Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Human trafficking victims often victimized twice in America

About a week ago The Kansas City Star did an exhaustive investigation on the policing of human trafficking in America. What they found is that the victims of human trafficking are often victimized twice.

Many people in law enforcement have not been thoroughly trained on the unique crime of sex trafficking and treat those involved like prostitution. So for foreigners that were coerced into being slaves they are often detained for a long time, or deported. For Americans who were coerced into being sex slaves against their will, they are often prosecuted for the crime of prostitution.

This video summaries the Star's reporting on the issue.

From the Kansas City Star's article on the issue of sex trafficking, reporter Laura Bauer gives the story of one Chinese mother.

Sitting in the jail in Boone County, Mo., the Chinese woman didn't look like a criminal to Kelley Lucero. She looked like a middle-aged mom.

Soon, Lucero learned that the woman had indeed come to America to scout out a college for her teenage son. She had come, legally, as part of a cultural exchange program, but her life had taken an unexpected and terrifying turn in Middle America.

Forced to work in a one-room massage parlor, she ended up being arrested for prostitution at a truck stop between Kansas City and St. Louis.

Only an experienced eye like Lucero’s could see something that Boone County deputies appeared to miss. What so many in law enforcement all over the nation still are not trained to see.

“This wasn’t a prostitute,” said Lucero, a sexual abuse program coordinator for a domestic violence shelter in Columbia. “She was a human trafficking victim.”

And yet, the Chinese woman sat in jail for five months.

When the United States took a global stand on human trafficking in 2000, lawmakers wanted to rescue foreign-born women turned into American sex slaves. In too many cases, though, that hasn’t happened.

In its six-month investigation into America's effectiveness in the war on human trafficking, The Kansas City Star found that the system orginally designed with sex trafficking in mind is often unsuccessful in reaching those victims.

Some are mistakenly identified as prostitutes and end up either lost in the criminal justice bureaucracy or back on the streets. Even when victims are identified by law enforcement, some are reluctant to go through the gantlet that accompanies the prosecution of their trafficker, too untrusting or scared to reveal the horrible things that happened to them. Critics complain that the U.S. law is inherently flawed because it connects victims’ aid with their willingness to help make cases.

When the mother from China was arrested, deputies in Boone County hadn’t been trained to recognize human trafficking. They didn’t know what questions to ask.

Or that the crime requires a victim-centered approach, much different from what officers are traditionally schooled in.

Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Merilee Crockett said she couldn’t discuss specifics of the case, but generally cases that may involve human trafficking are a “conundrum” because if victims are released they could end up back with their traffickers. And sometimes there is no safe place to keep them other than jail.

“Where is the rescue? What do we do for them? How do we protect them?” Crockett said.

Law enforcement authorities also have different priorities, explained Ivy Suriyopas, staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “They focus on catching perpetrators, making sure the public is safe from additional crimes. That doesn’t necessarily correlate with the needs of the victims.”

Some police officers get it and know how to work human trafficking cases, advocates acknowledged. Yet many don’t. At least not at this point.

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