Combating human trafficking through awareness, action

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Jul 4, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] In South Florida, a known hotbed for sex trafficking, Sheila Acevedo has spent 17 years as a volunteer on the front lines assisting victims. Her vigilance helped rescue two girls, aged 3 and 5, who were living in a car with their father. The girls, who didn’t know how to use silverware and who were not wearing underwear, would offer to give massages, she said.

“They were being groomed for the sex trade,” said Acevedo, who works through St. George’s Episcopal Church and Community Center in Riviera Beach, a mission of St. Mark’s in Palm Beach Gardens. Today, she added, one of the girls serves in the military and the other has a professional occupation.

St. George’s runs a soup kitchen that serves more than 100,000 meals a year. Through the soup kitchen, Acevedo, a recently retired educator, gets to know people, keeping an eye out for women and children. “St. George’s is a safe haven, for any victim that wants to come and get asylum. … All they have to do is say they want help,” Acevedo said. “Most of the girls that I’m dealing with are from the U.S., from other states, but the high-publicity stories mostly are not from [the] U.S.”

In another example, a parishioner brought a girl named “Mary” who showed symptoms of abuse and neglect and was addicted to crack cocaine. Acevedo offered to help Mary, who advised her that “she didn’t know what she was getting into.” Regardless, Acevedo got involved, helping Mary into rehab and later helping her reconnect with out-of-state family members.

At 21, Mary was collecting Social Security Supplemental Security Income disability payments and had been on the streets since age 16. Before Acevedo got involved, Mary was held captive by a couple, a “normal-looking” man and woman with a baby living six blocks away from the church, who offered “to help” her. But they didn’t feed or clothe her, instead forcing her out on the streets and taking her SSI checks, Acevedo said.

The pattern is to target vulnerable, naïve runaways or troubled teens and get them hooked on cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs, she added.

It’s not a small problem.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates 12 to 14 as the most common age range for those entering the commercial sex industry and that 100,000 to 300,000 children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation, a form of human trafficking, each year in the United States. In 2011, 10,000 people called the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, operated by the Polaris Project.

In 2000, the United States enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which defines sex trafficking as a “severe form of trafficking” in which “a commercial sex act is 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 act is up for re-authorization.

Recognizing the seriousness of the issue, the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church passed a resolution calling for “the protection of all victims of human trafficking, particularly women and children, providing necessary attention to their physical, psychological and social needs, and using approaches that respect victims’ rights and integrity.”

Following its passage, the church’s presiding officers referred the resolution to dioceses for consideration, information and action. According to the Blue Book, released in April, 13 dioceses considered it, 17 said they had not and the remaining 81 reporting jurisdictions didn’t respond.

But examples of individuals, congregations and dioceses combating human trafficking, either through awareness campaigns or direct action, can be found throughout the church. At this year’s General Convention, the Episcopal Network for Economic Justice submitted on July 4 a new resolution (D042) addressing human trafficking, said network member Laura Russell, who deals with this issue as an attorney in New York. She is also a deputy from the Diocese of Newark.

Russell serves on the Standing Commission on Social Justice and Public Policy and is a member of Anglican Women’s Empowerment, which published a resource called “Human Trafficking: Freeing Women, Children and Men.”

The resource provides insights from a global perspective into the root causes of human trafficking, legal assistance and rehabilitation of victims, the faith imperative and best practices for getting involved in the fight to stop it.

Some 12.7 million people are enslaved worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, with most being trafficked for labor and sex.

In a presentation at the Everyone, Everywhere mission conference in Estes Park, Colorado, in October 2011, Russell debunked some human trafficking myths, the first being that most victims have been trafficked from other countries. In fact, she said, most victims are runaways in their early teens, trafficked domestically from rural to urban areas.

Much like domestic-violence cases, where on average it takes seven attempts before a victim breaks free of her abuser, victims of human trafficking – who also suffer physical abuse and emotional manipulation – have a difficult time separating from their abusers, said Russell.

Creating awareness

One Episcopal diocese tackling the issue is Atlanta, which in 2009 passed a resolution creating the Task Force on Sex Trafficking that in 2011 became the Commission on Human Trafficking. The commission’s work includes an awareness campaign.

“Atlanta is supposed to be one of the places where a lot of sex trafficking goes on, in part because we have a lot of convention business and we have a population north of Atlanta where men have a lot of discretionary income,” said the Rev. Maggie Harney, who chairs the commission and directs Mary & Martha’s Place, a spiritual center serving women’s needs. “We have a large airport, and we do know that men fly in to have sex with minors.”

A longtime advocate for women, Harney first learned of the extent of sex trafficking in minors during a diocesan council meeting in 2009 and immediately knew she had to get involved, she said.

