Human Trafficking Forum Cites Growing Threat to U.S. Youth and Efforts to Build Comprehensive Responses

Eric Olsen
March 10, 2015

Chicago forum includes experts from government, law enforcement, and faith-based social services

Major government, nonprofit, and faith leaders met at the Metcalfe Federal Building in downtown Chicago on March 5 for a rare collaborative response to the growing crisis of human trafficking in the United States.

Panelists discuss the importance of broad collaboration to counter the threat of
human trafficking.

The all-day forum, “Engaging Faith Communities: Ending Human Trafficking,” presented an overview of the federal human trafficking law and national strategy to combat this modern form of slavery in America. The program also provided direction, particularly for faith communities, to engage in the fight against trafficking and to support measures to strengthen families as a proactive approach. The city of Chicago is a hub for domestic trafficking according to a recent study, which found some 16,000-24,000 women and girls in Chicago are at risk for being trafficked.

The forum was organized by Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the Office of Women’s Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Global Peace Foundation USA.

 In opening remarks, ACF Acting Regional Administrator Katherine V. Gray and Point of Contact for Human Trafficking Mary Ann Wren welcomed attendees and described the involvement of the government’s efforts in Chicago to combat sex trafficking. In remarks that followed, Vander Green, the Faith Based Lead Family and Marriage Specialist of ACF, emphasized the need of faith communities and families to be resolute in this fight; and Michelle Hoersch, the Regional Women’s Health Coordinator of the Office on Women’s Health, described how trauma of abuse must be addressed and healing for victims provided.

Faith communities have a special responsibility to ask hard questions about the demand for commercial sex and to start addressing the root causes of trafficking.

 Keynote speaker Katherine Chon, the Senior Advisor on Trafficking in Persons for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and co-founder of the Polaris Project, passionately spoke of her wide experiences both from the field and from a legislative perspective. Most of all, she believes faith and hope are key in abolishing human trafficking.

Katherine Chon, the Senior Advisor on Trafficking in
Persons for the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services and  co-founder of the Polaris Project,
addresses the forum.

Ms. Chon said that human trafficking has often been perceived as distant from American life, or at worst only affecting refugees and foreign nationals. The truth, she said, is that any vulnerable population is at risk. Vulnerable youth in unstable or broken homes or otherwise socially isolated, who are looking for love, friendship, acceptance, and work, are specifically targeted and manipulated by traffickers.

 She admonished each one in the audience to “be that first person to proactively reach out to that person in a non-judgmental way” rather than the traffickers, who lie to victims, reinforce their sense of worthlessness and perception that they have made too many mistakes in their life to ever regain their self-respect and social standing.

 Since trafficking is a complex criminal enterprise, the strategy to combat it must be comprehensive. Ms. Chon encouraged federal agencies to collaborate with state, local, and non-governmental organizations to create safety nets for the vulnerable. Faith communities, she said, have a special responsibility to ask hard questions about the demand for commercial sex and to start addressing the root causes of trafficking. “There are resources out there; you are not alone,” she concluded.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez
and Chicago-based FBI agent Vick Lombardo
speak about law enforcement and  the 
importance of community engagement.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Chicago-based FBI agent Vick Lombardo both brought ground-level perspectives of Chicago law enforcement efforts to combat traffickers. Ms. Alvarez described the successful “Chicago Approach,” including wiretapping, in prosecuting traffickers, and the important collaborative role that victim service providers play in addition to criminal prosecution. Mr. Lombardo noted that Chicago is the number 3 top user of the national human trafficking hotline and stressed that everyone must get involved by learning the signs of trafficking and using the valuable hotline tool when trafficking is suspected.

In a later panel of experts, Megan Mahoney, the Director of the Northern Tier Anti-Trafficking Consortium at the Heartland Alliance, presented an in-depth look at some cases Heartland Alliance has taken. Elyse Dobney, Trafficking Specialist and Volunteer Manager for the Salvation Army’s STOP-IT program, then shared how layers of community safety nets have often failed, and how the average person can incorporate their skills and interests in fighting against trafficking.

Gail Hambleton, Director of the Safe Haven Campaign for the Interfaith Alliance to Abolish Human Trafficking, a project of the Global Peace Foundation USA, shared how the Safe Haven curriculum is a simple and effective tool for faith communities to participate in the prevention of sex trafficking in their own communities.

Gail Hambleton, Director of the Safe Haven Campaign for the Interfaith
Alliance to Abolish Human Trafficking, says victims often seek refuge in
places of worship and faith communities need to be prepared. Right: 
Rabbi Bruce Elder of Congregation Hakafa warns faith communities
against the silence of inaction when facing the injustice of trafficking.

The two most likely places a victim of human trafficking will be away from their trafficker is in the hospital emergency room or in a place of worship, she said. Ms. Hambleton called on faith communities to step up to the challenge by educating their communities on the issue and becoming a catalyst for a broader based awareness. To learn to identify victims, understand their mindset, and know where to get help is essential, she said. 

Concluding the forum, Kenneth Brucks, the Faith Based Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, called on all faith communities to commit to prayer and to action. In a stirring call to action, Rabbi Bruce Elder of Congregation Hakafa passionately affirmed the need for faith communities to speak up. A society with moral beacons that are silent is a society that is morally bankrupt, he said. There is “silence that is quieting and silence that is deafening”; his prayer was for quiet and peaceful silence and not a “deafening silence,” the silence of inaction. 

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