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Human Trafficking

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Local groups are fighting community’s hidden, but pervasive problem

Many people believe that human trafficking occurs only in poor countries, but it occurs throughout the United States, including here in Southwest Michigan, according to local law enforcement officials.

Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations as the “acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them.” Because of its location on the I-94 corridor between Detroit and Chicago, the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek area is susceptible for human trafficking, says Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller.
“We know that traffickers are constantly moving across the state,” says Fuller. “There were some traffickers found in Battle Creek hotels by Homeland Security. We also know that vulnerable young people meet traffickers on the internet through social media.”

In October, a 16-year old girl in Battle Creek was rescued by police after being held against her will by two men who sexually assaulted her and forced her to have sex with other men for money. In December 2016, a man from Kalamazoo was convicted of transporting women from Michigan down to Kentucky to work as prostitutes during the Kentucky Derby. In May 2016, another man was charged with forcing four women into prostitution out of a hotel in Oshtemo Township to pay off their drug debts. In addition, some of the workers who come to Michigan each year to pick crops may very well be the victims of trafficking, Fuller says.

There are two types of trafficking: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Sex trafficking occurs in street prostitution, pornography and escort services and in massage parlors, brothels and strip clubs. Labor trafficking occurs in sweatshops, hotels, restaurants and factories, in domestic and custodial services, construction, agriculture and tourism.

Here’s how human trafficking works. A trafficker entices victims with bribes and promises and later threatens them through coercion or violence to keep them doing what the trafficker wants. Victims are not paid for their work, and often their proof of identity is taken from them so they are forced to stay with the trafficker. In this way, trafficking is considered modern-day slavery.

‘Can happen to anybody’

Sara Morley LaCroix became aware of human trafficking in the Kalamazoo area through her work with the Junior League of Kalamazoo’s State Public Affairs Committee.

“Once I heard that kids were sold and exploited, I had to do something,” says Morley LaCroix. “There are more than 90 missing children in Michigan, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Where are they? Trafficking can happen to anybody, and we have to make it stop happening.”

Morley LaCroix researched the issue, attended conferences, shared ideas with advocates in other communities and met survivors.

“I was determined to go home and start something in Kalamazoo so I emailed all the people I knew, and we met in the basement of my real estate office. Nine people showed up,” she says.

Morley LaCroix then sought out others interested in stopping trafficking, including Sheriff Fuller and representatives of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, the Junior League of Kalamazoo and the YWCA. She also contacted churches and several religious organizations including The Ark , a crisis intervention center for youth run by Youth for Christ; the Congregation of St. Joseph; and the Kalamazoo Deacons Conference.

In 2012 Morley LaCroix established the Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, a nonprofit with a $16,000 budget and a group of committed volunteers but no paid staff.

“Our mission is simple,” says Morley LaCroix. “We promote awareness of the problem, we train those who are most likely to help survivors, and we provide a road map of services for survivors to get back on their feet.”

She also worked diligently with the Michigan attorney general’s office to help pass victim-centered legislation, including a law requiring that the human trafficking hotline number, 888-373-7888, be publicly displayed in bus stations, airports, train stations, strip clubs, massage parlors, freeway rest areas, welcome centers, gas stations and truck stops. In fact, 21 public acts designed to help human trafficking victims were signed into Michigan law in 2014 and took effect in January 2015.

“It was thrilling to see Gov. Snyder sign these bills that advocate for victims of human trafficking,” says Morley LaCroix, who testified at the state capitol for three of the bills. “This was God’s plan for me, and I’m helping to do God’s work.”

By the numbers

When it comes to numbers, it’s hard to accurately gauge how prevalent human trafficking is in the Kalamazoo area.

The FBI keeps statistics on all crime in the United States, but its human trafficking statistics are not very accurate because records have not been consistently kept over the long term, says Western Michigan University sociologist Dr. Angela Moe, a specialist in criminal justice, victimology and women’s issues.

Nonetheless, estimates by various national and international agencies illustrate the seriousness of the problem.

The U.S. State Department estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked internationally each year, with 14,500 to 17,500 trafficked into the U.S. annually. Of these, an estimated 50 percent are minors and an estimated 80 percent are women and girls.

The CIA estimates that 40,000 to 50,000 people are trafficked throughout the United States each year.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 300,000 American children are at risk to be trafficked and that the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 years old. It also reports that New York City alone has 3,500 minors for sale.

