The Fight Against Sex Trafficking Is Bigger Than Backpage

Editor’s Note: Andrea Powell is founder & executive director of FAIR Girls, a D.C. based organization providing safe housing and emergency and long- term services to survivors of human trafficking. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)On January 9, after an investigation lasting over 21 months, a Senate subcommittee published a scathing report, finding that classified ads website Backpage.com knowingly facilitated online child sex trafficking on the “adult” section of its website.

According to the report, Backpage did so by, among other things, filtering the text of advertisements to screen out words like “rape,” “schoolgirl” and “lolita” before posting them, to conceal the intent of the ads. Backpage also did not remove these advertisements or report them to law enforcement.

These findings are no surprise to FAIR Girls, where approximately 90% of the young women and girls we serve — some as young as 14 — were sold by their traffickers on Backpage.

It also is consistent with first-hand accounts. For example, the mother of a 14-year-old girl sold on Backpage reported to the Senate subcommittee that her daughter had been trafficked through the website, and that even after she was recovered, ads containing explicit photographs of the girl were still being shown on the website.

She said she requested numerous times that the ads be taken down, and although Backpage eventually removed the photos, it did not do so immediately.

Following up on its findings, on January 10, the Senate subcommittee was scheduled to question the company’s CEO, owners, general counsel, and COO. Backpage executives refused to testify. The day before that hearing, the website closed its “adult” section in the United States.

Backpage.com's adult section now redirects to this page
Backpage.com’s adult section now redirects to this page

Shedding Light on Human Trafficking

On this day when we celebrate an activist for hard won civil rights, we focus on slavery in America, victims of an industry that traffics in human beings. The Department of Justice reports 83 percent of those enslaved are American citizens of every age. The Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking is Mandy Bristol-Leverett. She spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams about the issue.

Williams: Define human trafficking. What exactly is it?

Bristol-Leverett: Human trafficking by both state and federal definition is the use of force, fraud or coercion to entrap, imprison, abuse or exploit someone else, another human being.

Williams: And we’re not just talking about prostitution, right?

Bristol-Leverett: Right. We typically see two forms of human trafficking in the U.S. In the U.S., the number one form of human trafficking is sex trafficking. Number two is labor trafficking. There are generally six forms of human trafficking globally. We have had even organ trafficking cases, but that’s not as predominant as it is overseas. So we’re looking at those two forms predominantly — sex and labor trafficking.

Williams: You’re enlisting the public’s help in your cause. What are the signs to look for that someone’s being trafficked?

Bristol-Leverett: Well it depends on the kind of trafficking, because sometimes it can look like a tattoo of a boyfriend’s name. It could look like someone who just starts skipping school or has a controlling boyfriend or someone in their life, they’re not allowed to be alone. They’re very controlling, texting constantly wanting to know where they are, that sort of thing. In the case of foreign nationals that they don’t have documentation of their own if they’re living on the premises where they’re working. It’s ultimately being controlled by someone else.

Williams: How many people in New Jersey are enslaved in this?

Bristol-Leverett: That’s a tough question because we don’t have unified numbers and comprehensive numbers. We have great organizations gathering those numbers, but a lot of organizations that are gathering numbers answer different questions. For example, our national human trafficking hotline number, their stats cover the number of calls, not cases. Our state service provider, our state sponsor service provider, they deal with cases but sometimes they’re people coming back through the system so it can represent more than one. And then they’re not the only service providers serving New Jersey. Then of course we talk about law enforcement and you know how many prosecutions, that’s a very low number. Not because there aren’t people to be prosecuted, but sometimes proving that force, fraud or coercion is difficult so they might charge them with other charges like child endangerment and that sort of thing so it doesn’t get chalked up as a human trafficking case, but they get just as many years in jail sometimes as if they had charged them with human trafficking.

Williams: What is your organization doing to prevent it and combat it?

