Upcoming event to shine light on human trafficking in area

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published November 8, 2019

 To raise awareness about human trafficking and what can be done to address it, the Madison Heights Community Coalition is hosting a forum at 6 p.m. Nov. 21 at Madison Heights City Hall.

To raise awareness about human trafficking and what can be done to address it, the Madison Heights Community Coalition is hosting a forum at 6 p.m. Nov. 21 at Madison Heights City Hall.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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MADISON HEIGHTS — Madison Heights and the rest of southeast Michigan have their share of human trafficking — a form of modern-day slavery where victims are coerced into manual labor or sexual servitude. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry that counts children among its victims.

To raise awareness about the issue and what can be done to address it, the Madison Heights Community Coalition is hosting a forum titled “Our Children Are Not For Sale” at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21, inside the City Council chambers at Madison Heights City Hall, 300 W. 13 Mile Road.

Among the guest speakers will be U.S. Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Sarah Pettey, who will share her experiences dealing with both traffickers and survivors, and Deb Ellinger, founder and executive director of Elli’s House, who will detail her time rescuing victims off the streets. Pettey will present first, with a PowerPoint presentation, followed by Ellinger.

The event will conclude with a presentation by Madison Heights Police Chief Corey Haines on what’s happening with human trafficking at the local level. In recent years, the Police Department reinstated the Special Investigations Unit, which has uncovered several human trafficking operations. Haines pitched the idea for the forum to the Madison Heights Community Coalition board.

“The presence of human trafficking exists not only in some of the hotels located within the city of Madison Heights, but also within some apartment complexes,” Haines said. “Human trafficking can be confused with what may appear to be prostitution. In human trafficking cases, the victims are being forced into prostitution by people who have power and control over them. This can be accomplished in many different ways, including but not limited to holding their identification and/or passports; drug abuse and supplying them with drugs to keep them working; keeping them isolated from their families with threats and abuse; and more.”

According to data released by Polaris, a nonprofit that fights human trafficking, there were 7,255 victims of sex trafficking and nearly 2,000 victims of labor trafficking identified in Michigan in 2017, marking an upward trend. The human trafficking industry is believed to generate profits of roughly $150 billion a year. Michigan is especially vulnerable due to its proximity to the Canadian border, the Great Lakes and several interstates that allow traffickers to come and go. Michigan is one of the top 10 states for human trafficking, with victims in every ZIP code, and about 10% of them are younger than 18, with the target demographic being girls between the ages of 12 and 16, according to the Southfield Domestic Violence Group.

Kimberly Heisler, executive director of the Madison Heights Community Coalition, said that she was mortified by the magnitude of the problem.

“I was completely shocked when I learned the details of trafficking in our area. Trafficking is happening all around us, and I had no idea,” Heisler said. “To learn how victims are groomed, and not just taken from the streets like I envisioned, was extremely concerning. To learn that parents are ‘one argument away’ from having their children lost to trafficking is terrifying. To learn that traffickers are lurking on the internet and targeting our youth disgusts me.

“No community is immune, and because of this, I want everyone to be educated,” she said. “Human trafficking is ugly and is happening right under our noses, and our community needs to be aware and know how to protect our children from being victims.”

The forum will discuss these issues in great detail.

“There are many things that need to be done to help fight this problem,” Haines said. “Our laws  need to be reviewed and changed to allow for easier prosecution of the suspects involved in not only human trafficking, but in the related crime of accepting the earnings of prostitution. Victims need to have more protections in place to allow them to feel safer if their testimony is needed. The hotels, in particular, need to be held more responsible for the crimes that are occurring at their business. Although the City Council has passed a more stringent ordinance to help hold hotels accountable, there is still more that can be done.”

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