According to Polaris, an organization leading the global fight to eradicate trafficking, there were nearly 26,727 calls in 2016 to its National Human Trafficking Resource Center, with 7,572 known cases of trafficking. Of these cases, 73 percent involved sex trafficking, 14 percent labor trafficking, 3.5 percent sex and labor trafficking and 9 percent unspecified trafficking.

“Slavery didn’t end in America after the Civil War. It just changed,” says Ben Moe, a counselor at The Ark in Kalamazoo, which provides shelter, housing and programs for homeless youth and runaways and counseling for families in crisis. “International borders are more fluid today because now we’re more traveled, and access abroad is easier. The internet provides a whole other avenue for exploiting people across the world in complex networks.”

Trafficked children are usually runaways and are frequently picked up by traffickers within 24 to 48 hours of leaving home. Most are 12 to 13 years old, says Moe (who is not related to Angela Moe).

“The traffickers know where to find vulnerable youth. They’re at bus stops or the mall. They (the traffickers) may start a relationship with online chats on the internet, or a youngster who is already being trafficked goes into schools and looks for recruits.”

Traffickers see vulnerable children, approach them, buy them a meal, ask about their story and give them a place to stay, usually at a hotel, he says. Then the trafficker demands payment for these services, money kids do not usually have. To pay off the debt, traffickers make them perform sex or labor.

Traffickers also take advantage of kids hooked on drugs or alcohol who need the money to keep up their habit.

“Traffickers appeal to the child’s needs and offer him or her a job or money,” says Ben Moe. “Recently, four young women in Oshtemo with debt from drugs were promised that they could pay it off if they performed sex for the traffickers.”

Dynamics of trafficking

When asked why so much trafficking is occurring, Morley LaCroix says the answer is simple.

“Money. Traffickers regard human beings as a huge commodity to sell. One victim can ‘service’ seven to nine men every night of the week, which can add up to $40,000 to $50,000 per year. It’s better than selling drugs, which are used only once.”

Sex trafficking customers are mostly white, middle-class men, says Morley LaCroix.

“Pornography plays a huge role in human trafficking,” says Angela Moe. “People who look at pornography get ideas, and they are desensitized to what it means to exploit other people.”

Not surprisingly, pornography is big business, but today it goes beyond “girlie magazines” and instead depicts scenes of violence, murder and sexual assault.

“I don’t think healthy people do that,” says Angela Moe. “As a sociologist, I see it as learned behavior.”

At least 50 percent of the people trafficked are likely to be children, she says. That’s because they are easily exploitable and vulnerable. They tend to be very trusting of adults and can be tricked, taken advantage of and easily restrained.

Those most at risk for sexual assault are people ages 10 to 22, while younger children are more at risk for all forms of child maltreatment, she says.

“Such abuse occurs because children learn how to be at the disposal of their parents,” she says. “That’s all they know. They may not like it, but (they) think that’s the way it is.”

Labor trafficking is difficult to pin down because law enforcement has to respond to a complaint or discover such trafficking through an investigation before it can apprehend traffickers, says Fuller.

“Farms, for example, hire large groups of people who come to pick the crop quickly and then move on to another farm,” he says. “There may or may not be trafficking activity going on, but we just can’t go in on someone’s property and start questioning them or arresting them. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has some of these abilities, but the sheriff’s department doesn’t.”

Morley LaCroix says that “many migrant workers who pick the blueberries, apples, peaches and sweet corn that we grow and eat here in Southwest Michigan may be trafficked. They are vulnerable people who don’t speak English and have no worker rights,” she says.

Traffickers go into poor areas in Mexico, for example, and arrange for busloads of migrant workers to be taken to U.S. farms to harvest crops, says Morley LaCroix. They promise these workers jobs, food, housing and transportation but later tell them they have to pay for these services. Then the traffickers take any money the victims earn and sometimes charge exorbitant interest rates so that the workers are trapped and cannot escape.

She says restaurants are often among the places where trafficked immigrant workers go to work eight- to 16-hour days. The workers’ passports and other identification are taken away from them so they can’t run away.

“Without identification, workers are at risk for being sent to jail,” says Morley LaCroix. “This same sort of coercion goes on with housekeepers, cooks and babysitters, too.”

Taking action

The Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition is going beyond citizen advocacy in Lansing to bring greater awareness and training programs to people in the community, including those in public schools. Volunteers speak to teachers, counselors and staff, offering free prevention training for students. Last year volunteers provided training in 10 health education classes at Portage Northern High School, one social justice class at Kalamazoo Central High School and two dance classes at Education for the Arts, a program that serves nine school districts in Kalamazoo County.

Even so, there seems to be some reluctance to address this issue in the schools, says Morley LaCroix. She believes that kids who know the consequences of trafficking and what to do when strangers approach them are going to be safer than those who remain ignorant of it.

“People don’t have to be scared about human trafficking,” says Morley LaCroix. “They have to become aware of it so they can protect themselves and others.”

Meanwhile, many professionals in the Kalamazoo area are being trained to recognize the signs of trafficking. Among them are health care workers at Borgess Medical Center, where Sister Sue McCrery, director of spiritual care, has conducted training on the topic.

For example, staff learn that when traffickers bring their victims to hospitals for treatment, they usually accompany them or have a “bottom girl” bring the victim in for treatment, says McCrery. The “bottom girl” is one whom the trafficker has groomed and entrusted with some power, she says.

Because traffickers tend to move their victims from city to city, she says, the victims often don’t know their address or where they are. They usually lack any personal identification. One way of detecting victims, she says, is by asking them where they live or if they feel safe at home. The trafficker or “bottom girl” will usually answer for them — and they resist being separated from victims in order to keep them from speaking about their situation.
The Michigan State Police are also trained to watch for signs of human trafficking when they make legitimate vehicle stops for violations like a broken taillight or speeding, says McCrery.

Likewise, over the past eight years the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department has aggressively fought human trafficking by paying more attention to the possibility of trafficking when they encounter other crimes such as drug cases or prostitution, Fuller says.

Helping victims

The sheriff’s department has also initiated partnerships with various local, state and national law enforcement and social service agencies to fight trafficking. Last year Fuller created the Victim Services Unit, a group of trained volunteers who help victims and survivors work through the trauma prompted by a crisis or crime against them. The group’s purpose is to serve as a go-between among the victims, their families and law enforcement.

These volunteers go to a crime scene with officers and set up counseling and conduct a needs assessment, says Fuller. They then may connect victims with a safe house, a church or even help them find a job through Michigan Works. Because many victims are heavily drugged to perform the acts they are forced to perform, the volunteers may also take them to addiction specialists who can help them recover.
“In the past, when police found victims, they didn’t know what to do with them,” says Fuller. “Now we are finding ways to work with victims and help them feel safe.”

In November, the YWCA Kalamazoo announced plans to open the first and only shelter for victims of labor and sex trafficking in Michigan, as well as provide increased comprehensive services to all survivors, after receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime.

The sheriff’s department is also trying to stop trafficking at its source by teaming up with agencies like the Internal Revenue Service, which catches traffickers who fail to report their income. Because traffickers use the internet to recruit kids, the sheriff’s department also consults an FBI computer specialist to learn how children have been induced into trafficking online, Fuller says.

“This mix of government and nonprofit organizations allows us to fight human trafficking more effectively,” says Fuller.

Know what to look for

Employees of hotels, airlines and airports are also learning how to spot victims.

A local campaign aimed at helping to stop trafficking in hotels was led by the Congregation of St. Joseph, which put labels on bars of soap and Q-tips used in hotel rooms. The labels offered help and a hotline number to those who may be trafficked.

“While we don’t know if any trafficked victims called for help, we hoped that they would see the message on the labels,” says Sister McCrery.

There are now laws in Michigan mandating that certain professionals be trained to recognize signs of trafficking and report it to law enforcement. McCrery received such training through the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.

“It really opened my eyes to the reality and severity of the problem we have right here in Michigan,” says McCrery. “What is needed is systemic change — a cultural change that values every human person, where people are not property to be bought and sold for one’s enjoyment.

“We can save lives, so we must learn more about the problem, be informed, speak out against it and then do something about it. Someone may need your help to be freed from this horrendous problem.”

Olga Bonfiglio

There was no better writer to take on our story about the economic redevelopment of the Northside than Olga. She has taught urban development at Kalamazoo College for several years and was the host of Public Voice, a Community Access Center show interviewing local urban redevelopment leaders. She has previously written for the Huffington Post, U.S. Catholic, Planning (the trade journal for urban planners) and the Kalamazoo Gazette.

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