By Tamara Laine
NEW YORK — There is a hidden crisis in America.
It is happening in brownstones on tree-lined streets you may have walked down, at stores you might have shopped at and on online sites you have shared family memories on.
The crisis is human trafficking — people being forced into exploitation for profit — and the problem is prolific. It’s a humanitarian crisis Pope Francis has not been silent about.
Every day, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children, women and men are trafficked in the United States. And although the scope of the problem is global, the dark underbelly of the problem in America is often overlooked.
Working to shed light on this abuse are many advocates, who are raising their voices to fight misconceptions that they say prevents the country from fully embracing the gravity of what is modern-day slavery.
Memories in the Bronx
On a rainy night, Rachel Lloyd walks along a broken sidewalk in Hunts Point in the Bronx. The clicking of her heels on the pavement is the only sound filling the dark night air in the industry graveyard that was once a destination for sex trafficking.
“You’d think it was like 5 p.m. on the FDR,” Lloyd remembers. Pointing down the street, she says, “There would be cars just filled with men cruising round and round, looking to buy girls and women.”
Lloyd knows the trauma of human trafficking firsthand. She’s a survivor of sexual exploitation who broke free with the help of a church on a U.S. airbase in Germany. She is now the founder of Girls Education and Mentoring Services, and for the last 20 years, she has been sounding the alarm on the hidden world of sexual exploitation happening in the United States.
Lloyd explains what girls have endured.
“At night, save for a drunk or two, there is no one out here,” she says. She shakes her head as she recalls the violence the girls experienced and still experience.
“Out here no one is going to hear you scream,” she says.
“The girls went through terrible stuff out here.” More recently, she recalls, “one of my girls was attacked.”
The assault happened after the woman had broken free from a pimp, but Lloyd notes that the woman struggled financially without a proper support system to rebuild after being a victim of human trafficking, and so she was pulled back into “the life.”
“She got attacked by a machete a couple of months ago,” Lloyd says.
According to Polaris — a national anti-human trafficking organization that serves as a data hub for reported cases in the U.S. — cases of human trafficking in the country rose by 25 percent in 2018 from 2017.
Through interviews with survivors, law enforcement and advocates, The Tablet was able to break down the scope of the problem and discover stories of some of the warriors who have dedicated their lives to combatting human trafficking.
Carol Smolenski — a former executive director of ECPAT-USA, an organization that since the 1990s has worked with lawmakers in Washington to pass legislation that makes human trafficking illegal — says she hopes that demystifying trafficking myths will initiate change.
“People don’t think it happens here because, frankly, we are the richest country in the world, and we consider ourselves protective of our children,” Smolenski says.
But according to Smolenski, the victims being preyed upon are getting younger. “Kids as young as 11 years old are being targeted by pimps and traffickers,” she says.
And wherever there is money, predators look to exploit the vulnerable. New York City is such a place. With its proximity to international airports, shipping ports and major thruways, the economic capital of the world is considered
a gateway and one of the largest destinations for trafficked women in the country.
Jessica Melton, chief of the Human Trafficking Unit at the Queens County District Attorney’s Office, says that Queens is the epicenter. “Cultural and ethnic diversity paired with access in our geography make Queens a center for rampant trafficking both sex and labor,” Melton says.
The Violent Crimes and Crimes Against Children Division of the FBI works on the problem daily, according to Michael Osborn, an FBI agent who said his agents were recently part of a sweeping raid named “Independence Day.”
“New York is a transitory city,” Osborn said. “What we see commonly is people who don’t have a good understanding of human trafficking that will say this is a situation where we have a complicit victim. They don’t understand how vulnerable this victim was.”
Melton echoes Osborn’s sentiments. “They target immigrants, children, people with little family or social support systems, people with psychological or emotional problems,” Melton says.
On the Frontlines
Catholic women of faith like Sister Ann Oestreich, I.H.M., who is part of the anti-trafficking network, Talitha Kum, are on the frontline. She works with survivors across the county and says there are many myths when it comes to understanding domestic trafficking.
“The victims are sold online,” and nothing is off-limits, Sister Anne says. She notes an increase in “trafficking for organ removal [that is] very prevalent on our southern border.”
Sister Ann never thought that when she joined Talitha Kum she would be working with law enforcement, politicians and organizations like Truckers Against Trafficking.
“Human trafficking is a very high-profit and low-risk endeavor,” Sister Ann says. “We need to turn that on its head and make it a very high-risk lower-profit industry.”
Confronting the estimated $150 billion industry is no small endeavor. If the United States is going to meet the United Nations’ goal of eliminating the crime by 2030, it is going to take the combined effort of communities, faith-based institutions, law enforcement and families to combat what Pope Francis has called a scourge on humanity.
Back in Hunts Point, Lloyd stops by the only thing remaining on the street — a burnt-out abandoned car. The stark image is emblematic of the new dangerous trend sweeping the nation.
Children, women and men being bought and sold online. The internet has taken the illicit activities of human trafficking from the dark streets to the dark web.
If you suspect someone to be a victim of human trafficking or may have identified a potential trafficker, use these resources to anonymously report your
National Human Trafficking Hotline
TTY (Hearing Impaired) 711
Laine is a Senior Reporter for Currents News.