Week 46: NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking: Fighting for the Victims
The speaker stood up at the front of the auditorium….
“Several times a year our group goes into local cities and towns and asks, ‘Who are your missing children?’ We get their names and photos, then make posters of these children.”
(She holds up one of the posters with the faces of at least 15 children on it)
“We then stop at motels and hotels” she continued, “and ask the staff, ‘Have you seen any of these faces?’”
“EVERY TIME we’ve done this we’ve had at least one rescue. Sometimes several. The children are usually going by different names, but we always find someone who recognizes at least one and it allows us to start to work towards finding them and rescuing them.”
These children… they are typically between the ages of 12 and 16. These cities and towns? …. They are in New Jersey….
Human Trafficking is alive and well and can be found in all 50 states. In fact, statistics show that it’s actually expanding in most States.
In America, trafficking primarily consists of labor and sex trafficking. Globally, it also includes organ harvesting.
Trafficking is highly profitable and occurs in every part of the globe.
I was attending the NJ Coalition Against Trafficking’s (NJCAHT) “Surviving and Thriving” event, which was both powerful and emotional.
The evening opened with the beautiful voices of the Villa Walsh Academy Cantiamo Ensemble’s rendition of two hymns….. “Will the circle be unbroken… there’s a better world awaiting if we try Lord, if we try…..” Their voices filed the auditorium and set the stage for an evening of both profound sadness and hope.
During the event, I would learn much about human trafficking in the United States and in third world countries.
Sister Mary Beth Lloyd was the primary speaker. She is a tireless abolitionist.
She shared stories from her work at St. Lucy’s Mission in Brazil, where girls between the ages of 6 and 9 are sold at truck stops, markets and streets t for sex. She played a video of the story of Isabella, whose mother was a prostitute. The large family lives in a two-room wooden shack with no running water or electricity. Window openings are cut from the walls but there are no covers for them. The family collects cardboard to recycle to make money for food. They also use the cardboard to sleep under as blankets.
At age 6, Isabella’s mother sold her everyday for sex… for $3 a time. When Sister Mary Beth found Isabella, she asked her mother how much would it would cost to buy her outright. “$35 dollars” was the reply….. $35 dollars…. A dinner at a local pizza place, a tank of gas, a new blouse… it was stunning and horrifying to hear.
Sister Mary Beth paid the $35 and Isabella was able to come live at the mission, where she receives schooling and counseling. She is taught useful skills to make money. Since her stay, she’s made friends with other girls, learned how to grow her own fruits and vegetables, and received healthy, nutritious meals. Isabella is permitted go home to visit her family whenever she wanted during the day, but the agreement with the family is that she must come back to live at the Mission. On the video, her mother tells the camera that if she was able to get Isabella back, she’d sell her again for the money….
There are currently 78 girls at St. Lucy’s Mission. Each one comes in scared, sad, detached. They need intensive counseling and connection in order to rebuild their physical, mental and emotional strength. It takes years. In the video we watched a group of the girls put on a dance performance, laughing and happy. Children…. they are all so young… babies of 6, 7, 8 and 9. They’ve lived through unimaginable horrors in their young lives.
Someone in the audience asked about boys. Are there boys at the Mission? Sister Mary shook her head slowly. Her reply was stunning. “We have only 2 boys…. When families have too many children their youngest boys are sold for their organs. By the time we become aware of them, they have typically been killed….”
…the last of the girls danced across the video screen as Sister Mary spoke and I thought, “How can this be going on in the world?” I caught my breath and began to cry.
While the primary cause of trafficking in third world countries is poverty, here in the United States it is typically a result of the breakdown of the family. Victims of human trafficking (sexual and labor) are often young girls, 12 to 14 years old, who come from broken homes full of abuse and neglect. Many of the girls are already in the DYFS system – either still at home in bad situations or in foster homes. Others are run-aways. With no real role models or love in the home, it’s easy for predators to take advantage of them.
It starts by the predator becoming “friends” with these girls by paying attention to them and being nice. They give them the attention and “love” they so desperately are looking for. They manipulate them by buying them things like ice cream and shoes, telling them they love them, that they’ll protect them, that they are pretty…. Over time, the girls become emotionally attached to the predators. It’s then that the predators begin to take full advantage of the relationship, first coercing and manipulating them into having sex with them as “payback”, using language such as “I’m so nice to you, if you really loved me you would…” This quickly escalates to the predator having the girls have sex with other men. Typically, the girls are given ‘rewards’ afterward (“If you do this I’ll buy you a new jacket”, etc.). Often, the girls are given drugs to “make it easier for them” (“Take this and it won’t hurt or you won’t even remember…“). Of course everything the predator does is designed to create complete dependence and emotional attachment. This can go on for years.
There were several speakers during the course of the evening, and one I particularly remember was Monica Kristen from DreamCatchers.
DreamCatchers is the initial point of contact for survivors as they are brought in for rescue. They are New Jersey-based and currently work with over 600 clients spread throughout the state. Clients are either referred to them, or they call the 24 hour/7 day-a-week 1-800 crisis hotline and ask for help, When necessary, DreamCatchers will go get the victims and put them somewhere safe, helping them hide from their trafficker, who will often go to great lengths to find the girls and drag them back. They’ve spent a lot of money and time “investing” in the girls, and are making a lot of money, so they would rather have a girl murdered than release her.
