NEW YORK — They look so young. Some of the accused in Judge Toko Serita's courtroom could easily pass as high school seniors instead of who they are: criminal defendants waiting to go before a judge on prostitution charges.
It's a serious charge, one that can carry up to 90 days in jail. But on this October morning in the borough of Queens, Serita isn't presiding from a traditional bench. Instead, she calls into session the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court.
A growing awareness of just how deeply human trafficking is entrenched in the commercial sex industry means that the women and girls in this room not only could avoid a jail sentence but could also get connected with counseling and services, their first real chance to escape the trap of their circumstances.
The court in Queens is just one of three Human Trafficking Intervention Courts already in operation in New York state. By November there will be a total of 11, all allowing defendants to have their cases dismissed if they successfully complete a prescribed number of mandated sessions with service providers.
In 2011, 70 percent of the defendants who came before the Midtown Community Court in Manhattan were identified as trafficking victims. The goal of the new statewide court system is to give nearly all defendants charged with prostitution a chance to escape from the pimps or traffickers who may be controlling them. If it works as planned, getting arrested — usually a sex worker’s biggest fear — may turn out to be a blessing.
“It was the best thing that happened to me,” said 29-year-old Mexican native Anna Gomez (not her actual name), referring to her experience with Serita’s court following an arrest earlier this year during a brothel raid.
Gomez was easy prey for a team of sex traffickers when she arrived in the U.S. at 15, alone and without papers. Now, as she sits in her attorney’s office at the Queens Family Justice Center, she can hardly believe how her life has changed. Initially, she was convinced she'd be back at work in the brothel as soon as her case was closed. By the third meeting with her counselors, however, her skepticism faded.
“I realized that there were options and that maybe I could get out of this,” she said.
The idea of offering options instead of penalties and jail sentences to those arrested for selling sex took root in the Queens courtroom more than 10 years ago when Serita’s predecessor, Judge Fernando Camacho, found himself face to face with a 16-year-old charged with prostitution who had been arrested multiple times.
There's got to be a reason she's out in the streets at the age of 16.
“I looked at her and the offer I think, was plea the charge and 15 days (in jail), and I said I don’t want to do this,” Camacho said in an interview with the Center for Court Innovation. “There’s got to be an explanation as to why she’s out in the street at the age of 16.''
Instead of sending her to jail, Camacho connected the girl with an organization called Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS), which specializes in helping victims of sex trafficking. And so the trafficking intervention model was born.
Now there is a whole network of service providers in the city, and many work with their clients for years after the cases are officially sealed. The first step is to help the women get their paperwork in order so they can utilize any public assistance that's available. Then the search starts for safe housing and a job. Victims often have no proper identification, no credit (or credit problems), and if they were born outside the United States they usually have immigration issues.
For Gomez, learning that she may be entitled to permanent residency under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was a game changer. Now, just seven months after her arrest, she has a job in a restaurant and her visa application is underway.
Left in the snow
“Finally (Anna) is getting the services she should have gotten 13 years ago,” said Dania Lopez Beltran, the Family Justice Center lawyer who is handling Gomez’ case. “But because she has been neglected for so long, her needs are so much greater.”
Beltran is referring to the debilitating trauma that victims endure at the hands of traffickers or pimps while they are trapped “in the life” — a trauma that cannot be miraculously erased by getting a job and a place to live. This is all too apparent when Gomez begins to sob and shake as she recounts the terror she felt after her first beating by a john who left her naked on the street during a snowstorm. She reacts with similar distress as she recalls how her body went into a kind of toxic shock after “servicing” 24 clients on her first night working in a brothel. (Later, she says, her body got used to it and she would often see up to 60 men per night. Her youthful appearance made her so popular, she said, that there was usually a line of men outside her door.)