To read the full article from NJTV NEWS: Click Here

Trooper Who Rescued Teen: ‘No One Should Be Trafficked’

PHOENIX — An Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper said his training in identifying signs of human trafficking helped him rescue a 16-year-old runaway who was being sold for sex.

Trooper Jonathan Otto, 33, said a traffic stop near Kingman led to the discovery Jan. 11 after he’d noticed a vehicle driving in excess of 100 mph along U.S. 93 in the early-morning hours.

After interviewing the occupants of the vehicle, Otto said he recognized one of its female passengers as demonstrating indicators of human trafficking. Though the girl initially said she was 18, Otto said he found information about her at the scene that showed she was a minor.

At the time of the stop, the 16-year-old was in the company of a man and woman with whom she shared mutual friends, Otto said. They were identified by DPS officials as Rasheen Adams, 22, and Chicha Harris, 22, of Las Vegas.

Officials said the girl was trafficked in Southern California, taken to Arizona, and was on her way to Las Vegas at the time of the traffic stop.

Adams and Harris were arrested and face felony charges including sex trafficking of a minor, custodial interference and theft of means of transportation, the DPS stated. Both were booked in to the Mohave County Jail and were each released on a $10,000 bond, officials said.

Runaway sought to ‘get away from her impoverished life’

In a news conference in Phoenix on Thursday morning, Otto recalled the signs that led him to believe it was more than just a typical traffic stop.

He said that when he first approached the vehicle to talk to the occupants, he smelled a pungent perfume that had permeated the vehicle. A female occupant in the front passenger seat was wearing only lingerie, and the teen in the backseat was scantily clad.

To read the full story by Garrett Mitchell of The Arizona on USA Today: Click Here

UPS Drivers Trained To Spot Human Trafficking

UPS’s 8,000 freight drivers will receive the training, which began last month, by the end of the year, according to UPS spokeswoman Kara Ross.

A pilot version of the project between Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) and UPS was rolled out across 10 states in December, TAT said in a news release Wednesday.

“UPS Freight is in a unique position to help identify traffickers and trafficking victims by educating our drivers and management on this epidemic impacting our local communities,” Rich McArdle, president of UPS Freight, said in the release. “We are proud to take a stand in fighting human trafficking and look forward to working with Truckers Against Trafficking on this initiative that will save lives.”

Training is taking place on site around the country, Ross said. Each UPS driver also receives a wallet card that contains helpful phone numbers and instructs drivers what to do if they identify trafficking on the road. The card also identifies “trafficking red flags,” which include a person who:

  • exhibits restricted or controlled communication
  • has a disheveled appearance or is crying
  • is a minor traveling without adult supervision 
  • does not know the person who is picking them up

TAT, a non-profit organization that educates shipping partners and individuals in the trucking industry about how to stop human trafficking, is also partnering with the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office, the attorney general’s office said in a news release Wednesday. TAT Executive Director Kendis Paris said commercial driver’s license (CDL) holders often have the unique opportunity to stop trafficking as it happens.

To read the full story by Danielle Lerner at Courier-Journal: Click Here

Sister Of St. Francis Raising Awareness About Human Trafficking

CLINTON — The Sisters of St. Francis are continuing to shed light on modern human trafficking.

“National Human Trafficking Awareness Day” took place Wednesday, and the month of January has also been designated as “National Human Trafficking Awareness Month.” Because of this, the Sisters are ramping up their efforts this month to bring the issue to the forefront of discussion.

The Sisters took a corporate stance on human trafficking in 2015, stating “We, the Sisters of St. Francis of Clinton, Iowa, oppose all forms of human trafficking which violate basic human rights and exploit vulnerable people, and we will put forth our efforts to end this heinous practice.”

Franciscan Peace Center Director of Community Outreach Lori Freudenberg said the Sisters are always hard at work to promote causes such as this.

“We’ve worked with a lot of local organizations, local teachers, local trucking companies, and really as many people as we can to stay on top of this,” Freudenberg said. “The police department, healthcare workers… we’ve tried to spread our resources out as much as we are able to.”