I was amazed to learn that sometimes victims may not realize they are victims, or are in the stages of becoming trafficked.
DreamCatchers holds many educational presentations for organizations and groups and it is not uncommon that, once the presentation is over, someone comes up to the speaker to say things like, “As you were talking I realized these things are happening to me. I think I may be a victim.” Because victims are so emotionally brainwashed they may not realize they are victims. This is especially true with labor trafficking.
One example Monica shared was of a young woman from Central America who came to New Jersey to live with distant family. She was told they would help her go to college if she helped them with childcare. Once here, they fed, clothed and cared for her, but they also took her passport and all her identification. They forced her to work 12 hours a day 7 days a week . They did not pay her and told her the food and board were her pay. She had no health insurance. They did let her to go classes at college part-time but they drove her and picked her up. She could not leave the home, have friends or go outside without one of the relatives with her. She had no access to friends, phone, etc. This went on for over a year. She did not realize she was a victim of labor trafficking until hearing a speaker from DreamCatchers.
I also learned that recovery from being victimized by trafficking is long and very difficult. These women have serious emotional, psychological and physical needs. They are often drug addicted. They are emotionally brainwashed. They are trauma victims. They need everything from drug counseling to nutrition to education and complete retraining on healthy and appropriate relationships. They are typically anxious, depressed, angry, terrified they will be found and beaten and forced to return to that life. They emotionally shut down. Intensive therapeutic counseling is needed in order to get them to self-sufficiency. Often they don’t have an education beyond what they had when they were first victimized. In most cases they cannot return to their families, or have no families to return to because they were in the foster system to begin with. They often have police records from being trafficked (either sex offenses, or offenses like assaulting other while stealing so they could pay their trafficker the expected amount). Telling their stories is often re-traumatizing and they feel stigmatized by society. In addition to all this, the women often have nothing except the clothes on their backs. No money, no clothes, nothing. How do you build a life from that starting point? Having lived through years of being abused? It is a very, very long and difficult road for these women. Most will battle with it their entire lives.
DreamCatchers becomes their family. They bring the girls in, perform case management and provide long-term support. They get them fed, get them clothing, and give them counseling. They help them learn how to function on their own. They help them make and get to doctor appointments, work towards a GED, and eventually get a job. They help them get to court and get public defenders. They help them address the years of emotional trauma and try to help them fix years of psychological warping they faced as a result of trafficking. Eventually they help them learn skills to live on their own and become self-sufficient.
One of the most poignant speakers of the event was a woman who was a victim of trafficking. She shared her personal story of being neglected as a child and then trafficked for years by a man she’d met and thought would be her savior. She had tried to escape several times but was always caught by her trafficker or by one of his connections, who hunted her down. She was beaten, starved and horribly sexually abused each time she tried to escape.
She even shared a time when she escaped and went to the police, who laughed at her because they thought she was just a prostitute making her story up. They released her into the hands of her predator. It took her three years from that incident to find an opportunity to try to escape again. This last time she’d been successful. It’s been years since she has been freed, but she is still terrified at every knock at the door thinking her predator has come to find her. She has nightmares, has trouble making friends and with relationships. She faces depression and an eating disorder. Her sense of self-worth never really recovered. She was speaking with us as a way to help herself come to terms with her past. It was heart-wrenching and emotional to hear the story of this very brave woman.
During the event we would learn about upcoming NJCAHT events such as “Soap UP” – where volunteers put stickers on thousands of hotel-sized bars of soap. The stickers have information on human trafficking and the 1-800 number for help. Teams of volunteers then go into local hotels and restaurants and ask to leave the bars in the bathrooms for the women to find. Other events include going to local schools, hotels, churches and restaurants to explain the signs of human trafficking and what they can do to prevent it and report it. The NJCAHT website has “Red Flag” documents describing what to look for and how to notice signs of someone being trafficked. The documents are translated into 7 languages and can be distributed to hotel front desk and housekeeping staff.
We also learned about successful legislation changes which were recently passed, in part due to the tireless efforts and lobbying of organizations including NJCAHT.
This includes a bill signed by President Trump this month (April 2018) targeting online sex trafficking and closing loopholes in prior legislation.
Sister Mary Beth said we have a divine call to stand together to ignite change and the organizations that partner with NJCAHT are making a huge difference in the lives of victims of trafficking. I left that night thinking about the millions of victims around the world who have has their lives shattered by these predators. I will definitely be registering for an upcoming event to help spread the word.
If you’d like to learn more about the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking, would like to make a donation, sign up for an event, or print out the “Red Flags” document, please visit their website at: https://www.njhumantrafficking.org/
The organization is ALWAYS looking for donations of clean, lightly used (or new) professional women’s wear (especially smaller sizes through size 10) and always needs food gift cards to give to the women. Please contact their office at 201.903.2111 for details.
THANK YOU for joining me on this very emotional week. I look forward to having you continue my journey with me!
If you are interested in checking out what I’ve been up to for the other 44 weeks, please visit: https://52weeksofcharity.blog/the-list-all-52-weeks-at-a-glance/
Until next week,
PENNY XO XO
If you suspect Human Trafficking or need to reach out to one of the hotlines, please dial: