A growing wave of efforts to stop human trafficking has spread across the country as lawmakers and others look to combat the problem through law, policy, and grass-roots activism.
While approaches vary, advocates say more must be done to stop the crime, dubbed “modern day slavery” and defined by the U.S. State Department as the recruitment, transportation or harboring of people by means of deception or coercion. Victims, often mentally and physically abused, can be forced into prostitution, unfair working conditions, or other exploitative situations.
“Consciousness and outrage have reached a different level because of the perverseness but also the impact of human trafficking,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “People understand that everyone has a responsibility to fight human trafficking and every individual can have an impact.”
Two lawmakers in Maryland this month announced plans to toughen state laws on trafficking this year. In doing so, they joined a long list of people around the country working to make the crime in the United States a central topic of 2013.
Blumental and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, launched the U.S. Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking in November and sponsored a bill that later became law to prevent federal contracts from going to companies that benefit from forms of trafficking. The bill aims to hold contractors responsible by requiring them to notify the Inspector General if they receive “credible evidence” that a subcontractor has engaged in trafficking.
This week, Blumental and Portman also led a successful Senate vote to allow child victims of sex trafficking to receive help under the Violence Against Women Act. The House will now need to agree to that amendment.
Meanwhile, the bipartisan caucus will hold its first meeting this month. Blumenthal hopes the group will lead to more legislation, tougher enforcement of existing laws, and additional supportive services for victims.
The federal government hopes to become a model for change following announcements by President Obama last year about several new initiatives aimed at ending trafficking nationwide, Blumenthal said. The efforts include the first-ever assessment of the problem in this country and a $6 million grant to build solutions.
In Maryland, State Delegate Kathleen Dumais introduced a bill this month that would allow authorities to seize the assets of suspected traffickers and confiscate them if they are convicted. Delegate Susan Lee plans to introduce a bill that would increase the penalty for abducting someone under 16 for sexual exploitation from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Detective Thomas Stack of the Montgomery County police department says criminals are moving girls from states like California, Pennsylvania and New York into Maryland’s massage parlors, brothels and hotels near Interstate 95, the Eastern Seaboard’s busiest north-south corridor.
“Traffickers are no different than criminal enterprises and organized crime,” he said, adding that last year authorities rescued 36 juveniles involved in prostitution. “They are making tremendous amounts of money and they get to keep it, even if we catch them and they are convicted.”
Other initiatives aim to combat the problem.
The American Bar Association is training lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals to recognize signs that a defendant may be a trafficking victim and plans to encourage states to adopt uniform laws against the crime, said Laurel Bellows, the organization’s president.
The group held a training in Chicago last year and will host training in San Diego and Washington this year. Several schools, including Georgetown University, the University of Kansas and the University of Southern California, hosted conferences last month on the subject, inviting experts and victims to speak.
Everyday citizens such as Erin Giles, editor of End Sex Trafficking, have helped publish books on the topic, while celebrities such as Jada Pinkett Smith, head of Don’t Sell Bodies, have started organizations.
Longtime activists such as Andrea Powell, executive director of Fair Girls, a non-profit based in Washington, have redoubled their efforts by expanding operations and seeking more funding. For Powell, this year’s focus will be on starting an office in Baltimore and getting specialized victim housing as well as passing laws that prohibit minors from being charged with prostitution, she said.