To read the full article by Jake Mosbach at The Clinton Herald: Click Here 

How The Obama Administration Fought Human Trafficking

President Barack Obama with a 16-year-old trafficking victim from Myanmar, in Kuala Lumpur, 2015.
President Barack Obama with a 16-year-old trafficking victim from Myanmar, in Kuala Lumpur, 2015.

In 2016, the Administration convened the first U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, made up of 11 human trafficking survivors appointed by President Obama. This Council is helping ensure that our anti-trafficking policies are grounded in the experiences of those most affected by these horrific crimes.

To read the full story by Susan Coppedge and Amy Pope on CNN: Click Here

Ahead Of The Super Bowl, A Push To Take On Human Trafficking Year-Round

Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle

Human trafficking for years had been thought to increase significantly more around the Super Bowl than any other event of the year.

Many experts now say that assertion is not necessarily true. But, ahead of Super Bowl 51 next month in Houston, advocates are using the occasion to tell the public that the crime happens here year-round.

“We view this as an opportunity to tell our city… that this crime happens,” said Misa Nguyen, director of programs for United Against Human Trafficking, a Houston-based organization.

This thinking, at least in part, has been influenced by a recent study by Carnegie Mellon University, which analyzed “new-to-town” online escort ads. The study found that, while the crime may increase around major sporting events like the Super Bowl, it did not happen as dramatically as had been professed.

To read the full story by Emily Foxhall at The Houston Chronicle: Click Here

Our View: Ending Sex Trafficking

 

Like so many of us, Adele Yorde heard the stories. Girls brought to the boats that visited our port of Duluth-Superior. Invited on board. The parties. The debauchery. How so few seemed to know about it. How even fewer thought anything of it.

Beefed-up, post-9/11 security — including fencing, guarded gates, and names on manifests to gain access inside — changed our docks but didn’t eliminate what was happening in our community. Sex trafficking and exploitation, especially of young and vulnerable Northland children and young adults, persists. Even today. And with the internet, it’s just as unseen and easy to dismiss as ever.

But not by Yorde, a communications professional for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, or others devoted to ending the preying. Because of the port’s ties to the trouble, Yorde got involved with the Duluth Trafficking Task Force, which was first created in 2010. Even though the port no longer is an epicenter, she stays involved because, she said, this is her community.

“And it really feels like the community is finally coming together around this issue,” Yorde said in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page in advance of a declaration tomorrow of January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Duluth, a fifth such annual declaration here.

“And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we never see a 10th annual,” she continued. “We can all help end it. If you’re a parent or a teacher or a grandparent and you can have those conversations with kids about self-reliance so young women can grow up and not be reliant on someone else for their security. If we can start talking to young men, young teens, about (having) respect for young women and that everything from the telling of dirty jokes to going to strip clubs to hosting bachelor parties — all of that, really — degrades and minimizes a young woman’s dignity. It starts there. Is that trafficking? No. But allowing that to continue, that ‘boys will be boys,’ it’s just not OK.”

To help not only with awareness but with actually ending exploitation, the task force created a new website, EndItDuluth.org. Loaded with information, advice, and ways to take meaningful action, the site will be announced at Monday’s declaration event. All of us, like Yorde a part of this community, can treat the site as a guide, its launch as a call to action.

Kids are at risk, especially those who maybe have trouble making friends, whose home lives are unstable, who’ve experienced abuse, who are homeless, who are transgender or who share any other of a number of vulnerabilities that make them a target.

“Sometimes victims are so young they’re not realizing that they’re in an enslaved situation (with) someone (else in) control over all the elements of their lives,” Yorde said.“(Traffickers) go in strategically to pinpoint these young vulnerable adults. … There are a lot of folks who are at risk because of those vulnerabilities. … (So) have the conversations. Name it. Identify it. Volunteer if you’d like. Donate. But starve the demand. I mean, that’s the big thing.”

