The disturbing spread of human trafficking has spawned a wave of faith-based relief . . .
The day before the Seahawks celebrated their Super Bowl victory with a parade through downtown Seattle on Feb. 5, the dark side of professional sports in America reared its ugly head.
FBI officials announced that 16 children as young as 13 – some of whom had been reported missing by their families – were rescued from the sex trade in a law-enforcement sting operation that targeted alleged pimps who brought the victims to New Jersey for Super Bowl weekend.
Law enforcement took down more than 45 pimps and their associates – several who brought their victims from out of state – in the sting.
In its Feb. 4 announcement, the FBI noted that high-profile special events which draw large crowds have become lucrative opportunities for child prostitution criminal enterprises — a modern-day form of slavery, commonly known as human trafficking, where people are deceived and exploited for their labor or their bodies.
“The typical story in our country will be of a girl who suffers at home from sexual abuse,” said Jeff Wilbarger, founder of The Daughter Project, a shelter for trafficking survivors in Toledo, Ohio.
“She might come from a home where the mom or dad is addicted to drugs. She spends hours at the mall every day in order to avoid going home. Traffickers will approach the girl and tell her she could be a model. She goes with them because she thinks she can make money and get affection. She is never seen again, and often enough her family never even reports her missing.”
Officials say the exact numbers of people being trafficked are difficult to come by. “The numbers keep changing, but it’s believed that 21 to 27 million people are trafficked around the world,” said Mary DeLorey, a human trafficking expert with Catholic Relief Services.
Southeast Asia is an epicenter for both forced labor and sex trafficking. Women and children are often trafficked to the Middle East as laborers. Sometimes small children are forced to become camel jockeys. In Europe, most people are being trafficked for sex. In India, it’s estimated that 200,000 women and children are forced into the flesh trade each year.
In the U.S., there is a growing labor- and sex-trafficking market. Sex trafficking exists in alarming numbers among minor girls — as many as 100,000 children.
“In some of these cases there is kidnapping,” DeLorey explained. “At other times, they’re tricked into thinking that they’re getting a job. This is what makes following human trafficking so difficult. At some point along the journey, a person is deceived.”
If the stories of human trafficking are horrific, then the stories of how Christian organizations reach out to victims are heartwarming.
“We have the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program, which is a network of Catholic refugee foster care programs,” said Nathalie Lummert, director of special programs in Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Sometimes foreign children are discovered in raids at brothels here in the U.S., or children are found who were forced to carry drugs across the border,” she said. “The child will be brought into a private Catholic foster care program to live either with a family or in a group home. We will get them the counseling they need to recover from the trauma. They also get legal help and cultural orientation services.”
Last November, the Vatican held an international working group on human trafficking to help Catholic conferences around the world share ideas and work together.
“Human trafficking is a crime against humanity,” Pope Francis told a group of ambassadors to the Vatican on Dec. 12. “We must unite our efforts to free victims and stop this crime that’s become ever more aggressive, that threatens not just individuals, but the foundational values of society.”
The first U.S. legislation to combat trafficking came in 2000 with the landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act, authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). The bill gave $95 million to law enforcement to fight trafficking and assist victims. It also laid out severe punishment for traffickers.
Although law enforcement has known for years that major sporting events like the Super Bowl act as a magnet for sex trafficking, the media had been slow to report the story. But this year was different.
“I think the tide has turned,” the USCCB’s Lummert explained. “There’s a lot of energy. Many people want to know about it and want to do something about it. This is the result of a lot of work in the last 10 years and a great deal of momentum.”
The U.S. bishops’ conference combats trafficking in three ways: services for victims, a National Day of Prayer for Victims on Feb. 8, and an educational awareness program. The USCCB developed a Become a Shepherd tool kit for parishes to learn about trafficking and how to organize prayer services for victims.
Their Amistad program takes it a step further.
“Amistad trains local leaders in parishes where there are many immigrants,” Lummert said. “It trains them to identify victims and helps them learn how to build coalitions within their communities. The goal is to prevent trafficking among vulnerable populations.”
Making a Difference
When U.S. law enforcement officials rescue a victim, they often discover there is no stable family for the girls to return to. They will often bring the victims to shelters run by Christian organizations. One of these organizations is Wilbarger’s The Daughter Project.
“A couple of years ago, I was living a very comfortable, Christian life — teaching math at a local school,” Wilbarger said. “My son-in-law gave me a book called Not for Sale by David Batstone, and it was real-life stories of women who had survived human trafficking in the U.S. I had thought that slavery was over. It was really shocking.”
When Wilbarger realized how bad the problem of trafficking was, he decided to build a shelter for victims with the help of his Lutheran church.
“We give the girls psychological help, education, health and good nutrition. For them, it’s a lifelong journey to recovery,” he said.
Most of the girls they help are between 13 and 15 years old. A team of “house moms” lives at the shelter full time so the girls can develop strong relationships — for many, their first positive relationship with an adult.
“Trafficking has always existed,” Lummert explained. “It’s linked to poverty, but ultimately this is a life and dignity issue.”
For the workers in this vineyard, the task is continually to shine a light on the problem, assist the victims, and prevent it from happening again, she said.
“We still have a way to go,” said Lummert. “People still have a hard time believing that this is happening here. You could be looking at a trafficking victim in plain sight and not know it. It’s very complicated.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.