Critics of criminal penalties argue that such stories reveal the limits of a criminal justice solution to a problem so rooted in social, racial and gender inequality. The average age that sex workers first enter the industry in the U.S. ranges from 12 to 14. Many service providers would like to see stepped-up efforts to stop these girls from falling prey to traffickers in the first place, rather than helping them get on with their lives after years of trauma and abuse.
“We’ve come a really long way with this, and that’s great,” said Rachel Lloyd, founder of GEMS and a former trafficking victim herself. "Women who fall prey to traffickers are no longer automatically being sent to jail or fined. But now we need to take the next step and look at the reasons they fall prey in the first place.”
A fighting chance
An even more pressing concern about the criminal justice approach is how it affects victims who cannot comply with the court's mandates or who are simply unable to get out from under their trafficker’s control.
Back in Serita’s courtroom, the judge tried to impress this risk on a young Asian girl who was arrested twice in the same location one week apart.
“You understand that if this happens again, the offer that is being made now (that her case would be dismissed) might not happen, and if there are immigration issues you can be deported,” Serita said before mandating that the defendant complete nearly double the usual number of sessions.
Through her interpreter, the girl said she understands what could happen if she doesn't comply. Whether the circumstances of her life will make it possible, if she avoids jail time and deportation, is unknown. After all, her pimp may be waiting around the corner for her. At least, thanks to the timely intervention of the trafficking court and the services it offers, she has a chance — a fighting chance.
LAS VEGAS – Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto partnered today with Polaris Project, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and Clear Channel Outdoor to announce a new initiative aimed at educating human trafficking victims in southern Nevada about where they can obtain help.
The joint initiative includes the launch of a billboard campaign that highlights the toll-free and confidential National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline (888-373-7888 or text BeFree to 233733), operated by Polaris Project.
Through this 24-hour resource, community members can anonymously report tips of suspected human trafficking or get information, and survivors can get help. The hotline is available in up to 170 languages through the use of interpreters, including Spanish. In 2012, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline received 20,650 calls. Of those calls, 174 were from Nevada including 106 from Las Vegas.
“Victims of human trafficking are strongly encouraged to contact the hotline to provide their information in a secure, confidential, and anonymous manner,” Masto said. “The calls will assist trafficking victims by getting them the help they need, and ultimately to convict those who traffic in human labor and sexual exploitation. I am grateful to our public and private collaboration on an issue that is of critical importance.”
“These billboards will tell victims of human trafficking that there is a safe place for them to call and get help. It also reminds residents and visitors that sex and labor trafficking are rampant in communities across the United States, including in Las Vegas,” said Keeli Sorensen, Polaris Project's Director of National Programs.
“LVMPD remains committed to identifying and investigating those responsible for the sexual exploitation of our most vulnerable youth into the commercial sex trade,” said Metro Lt. Karen Hughes. “The Las Vegas community and those who visit here can play a significant role in our fight against human trafficking by being a voice for those kids caught in this ugly crime.”
“Clear Channel Outdoor has a longstanding history of leveraging its unique position as a highly visible and unskippable medium to aid causes, like Polaris Project, that share our goal of keeping our children, families and communities safe," said Bill Kurr, general manager, Clear Channel Outdoor-Las Vegas. “Reaching and engaging people with life-saving safety messages through our digital media when they are away from home is an important tool in helping prevent the next child from being taken. We believe these messages could be pivotal in rescuing victims and bringing their traffickers to justice.”
The campaign, featured on major roadways throughout Las Vegas, will run for about 15 weeks total with an estimated 1.6 million impressions each week. From Oct. 29 through Jan. 5, five billboards will be live. Then, from Jan. 5 through Feb.10, seven billboards will be live. Billboards are placed strategically on major interstates, tourist areas, and communities where trafficking may be more prevalent.
In addition to billboards in Las Vegas, the campaign will extend to Reno.
