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December 23, 2013

Forum explores issue of human trafficking

By Terry Oparka
C & G Staff Writer

Human trafficking has many faces, and it’s often hidden in plain sight.

Whether they are runaways who fall prey to prostitution or people from other countries who are lured to the U.S. with the promise of a job, they have one thing in common — they are being held against their will, controlled physically or psychologically by violence or its threat for the purpose of forced labor.

At the invitation of state Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy, Kathy Maitland, executive director for the Michigan Abolitionist Project, spoke about human trafficking in Michigan at a forum at the Troy Public Library Dec. 16.

Maitland played a video clip of human trafficking victim Theresa Flores, who lived in Birmingham and attended Birmingham Groves High School, and told her chilling story. Flores has written a book titled “The Slave Across the Street,” which she said she wrote, at danger to her own life even some 30 years later, as her traffickers are still “out there.” She has bodyguards to ensure her safety.  

When she was 15 years old, a boy she had a crush on offered her a ride home from school.

“He took me to his house and drugged me and raped me,” she said.

Then, he showed her photos of men raping her while she was drugged. He told her she had to earn the photos back and that she had to do whatever he told her to do or he would ensure her father lost his job — he would tell her church. He killed her dog to ensure she would cooperate.

She said she was coerced into leaving her well-to-do home during the night and “was sold to men over and over again until they were finished” with her.

“Nobody had an idea this sort of thing could happen to a kid like me,” she said. “It can happen to you anywhere. I met a lot of survivors. I thought I was the only one. Hundreds said they were trafficked through Michigan.”

Maitland said that an estimated 100,000 Americans are forced into slavery and 20,000 foreigners are trafficked into the U.S. every year.

Traffickers can be family members, employers, pimps or smugglers, Maitland said.

“Women and children are most often the victims.”

She noted that 12-13 is the average age of girls entering prostitution. 

“Where you see prostitution, there is most likely sex trafficking,” she said. She recounted the story of a woman who has been out of the control of her pimp for about a year who told the group helping her that she had worked as a prostitute in hotels in Troy, Sterling Heights and Utica.

The Detroit area recently ranked second out of 76 cities for the recovery of juveniles in human trafficking, Maitland said.

One of the problems that legislators are trying to address is that police arrest the girls/women and boys/men working as prostitutes, but not those who hire the prostitutes, Maitland noted.

Lawmakers, including state Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, are seeking to remove the statute of limitations on sex crimes against children.

“It’s a very dark issue. It’s very depressing,” Maitland said.

What to look for

“We need to change the way we value our children and report potential trafficking situations,” Maitland said. “You’re not responsible to figure out if it’s a crime (and) call the police.”

Things to look for in identifying victims include the following:

• Evidence of being controlled.

• Evidence of inability to move or leave a job.

• A runaway or a homeless youth.

• A minor who is lying about her age, “dating” an older man or having hotel room keys.

• A minor with multiple pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases.

• Multiple abortions.

• Poor medical history and/or rotting teeth.

• A minor with excessive money or jewelry.

• Branding or tattooing of a trafficker’s name.

• Someone who does not speak on his or her own behalf or who is unable to speak the primary language of the country he or she lives in.

• No passport or other forms of ID. 

“Victims of trafficking often do not self-indicate,” Maitland said. She said the aim of the Michigan Abolitionist Project was to step up efforts to educate youth to avoid becoming victims.

Troy police officer Kate Raczka, of the directed patrol unit, said Troy police work closely with the FBI and monitor online websites such as Backpage and Craigslist to monitor and prevent these crimes in the city.

“We are up on the topic,” she said. “We have numerous hotels and are a transient town with people coming and going off I-75,” she told those who attended the forum.

She noted there is now a police officer assigned to the schools in Troy.

Howrylak said there are about 13 bills dealing with human trafficking before lawmakers. He noted that one that has advanced through the State House deals with the issue that a minor in prostitution is not culpable, but rather a victim. Lawmakers are seeking to lift the statute of limitations on sex offences so it’s easier to go back and prosecute. Senate bills 584, 588 and 591 have been sent to the State House for consideration.

“This issue takes a community coming together,” Maitland said.

For more information on the issue of human trafficking, visit wwwmichiganabolitionistproject.com or www.humantrafficking.msu.edu, or email humantrafficking@umich.edu.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Terry Oparka at toparka@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1054.