The commission’s mission is to educate the people of the diocese, providing clergy, church staff and congregations an opportunity to network with others in the faith community and nongovernment organizations engaged in anti-trafficking work, as well as to provide information on what local and state governments and law enforcement agencies are doing, Harney said.

“We are not going out into the street to rescue these people. We have to leave that to law enforcement. Ours is a moral, ethical, spiritual awakening among people in [the] diocese,” she said, adding that each month in Georgia 7,200 men pay for sex with adolescent girls. “We want parishes to be aware of sex trafficking and to envision programs in their area that will help prevent it.”

Through programs like Safeguarding God’s Children and the Domestic Violence Commission, which provides presentations to clergy and workshops, the diocese is trying to make the connection between abuse and where it can lead, she said.

“Domestic violence may make a child run away. They’ll go to a bus depot, and the pimps are there, and they will pick them up … [We] let them know that this is what can happen when a kid bolts,” said Harney, adding that risk factors that lead to runaways include conflicts at home, parent neglect, housing instability, education failure, and children with emotional and psychological problems. “If we are going to talk about safeguarding God’s children in our parishes, this should be part of it.”

The Diocese of Atlanta also has a group that works with incest survivors, she said.

“If there is incest in the home, a child may run,” Harney said. “The fact [is] that these kids are sexually or physically abused in own homes, so when this starts happening with a pimp, they already understand how the story goes,” Harney said.

“This has been going on in this country since the beginning, but human trafficking is getting to the point now where it’s horrific … when you start enslaving people and it’s happening on a scale that we haven’t seen before,” Harney said. “The Internet is the lifeblood of this: It used to be that ‘johns’ would drive the street, but now they just go online and order one up.”

It’s a challenge to the clergy to reach the affluent white men sitting in the pews in the northern suburbs, to educate them about pornography and about; that it’s not okay to “peek,” said, Harney, who also serves as priest associate at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

In 2010, Village Voice Media-owned replaced Craigslist as the leader in online ad space devoted to prostitution when the latter eliminated prostitution ads. has come under pressure to do the same. In October 2011, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and other religious leaders signed an open letter published in The New York Times calling for Village Voice Media to stop taking adult ads on, citing connections between the classified ads and sex trafficking.

Besides happening via the Internet, sex trafficking in the United States typically occurs in massage parlors, residential brothels, on the streets, in strip clubs, via escort services and at truck stops, experts say.

Ministry of presence

The first thing St. Alban’s Church member Sue McCoy does when she arrives at the Interstate 80 truck stop just northwest of Davenport, Iowa, is pray to make the space sacred and ask God to prepare her to listen.

Then she unpacks a sign reading “Prayer, Conversation, Communion” and her Communion kit – complete with consecrated wine and wafers. On a March visit, in an attempt to draw more attention to her presence, she also brought a coloring book, colored pencils and an automatic sharpener.

McCoy’s bi-weekly, two-hour visits to the truck stop, the largest such facility in the
world according to the sign, are part of St. Alban’s Ministry of Presence, a parish outreach formed to combat human trafficking.

The Rev. Brian McVey, St. Alban’s rector and an Episcopal Church Foundation fellow, began investigating human trafficking in his community five years ago. He made regular visits to the I-80 truck stop, offering pastoral care to prostitutes, runaways and truckers. St. Alban’s parishioners have continued the ministry.

St. Alban’s is the only church of 60 in the diocese with an outreach program focused on human trafficking, but work is underway to expand this ministry of presence to churches along Interstate 380, from Waterloo south to Coralville and Cedar Rapids, and potentially along Interstate 35 as well, said Leslee Sandberg, the Diocese of Iowa’s Jubilee coordinator.

“We’re not limiting this to just church people,” she said, adding that they are starting with churches and community groups that have expressed interest in getting involved.

Former Iowa State Senator Maggie Tinsman, a member of Davenport’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and who serves on the National and International Concerns Committee, drafted legislation and led the charge aimed at getting the state’s first anti-trafficking law passed in 2006.

Since its passage, the Iowa law has been used to prosecute six cases, all involving runaway girls, said Tinsman, who works as a policy analyst and consultant on human trafficking and founded the nonprofit Breaking Traffic.

Davenport is one of four cities on the Iowa/Illinois border that form the Quad Cities, along with Bettendorf, Rock Island and Moline. The total population is about 380,000.

On any given day, 15 to 25 posts on advertise sex with girls from the Quad Cities, said Stephanie Kraft, executive director of Breaking Traffic, adding that words like “new,” “fresh” and “young” indicate underage girls.

