For two hours on Saturday morning, May 21, I listened to an undercover officer with the Columbus, OH, Police Department speak to a group of parents and teens gathered at the Martin de Porres Center about the crime of human trafficking, which he defined as the exploitation of vulnerable victims for money and profit.
His message to the teen girls was clear and graphic. “If someone approaches you and tells you how pretty you are, how lovely your hair looks, how you could have a great career as a model or a singer and how he or she could facilitate this for you, run! Tell your mom and dad at once. If someone is offering you a job that will make you lots of money and you are only 15 or 16, it won’t be a healthy job and it won’t be legal!”
He explained how a trafficker grooms his victims, maybe for two or three months, slowly drawing the person into his confidence until he can lure her/him to a room or a house where the victim can be trapped. The first approach may be through social media. Runaway youth are also at high risk. “Do you need a place to stay tonight?” the trafficker might say. “I can help you.” And thus it begins.
Most victims of sex trafficking are females, US citizens and between 15-35 years old. Traffickers manipulate their victims by creating a climate of fear so that the person is terrified to attempt escape. Human trafficking is a 32+ billion dollar industry, cash free and clear, no taxes paid. It rivals Apple, Exon Mobile and Samsung. One girl can earn a trafficker over $200,000 a year.
The first anti-trafficking law in the US was passed in 1910 so trafficking is not new. But with the coming of the internet, the crime exploded because the internet makes it so much easier to advertise and facilitate contact between client and victim.
Trafficking exists across the US and is more prevalent is large cities and along major highways. The state of Ohio ranks fourth in the number of reported cases of trafficking and fourth in the number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The hotline number is 888-373-7888; calls to this number are free and anonymous. Tips are given to the local unit that investigates trafficking. The officer suggested that we program the hotline number into our phones and use it to call in any situation that raises a red flag.
A woman sitting at the table with me said she volunteers at a local soup kitchen and has seen a group of teen girls come into the kitchen with an older man. Could this be a red flag? Yes, definitely!
“We only have four people in our unit. We need you to see and report,” the officer said. “Our numbers are high in Ohio because we are addressing the problem. We are getting reports and investigating them.”
The hotline number is in my phone now. It seemed like the least I could do, a simple, concrete way to act on my congregation’s commitment: “We, the Dominican Sisters of Peace, proclaim our mission to be a prophetic voice in solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. We, along with our Dominican Associates, commit our support to efforts to end human trafficking.”