DAYTON, Ohio — When a young, pregnant Mexican woman who spoke no English was admitted to an Ohio hospital near Dayton with unusual pelvic injuries, staff asked the Casa Amiga for a translator.
Casa Amiga works with migrant workers. Its director, Maria Messer, responded to the hospital’s request.
She discovered the woman, an illegal immigrant, was being held captive by a local couple to bear the husband’s child, probably for sale to a childless couple. The woman’s injuries were the result of the couple’s efforts to speed up the birth.
That was a year ago.
Messer’s husband happens to be Mark Ensalaco, founder and director of the University of Dayton’s new human-rights program. The experience brought home in graphic terms the brutal reality of human trafficking.
“They were going to induce labor and steal the baby,” Ensalaco recalled. “It was like a ‘sign of the times’ for me.”
Having read those signs, he got his university, which was founded by the Marianist Fathers, to co-sponsor a conference on human trafficking with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Held Nov. 9-10, it assembled Ohio social-service agencies, legislators and law enforcement staff to discuss coordination at the state and local level.
For Ensalaco, it was a very positive turnout that garnered a lot of local and some national media coverage. Only a few weeks earlier, the FBI concluded a nationwide investigation by arresting 60 pimps and rescuing 52 children from the sex trade.
That brings to 114 the total number of arrests for human trafficking in 2009 nationally, 62 of them in the sex trade.
This may look like a drop in the bucket compared to the 20 million people the U.S. State Department estimates are subjected annually to some form of slavery worldwide, or the estimated 17,000 people brought into the U.S. in servitude, or the unknown number of American citizens held in bondage.
But Ensalaco is positive: “There are people studying this who believe human trafficking can be defeated in our lifetime, and some who think it can be done in a decade.”
Since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act became law in the U.S. in 2000, many other countries have passed similar, targeted legislation, as have 37 states, so that local police departments and prosecutors can add their efforts to those of the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In addition, the State Department is funding other countries to beef up their anti-trafficking efforts and theoretically can target negligent regimes with sanctions.
Paraphrasing Winston Church-ill, Ensalaco said, “We’re past the ‘end of the beginning’ on this. We know where to target our efforts.”
A big part of the effort is being directed by the U.S. bishops’ conference, whose Migration and Refugee Services has a federal contract to provide social services to the foreign victims of trafficking across the U.S.
According to Kristyn Peck Williams, a Migration and Refugee Services screening and field coordinator who spoke at the Dayton conference, Migration and Refugee Services subcontracts, trains and liaises with existing local agencies around the country to ensure victims of trafficking are housed, protected and rehabilitated after often horrific experiences.
Under the Migration and Refugee Services, the number of participating agencies has grown from 25 to just over 100, while 1,408 client/victims were served in the last three and a half years, two-thirds of them women and children.
The sex trade accounts for 21% of the persons caught up in U.S. trafficking, while more than 70% are in other forms of forced labor: agriculture, construction (particularly in areas hit by Hurricane Katrina), domestic service, food services and manufacturing.
Ensalaco says human trafficking also got a big boost from the recent recession, “because people are desperate for work,” and from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which opened up former Soviet republics and other former Communist Bloc countries to exploitation.
Williams told the conference of cases like Dimitri, a Russian boy who came to the U.S. for a summer job, but was forced to work 20 hours a day in a hotel, sleeping in a lockup, without pay; or Rosa, a Mexican high school girl promised a restaurant job in Texas, who was raped and beaten and forced to sell drinks in a bar.
While most of the Catholic-run network gets its clients from law enforcement, one of its tasks is to educate the public and workers in fields such as medicine to spot victims.
Williams told of a Good Samaritan who befriended a domestic servant she met regularly walking her family’s dog: “It took a year to get through the language barrier and learn the facts and convince the woman she was a victim.” She had been kept for 30 years in servitude, living in the basement, keeping house for her captors, and let out only to walk the dog. “It was hard to get her to escape because she was worried about the family she was caring for. She loved her family and didn’t see herself as a victim,” Williams said.
Williams said the United States and the world are still in the “baby stages” in the fight against human trafficking, likening it to the early days of the campaign against domestic violence decades ago.
After focusing for years on imported victims, she said, the U.S. government is only now waking up to the reality of domestic trafficking. There was no social-services program for U.S. citizens caught up in trafficking until recently. Now there are a handful of federally funded pilot projects. “Victims of sex trafficking, for example, don’t belong in housing situations with homeless,” said Williams.
The Dayton conference also heard from Theresa Flores, director of a safe house for teenage girls rescued from prostitution. She herself had been coerced by drugs, rapes and beatings into the sex trade in Detroit in her teens. After 20 years of silence, she wrote a book about the experience, The Sacred Bath: An American Teen’s Story of Modern-Day Slavery, and started Christian-based Gracehaven.
Another American evangelical Christian effort is the International Justice Mission; devoted to ending human trafficking in all its forms, the organization uses undercover agents who gather evidence against human-trafficking operations abroad and turn the evidence over to the police and provide safety for victims and witnesses.
More than 20 religious orders, schools and social agencies from the U.S. and abroad have formed the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking to provide safety and rehabilitative services for victims of human trafficking, to lobby for tougher enforcement, and to provide awareness and prevention training abroad.
Amy Roth, media relations director for International Justice Mission, said the Catholic Church “is beginning to be a major player in the fight against human trafficking. It’s an international network of 1.3 billion people, and that’s what’s needed to take on a global network of criminals.”
Roth, who was on staff with the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See for five years during the George W. Bush administration, worked closely with Sister Eugenia Bonetti of the Italian Union of Major Superiors to enlist religious orders, particularly of women, in the struggle. “Around the world,” said Roth, “nuns have opened their doors to prostitutes, ministering to their brokenness.”
Both the Catholic Church and other Christian churches have had to rethink the issue and see women caught in the sex trade as victims. Roth credits the Vatican with staging several international conferences and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI with leading the effort to raise awareness.
International Justice Mission itself focuses on cooperating with local justice systems in foreign countries to strengthen their efforts against what Roth calls “this plague.”
And she’s optimistic: “We’re not at the tipping point, but we’re approaching it — and having a global network of Catholic religious communities on our side is a big, big help.”
Steve Weatherbe writes
from Victoria, British Columbia.