To read the full story on Duluth News Tribune’s Our View page: Click Here

La Crosse Task Force Continues Fight Against Human Trafficking

When the La Crosse Task Force to Eradicate Modern Slavery was established in 2013, the perception of human trafficking in the area was largely one of denial and indifference. Almost four years later, the data is hard to ignore and the call to action more urgent.

“People didn’t think this was an issue … the media wasn’t reporting on it,” said Sister Marlene Weisenbeck of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, one of the task force’s 50 members. “I’ve run into that attitude a lot — people aren’t ready to hear it, they don’t believe it. That’s changing with the awareness created.”

As part of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, TFEMS has released the results of a survey distributed to more than 80 La Crosse area law enforcement, human services, health care and educational organizations in December 2015. Thirty-nine responses were received, and, while 18 reported encounters with trafficking victims, 10 of the 39 organizations reported there was no training in place for handling the reports and six stated no efforts to raise awareness or promote prevention had been made. Though many were equipped to provide victims with medical and mental health services, few offer legal services, and trauma-informed care and coordinated local resources were identified as needs. Recognizing indicators of trafficking was cited as a lead barrier to service, along with lack of funding and local resources.

“We tried to get the survey in the hands of any agency that might meet a victim,” Weisenbeck said. “The next effort is to try to help organizations collaborate with one another.”

Wesisenback became passionate about the issue in 2012, when she was asked by the Obama administration to join the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.

“You come home and you’ve got this experience suddenly and you know you should do something about it,” Weisenbeck said. “A lot of people think the victims in the U.S. come from abroad, but over 80 percent come from here in the U.S. — Backpage.com is one of the biggest perpetrators.”

Backpage.com is the world’s largest classified advertisement site and posts more than a million sex ads per day, according to a 2016 report from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. In addition to sexual exploitation, human trafficking, which is a 9.2 billion dollar industry in the U.S., can also involve forced labor and involuntary domestic servitude, with an estimated 300,000 child victims averaging age 13.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline received 255 calls and 50 reports of human trafficking in Wisconsin between January and September 2016: 42 of the cases involved female victims, 13 of them minors. Of the 50, 41 cases involved sex trafficking, eight forced labor, and one a combination. Seventy-nine percent of the reports occurred in Milwaukee, but the La Crosse area was not immune, with a high-profile child trafficking and prostitution bust at a French Island motel in October 2015, and the recent sentencing of a Sparta man who lured three women into a prostitution ring with the promise of heroin and the threat of withdrawal.

Many victims are reluctant to come forward for fear of being prosecuted themselves. Wisconsin Act 367 was introduced in 2015 to require agencies to report children used for sex trafficking or prostitution as victims. In addition, the definition of trafficking was expanded to include transporting, patronizing or soliciting any child, or attempting to do so, for a commercial sex act. The law goes into effect May 29. Still, many victims find themselves powerless over the promise of money, drugs and security that traffickers provide.

“Some don’t want to leave — staying in a shelter is hard,” Weisenbeck said. “They make a lot more money from sex than they would at a minimum wage job, which is probably all they would qualify for without education and experience.”

To read the full story by Emily Pyrek of La Crosse Tribune: Click Here 

Awareness Fosters Hope For Often-Invisible Sex-Trafficking Victims In The Midwest

(Unsplash/Roberto Tumini)

Sr. Gladys Leigh still thinks about two women she wrote to in prison in 2015.

The survivors of sex trafficking had been accepted into Magdalene St. Louis, a program that helps women live free from abuse, addiction and prostitution. They served 12 months in prison for prostitution, and before their release, Leigh, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet-St. Louis Province and a volunteer with Magdalene, wrote them encouraging letters. They responded, seeking assurance that they would really be living in a safe, loving place. They did not believe it was possible, Leigh said.

” ‘Can it be true?’ they asked me,” said Leigh, 70. “I said, ‘Yes, yes.’ I had to convince them. That really touched my heart. It showed me what they had lived through.”