The following is a 7 minute video for medical professionals on how to identify trafficking victims they may encounter. The video is aimed at emergency room, clinic, and EMT staff. It was created by the Dept. of Homeland Security as a part of their Blue Campaign. I thought this might be something you’d want to share with your health departments and other licensees:
“Human Trafficking: How it Impacts Our Community” is the theme of the first Community Conversations: For Issues of Today held by the Harford County Human Relations Commission. The discussion is open to the public and free of charge.
The discussion takes place Wednesday, November 20, from 6:30pm to 7:30pm at the Veronica “Roni” Chenowith Activity Center, 1707 Fallston Road in Fallston.
The evening will include a dialogue about Human Trafficking, how it impacts the community, targets victims and what society can do to prevent it. The keynote speaker for the event is Jeanne Allert. She is a nationally recognized speaker and Executive Director of the Samaritan Women. She sits on the Board of Advisors for the Abolition International Shelter Association and directs the Maryland Rescue and Restore Coalition.
The Harford County Human Relations Commission is a 15 member volunteer advisory board representing all segments of the County’s population. The Commission is looking for new members. Citizens interested should contact the Office of Human Relations at 410-638-4739 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Health Matters: The ER safety net for human trafficking victims
Updated: Oct 23, 2013 11:00 AM EDT
FORT MYERS, FL -
Working in the ER, nurse Shay Watson has seen just about everything. She has had suspicions that some of her patients were also victims.
"We have seen patients with burn injuries or arm injuries or maybe a broken bone. A lot of them have gastro problems where its nausea vomiting or GYN issues and that is kind of a tip," says Shay Watson, ER nurse with Lee Memorial Health System.
"A number of very significant cases in Lee County, in Southwest Florida have occurred in Lee hospitals," says Nola Theiss, Executive Director of human trafficking awareness partnerships.
Nola Theiss leads a group, which focuses on human trafficking.
"Human trafficking is modern day slavery. It doesn't imply that you're moved to place to place, although that often happens. The statistics are only 1-3% are abducted. And 30% are abused some way through their family, through people they know," says Theiss.
Hospitals are where the two worlds sometimes collide. The emergency room provides an opportunity for victims to move from oppression and abuse to safety and security
Because they're on the front lines, emergency room staff nationwide are learning to spot trafficking victims. Female and male sex slaves and labor slaves. Theiss recently conducted training sessions at Gulf Coast Medical Center.
"If a young girl is being treated for pregnancy or birth and there's no support system other than a very controlling person that's a sign. Often the girls don't know where they are. They don't know their address, that kind of thing," says Theiss.
Another sign is a literal mark of ownership- a telltale tattoo.
"Some of them say ‘daddy' or a dollar sign, the bar code," says Watson.
It can happen and it does. Watson and her co-workers have intervened several times.
"We have just this gut feeling we go with. But we have that one chance or one opportunity to tell them we're here we can help you if you need it," says Watson.
It's about seizing the moment to save or change lives.
For comments or suggestions, find Amy Oshier Health Matters on facebook
India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria on slavery's list of shame, says report
By Tim Hume, CNN
October 18, 2013 -- Updated 0228 GMT (1028 HKT)
Moyna sits outside her home in the town of Kalora, Bangladesh. As a 14-year-old, she found herself working in an Indian brothel after being tricked into believing she had taken a job in a steel factory.
A new report claims 30 million people are living as slaves globally
India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia had the most slaves
Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan, India and Nepal had the highest proportion of slaves
The index is published by a group committed to stamping out slavery
Hong Kong (CNN) -- A new report claiming to be the most comprehensive look at global slavery says 30 million people are living as slaves around the world.
The top 10 countries on its list of shame accounted for more than three quarters of the 29.8 million people living in slavery, with Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Bangladesh completing the list.
The index, whose authors claim it contains the most authoritative data on slavery conditions worldwide, is the product of Australian mining magnate and philanthropist Andrew Forrest's commitment to stamp out global slavery.
