why we continue to be part of it.”

“There’s a lot of underlying issues that people don’t know about,” Daniels-Wilson said. “People don’t just wake up and say, ‘Well, I think today I’m going to be a prostitute.’ Nobody is born with the aspiration of being a prostitute.”

Daniels-Wilson says the reason why victims of human trafficking stay is a different story. Although some victims are forced into it, the trafficker could have threatened harm on the victim or the victim’s family, and it jeopardizes their decision to leave. Daniels-Wilson says many people don’t even think about that scenario and continue to assume it’s a choice.

“And now in this generation, a lot of drug dealers have put the dope down and are selling women. Why? Because they can only sell a bag of dope one time, but you can sell a girl over and over,” Daniels-Wilson said. 

The stigma aimed at human trafficking victims makes it difficult for this epidemic to end, but this stigma can be reduced by simple education on the matter itself and its significance as a crime. 

“I think a lot of the stigma of human trafficking comes from folks just not being educated about it,” Fuller says. Fuller recommends that people conduct research on human trafficking through organizations such as the Polaris Project, the National Hotline and the task force’s main project, the Salvation Army STOP-IT program.

Daniels-Wilson recommends talking to victims or an organization like The Dreamcatcher Foundation to find out why did they involve themselves in this situation and what drove them to it.

“Find out their backstory,” Daniels-Wilson said. “There’s always a backstory.”

“It begins with yourself and what you believe in,” Myers-Powell said. “Anytime anyone is trafficked, they’ve got to understand what trafficking mean. Human trafficking is human slavery.”

Brenda Myers-Powell, co-founder 
of the Dreamcatcher Foundation

Myers-Powell says the best place to start is with our up and coming generation and look towards to youth to make it a better a place because “the only way we can clean this up is to start all over.” She says we should have a trafficking-free, exploitation-free society. This means a society where young girls don’t have to worry about being trafficked or being cautious. 

The Dreamcatcher Foundation has serviced over 4,000 girls ages 12 to 25. The organization provides distinct programs centered around its goals of prevention, intervention, and outreach. Bright Stars, both a prevention and intervention program, works to empower youth and build confidence through a curriculum of life skills, coping skills and ethical values. The foundation aims for their outreach goal through Reach for the Stars in which they travel to various locations around the city of Chicago where girls are trafficked or at high risk of being trafficked and aim to lead them towards the road to recovery.

“We have to create better situations for our youth,” Myers-Powell said. “We have to raise our men to become better men, we have to educate the side that feeds the sex industry...We have to have an understanding for women who have been trafficked and help them to heal. There has to be a better understanding of what’s going on.”

In the “Faces of Human Trafficking” series, Katherine Kaufka Walts, J.D., director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University Chicago, says there is no one profile of a trafficked person. Victims can be of any gender, any race, any sexual orientation, any national origin and any socioeconomic status. There is also no one image of a human trafficking case. It can be fueled by violence, manipulation, threats and physical and financial survival. 

No matter the background and no matter the story, human trafficking continues to be a worldwide epidemic affecting thousands that seek the help of their communities to finally escape it.