The two women Leigh spoke of are among hundreds of people trafficked yearly in the United States. According to a 2012 report by the Urban Institute and Northeastern University, sex trafficking accounted for 85 percent of trafficking cases identified by law enforcement, followed by labor trafficking at 11 percent. Cases involving both labor and sex trafficking totaled 4 percent.

From January to September last year, 4,177 sex trafficking cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

(GSR graphic / Toni-Ann Ortiz)

The problem has become so prevalent that in 2011, President Barack Obama designated January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. National Human Trafficking Awareness Day is observed annually on Jan. 11. And in 2015, the Vatican named Feb. 8 the International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a federal statute passed into law in 2000 by the U.S. Congress, defines sex trafficking as a commercial sex act “induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.” The definition is applicable to U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike.

“Sex trafficking is so covert,” said Sr. Esther Hogan with Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of O’Fallon, Missouri. “People are not aware. This is so hidden. The women who are trafficked are vulnerable and invisible. People need to know this.”

Of the 67 congregations that are members of U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, about 25 are congregations from the Midwest. Midwestern states like Missouri have become hubs for sex trafficking because of their central location, experts say. An extensive highway and interstate system with hundreds of truck stops and rest areas make it a target location for sex trafficking.

According to the Polaris Project, one of the country’s biggest anti-human-trafficking organizations, 79 sex trafficking cases were reported in Missouri in the first nine months of 2016.

“If we don’t know anything about it, we can’t do anything to change it,” Hogan said. “How many people have heard of human trafficking? How many people know what it looks like? If we don’t know what it is or what to look for, how can we help?”

 

Hogan’s Sisters of the Most Precious Blood, members of the American Association of University Women, and the Coalition Against Trafficking and Exploitation started the St. Charles Coalition Against Human Trafficking in 2013. Hogan and her congregation have also launched the Yellow Butterfly Campaign to address human trafficking on college campuses.

Too often, sex trafficking can be identified or concealed by another crime, such as domestic abuse, said Emily Russell, victims advocate with the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association.

“I deal with all kinds of situations,” Russell said. “You work with someone, and you learn their parents trafficked them, or they ran away and met a pimp, or they’re in a domestic violence situation. You see the manipulation. They are stuck and can’t get out. It’s not that difficult to consider whether the abuser is forcing women to perform sex acts for drugs.”

Remote rural communities make up much of the Midwest and make illegal activity such as sex trafficking easier to conceal. But hubs of activity also provide opportunities to traffickers. Students in the Midwest’s many universities and colleges may be drawn into trafficking because they live away from home with little supervision. The need to make money to pay back student loans can become a dangerous inducement to accept what sounds like a moneymaking opportunity without fully understanding the consequences.

“Because of its central location and all the means of transportation available — planes, trains and trucks — kids can end up anywhere in the country in 36 hours from here,” said Russ Tuttle with the Stop Trafficking Project and KC Street Hope in Kansas City, Missouri. “The gang level of sex trafficking is increasing [in the Midwest], as well. A trafficker can be any person who wants to exploit a child. It’s a cash windfall for them, not for the child.”

Based in Dubuque, Iowa, Franciscan Sr. Shirley Fineran — who belongs to the Siouxland Coalition Against Human Trafficking — said those in Iowa are “probably a little bit more trusting than those in other parts of the country.” She said social media tends to be a primary place where people are “groomed” for trafficking, as vulnerabilities can be exploited through connections and relationships made online.

Her goal is to open a restoration center for adult women by the fall, where she will house five to 10 women for up to two years. Fineran said the center will be a place where “women will go to heal [from] the traumatic experiences that they’ve had.”

 “We’re going to help women live the rest of their lives as best they can with what they’ve experienced,” she said. That process will include both group and individual trauma therapy, as well as helping women acquire life skills that “most of us who have had a normal development in life take for granted,” such as cooking, laundry, and basic communication and problem-solving skills. If the women have children and need help regaining custody or reuniting with their kids, the center will also help them with those legal matters, Fineran said.

To read the full story by by J. Malcolm Garcia and Soli Salgado at Global Sisters Report: Click Here