Tracking global slavery
30 million estimate 'conservative'
British woman trafficked by boyfriend
Forrest, ranked by Forbes as Australia's fifth richest man, with an estimated net worth of $5.7 billion, adopted the cause after his daughter volunteered in an orphanage in Nepal in 2008, where she encountered victims of child sex trafficking. Forrest is a signatory to the Giving Pledge started by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, whose members commit to donating at least half their wealth to philanthropic causes.
The index, which draws on 10 years of research into slavery and was produced by a team of 4 authors supported by 22 other experts, is the inaugural edition of what will be an annual report. It ranks 162 countries according to the number of people living in slavery, the risk of enslavement and the robustness of government responses to the problem.
Walk Free policy and research manager Gina Dafalia told CNN the report was intended to shine a spotlight on the issue, and quantify the extent of the problem in different countries before anti-slavery initiatives were launched. So far, she said, Walk Free, along with partners Humanity United and the Legatum Foundation, had pledged a total of $100 million to stamp out the practice.
"When we started working in this area we realized that we didn't have a good understanding of what exactly the situation of slavery is in the world," she said. "We needed that information before we started doing any interventions."
Dafalia said this was a result of the Global Slavery Index using a broader definition of slavery, which included human trafficking, forced labor, as well as practices such as forced marriage, debt bondage and the exploitation of children.
"Our definition of modern slavery includes, for example, forced and servile marriage, a concept not included in the ILO estimate, given the focus on 'forced labor,'" she said.
The explicit definition used in the report was "the possession and control of a person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty, with the intent of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer or disposal. Usually this exercise will be achieved through means such as violence or threats of violence, deception and/or coercion."
Kevin Bales, one of the report's authors and co-founder of Free the Slaves, said that the global number of slaves was difficult to quantify. But through methods including random sample surveys, researchers were able to arrive at an estimate. "We were able to go to households and say 'Has anything like this happened to anyone in your family?'" he said.
He believed the index, which he hoped would provide "a bit of a wake-up call" to the world's governments, had a margin of error of between 5-10%. "We always erred on the conservative side."
Asked why 30 million continued to live in conditions of slavery in 2013, Dafalia said the reasons varied from country to country, but one constant was that it remained a "hidden problem."
We're not talking about bad choices, we're not talking about crummy jobs in a sweatshop. We're talking about real life slavery -- you can't walk away, you're controlled through violence, you're treated like property. Global Slavery Index co-author Kevin Bales
In some of the worst-hit countries, the report said, the affected parties were citizens ensnared in endemic, culturally-sanctioned forms of slavery -- "the chattel slavery of the Haratins in Mauritania, the exploitation of children through the restavek practice in Haiti, the cultural and economic practices of both caste and debt bondage in India and Pakistan, and the exploitation of children through vidomegon in Benin."
In other examples, including Nepal, Gabon and Moldova, it was migrants who were most vulnerable to exploitation. In many examples, noted the report, child and forced marriage was prevalent and child protection practices weak.
It noted that in India, the country with the most slaves, the risk of enslavement varied markedly from state to state.
In contrast, said Bales, countries like Brazil led the world in anti-slavery efforts. "It has a national plan to eradicate slavery. It has a dirty list where it has every company that's ever had slavery pollute their products, they have special anti-slavery police squads."
He rejected the suggestion that the term "slavery" was an overly emotive or misleading way of defining people who were trapped by crushing poverty.
"I spend a lot of time talking to people who have been or are in slavery, and when you talk to them about it, they know what the situation is," he said.
"We're not talking about bad choices, we're not talking about crummy jobs in a sweatshop. We're talking about real life slavery -- you can't walk away, you're controlled through violence, you're treated like property."
ATHENS — A Roma couple were ordered jailed on Monday over the alleged abduction of a child who was found during a police raid on an encampment in central Greece last week. The case has fueled speculation about human trafficking and illegal adoption rackets, and heightened scrutiny of Roma populations across Europe.