“It’s not out on the streets, so it’s very easy to exploit underage girls,” said Kraft. “There is a perception that prostitution is willful … by the time they are 20 they have aged into it; suddenly it’s a choice for them.”

Besides visiting the truck stop weekly, Robin Sade monitors the ads, which indicate the girls maintain a circuit, moving from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City to Des Moines.

“The things that are being written about them — ‘I have no stretch marks,’ ‘I have long beautiful hair’ — girls just don’t say those things about themselves,” said the St. Alban’s parishioner, a 60-year-old grandmother.

Acting from experience

In 2001, Kathi Hardy began working with the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, which ran a Prostitution Impact Panel, aka, a “john’s school,” meant to educate the offenders and empower the community. The police would do sweeps, arresting prostitutes and johns, and the men received a choice: Plead guilty and pay fines, or participate in the impact panel and have the charge changed from “soliciting a prostitute” to “disturbing the peace,” she said.

From there, Hardy, a former prostitute herself and a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Diego, wanted to help women and started visiting group homes and juvenile detention centers. She is the founder and director of San Diego-based Freedom From Exploitation, an organization that provides peer support and group counseling to women and girls at-risk or involved in prostitution, human trafficking and all forms of sexual exploitation. Since its found in 2002, the organization has helped 1,500 people.

In 2011, Hardy received the Norma Hotaling Anti-Trafficking Award, which recognizes “leadership, courage, hard work and innovation in eradicating sex trafficking and commercial exploitation of women and children.”

What people don’t realize, Hardy said, is how prevalent abuse is in society.

“One of four girls under the age of 14 has been abused or molested, one out of six boys under 14 has been abused or molested, and we don’t talk about it,” she said, adding that it’s these conditions that lead children to the streets.

Hardy shared the example of a girl from “Podunk Washington” who arrived in the city and had friends who were making money and had nice things. They introduced her to her “so-called” boyfriend, who told her how beautiful she was and bought her clothes. Then he needed money for rent, and she went out to work the streets.

“And it sounds glitzy, and it sounds glamorous … they look at ‘Pretty Woman’ and it’s the wrong version,” she said. “They are being sold a lie, they are being coerced and groomed into it. No little girl says, ‘I want to grow up to be a prostitute.’”

“It can happen to anyone who is vulnerable, who doesn’t have a support system.

The pimp will get you away from family,” said Hardy, whose “boyfriend” became her first pimp. “It’s someone taking care of you, getting hair done, nails done … at first it sounds all good until you get tired of doing things you don’t want to do, or things that disgust you … [until] you don’t make quota.”

In one case, Hardy said, when a young girl tried to leave her pimp, he drove her to the elementary school her little brother attended and threatened to kill him if the girl didn’t cooperate.

Help the victims, prosecute the ‘johns’

In February 2010, Nikki Richnow traveled to Thailand with 40 women for a nine-day conference on human trafficking: Thailand ranks as a top destination country for sex tourism and a leading source and transit point for human trafficking.

Arriving back in Houston, now educated and curious, Richnow conducted local research and found that Houston is a major hub for human trafficking and had no facility to house and rehabilitate domestic minor sex trafficking victims; that there are an estimated 17,500 international victims trafficked into the United States each year; and there are an estimated 300,000 American children who become sexual commodities each year, she said.

“My focus has been on underage, domestic minor sex-trafficking victims,” she said. “In my research it came up over and over again: Domestic children have no place to go, no public funds and no place to be rehabilitated. There’s money and services for women and children who’ve been trafficked internationally, but almost no money for domestic minors.”

In a year and a half, Richnow led a campaign to raise $1.5 million to open a 30-bed rehabilitation center on the site of a former campsite on110 wooded acres outside the city. The center is working with law-enforcement agencies and courts to identify girls in detention centers and on the streets who are ready for and want treatment.

“Ninety percent have been sexually abused in the home,” said Richnow, whose husband Douglas is the senior associate rector of St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Houston. “That has been the experience of most of the children that we’ve met; through repeated trauma their brain chemistry has actually changed … you cannot treat them as you would a child with a normal upbringing, you have to meet them when they are.”

In Texas, child advocates have worked to get the state’s law changed so that a child age 13 or younger cannot be charged with prostitution.

“It’s pathetic,” Richnow said, “but the reason is that in Texas, if you are 14 years old, you are of legal age to get married. That law needs to go up to 18 and under. When I see a girl being led off in handcuffs, I think, ‘Don’t you get it? It’s against the law to have sex with a minor, it’s rape.’”

“Just [as] with domestic violence in the ’70s, the mindset has to change,” she said. “The perpetrator has to be the one lead off in handcuffs.”

— Lynette Wilson is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.