The couple, identified by the police as Christos Salis, 39, and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, insisted during five hours of testimony that they adopted the child from a Bulgarian woman. Ms. Dimopoulou had a second identification card giving her name as Selini Sali with a different date and place of birth. They will stand trial on charges of abducting a minor and forging official documents.
The Greek police have appealed for Interpol’s help in tracing the girl’s biological parents. The girl, who has been nicknamed Maria and is thought to be about 5 or 6 years old, was spotted by the Greek police last Wednesday during a search for drugs and weapons at a Roma camp in Farsala, near the city of Larissa in central Greece.
The case comes amid an increasingly acrimonious debate in Europe over how to integrate the Roma, a nomadic people who came to the Continent centuries ago from India, and who are also widely known as Gypsies.
In France, President François Hollande intervened over the weekend after a 15-year-old Roma girl was removed from a school bus and expelled to Kosovo, along with her parents and five siblings who had been living illegally in France for five years. After the case led to protests by student groups across the country, Mr. Hollande said that the girl, Leonarda Dibrani, could return to France to finish her studies, but that her family would not be able to join her.
At a time of grinding austerity and persistent unemployment across Europe, minorities and migrants are facing a growing political and economic backlash. The Roma, blighted by poverty and living in squalid housing on the outskirts of some European cities, have been singled out for attention. An estimated 11 million Roma are scattered across Europe.
In Greece, officers’ suspicions were raised when they spotted the girl, who has light blond hair, pale skin and green eyes and bore no resemblance to the other camp residents. Subsequent DNA tests proved that she was not related to the Roma couple who were harboring her, the police said.
A police official said parents with missing children “from several countries” had contacted Greek authorities asking for their DNA to be checked against that of Maria.
A charity that has taken the girl into its care said it has received thousands of calls from Greece and abroad after issuing an appeal for information.
The Roma couple had given conflicting explanations to the police about how they acquired the girl — including that they had found her outside a supermarket when she was infant. Ultimately, they said they had adopted her after she was abandoned by her birth mother, a Bulgarian national.
Panagiotis Tziovaras, the head of the Larissa police department, said Monday that it was possible the Roma couple were involved in human trafficking; state records showed them to have a total of 14 children registered in different parts of Greece. But he emphasized that it was too early to draw any firm conclusions.
“It could be an abduction, an illegal abduction, she could be a trafficking victim,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re looking at all these options.”
Documents found in the couple’s possession suggested that Ms. Dimopoulou had given birth to 6 of the 14 children within a 10-month period, the police official said, adding that Ms. Dimopoulou also had two police identity cards with different details and that Mr. Salis had been arrested over armed robbery in the past.
In comments on Greek television, one of the couple’s lawyers, Marietta Palavra, said that the pair may have sought benefits illegally but that they had not abducted the child. “They felt sorry for her and adopted her from the birth mother,” she said.
Since leaving the Roma camp, Maria has been in the care of an Athens charity called The Smile of the Child; officials there said she was “calm” after a traumatic transition. “She was terrified on the first day after leaving the camp but now she seems happy, she’s been playing with dolls and drawing,” the charity’s director, Costas Yiannopoulos, said by telephone.
He said Maria’s case had “opened a Pandora’s box about what’s happening with the Roma and the exploitation of children in Greece but also in Europe.” He said there were no statistics to indicate how many children were victims of such rackets “because the authorities have not tackled the issue for fear of being accused of racism.”
Representatives of the Roma community in Farsala appeared on several Greek television channels on Monday, asserting that Maria had received good care at the camp. The head of the Farsala Roma community, Babis Dimitriou, said that the biological parents of the child were a Bulgarian Roma couple who had been at the camp last week during the police raid but had left. He expressed fears that the case would fuel discrimination against Roma in Greece and beyond.
Niki Kitsantonis reported from Athens, and Dan Bilefsky from Paris.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 21, 2013
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misspelled the surname of the mother who was ordered jailed. She is Eleftheria Dimopoulou, not Dimolpoulou.