Human trafficking takes place 'right in our own back yards'



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It seems to be human nature to think of a horrendous problem like human trafficking as happening only in distant lands.

But if there is one thing that “modern day slavery” experts stress, it is that the horrifying practice is taking place all around us.

While it is almost certainly true that human trafficking is more widespread in other countries, particularly those in Asia, it is also clear that the problem exists in the United States, in Michigan, and right here in the Greater Grand Rapids area.

Assigning numbers to just how much human trafficking occurs here is problematic, according to Thomas M. Cooley Law School Professor E. Christopher Johnson, Jr. “We just don’t have reliable numbers here. Even nationally, this is a new crime. The statute was only enacted in 2000, which doesn’t seem new, but really is by comparison. Even when human trafficking is charged, sometimes it’s not properly documented.”

Johnson has made it his mission to raise awareness about the human trafficking issue. He led Cooley in hosting an informational conference last Friday evening, based at the Auburn Hills campus but simulcast at all four Michigan campuses.

At that event, members of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force including Johnson, joined other experts to lead attendees from Human Trafficking 101 through current and potential solutions.

Though the most recent reports estimate that there are 27 million slaves around the world, there is currently no way to narrow that down to Michigan-specific numbers.
Johnson adds, “Another challenge is that people who are guilty of human trafficking are also guilty of other crimes, such as unlawful kidnapping. Sometimes human trafficking is one of the charges alongside those, but sometimes human trafficking might drop out as a charge. But that is changing.”

According to a recent report online, in Jan. 2013 the Federal Bureau of Investigation will begin featuring a “trafficking” category in its Uniform Crimes Reporting tracking, which will allow better quantifying of the problem at all levels. The FBI currently does list it as a separate crime, but there is the hope that different types of tracking will allow law enforcement to wrap its arms around the size of the problem.

Elizabeth Campbell, staff attorney at the Human Trafficking Clinic at University of Michigan Law School, says that best estimates indicate that approximately .4% of all victims have been identified.

That clinic at U of M also compiles a searchable database of  pending human trafficking cases in the United States (at

edu/clinical/HuTrafficCases/Pages/searchdatabase.aspx). The attorneys in the Human Trafficking Clinic, under the leadership of its founder, Bridgette Carr, are in the process of making the database as comprehensive as possible, working primarily with U of M Law School students.

Therefore, Campbell says, “If you look at the database and see, let’s say, three cases are from your county, then you can assume that means there are likely to be 600 instances. That has a lot of impact.”

Bridgette Carr started the clinic in 2009 after working on a case out of Metro Detroit that involved foreign nationals being forced to work at strip clubs. “She’d been aware of the issue before taking the case,” Campbell says, “but at that point human trafficking came into full light for her. What she discovered, and I have too, is that this is a huge problem everywhere in the country, second only to the drug trade as the largest criminal industry in the world.”

For Professor Johnson, it was also an emotional response that led to his passion being the elimination of human trafficking.

On a fact-finding trip to India last year, he went to an orphanage in Mumbai for children of mothers who were forced to work as prostitutes. “Some of these children had hidden beneath the bed as their mothers serviced customers. All of these children were HIV positive. In their cases, the mothers had either gotten them out of the Red Light District, or had died. When these women are no longer useful, or if they’re sick, they just basically throw them out in the street.”

Johnson also visited a church on the outskirts of Mumbai’s Red Light District that the women forced into the sex trade would visit. The pastor said that he would look at these poor victims and know that some of them would not make it through the night.

“It’s horrific, all of it, but especially that people are treated as disposable,” Johnson says. “I really just felt called by God that I was going to do something about this.”

Recognizing that he was neither a civil rights nor a criminal lawyer, Johnson — the former Vice President and General Counsel for GM North America — decided to focus on what he knows best: corporate America.

Human trafficking falls into two categories: sex slavery, including a shocking number of young children, and forced labor workers. Johnson feels that corporations can make a difference by examining their supply chain for signs of work done by slave laborers.

Though he said he hopes to continue analyzing how that might be manifested and what specific products and companies to avoid, Johnson also points people to a slick, informative web site for guidance. At, a survey tells those who take it how they score in terms of “how many slaves work for” them.

In addition to engaging the corporate world, Johnson feels compelled to spread the word more widely with the general public. Cooley Law School supports him in his quest, and will host another conference, this time for two days and nationally advertised, in the fall.

Another surprise for Johnson on his trip to the orphanage in Mumbai was that despite all they had been through, the children were happy and thriving. “I saw the power of the love that can be shown to some of these victims if they’re rescued,” he commented. He cautions that returning the child to the home from which they were likely to have been trafficked is a bad idea, and therefore applauds a West Michigan organization planning to be the first in the state to offer that love, and therapy, to child victims of human trafficking.

The Hope Project, under the direction of Julia Koch, is in the process of raising money to start “Hope Village” at an unidentified location in the Muskegon area.

The six-bed facility is intended to be a new home for young female victims of sex trafficking. According to Koch, “What they go through in sex trafficking kills their spirit. They really they need an opportunity to rebuild. Hope Village will offer comprehensive wrap-around services, to help the girls begin restoration physically, mentally, emotionally, educationally and spiritually.”

For more information or to make a donation, visit, or call 231-747-8555.

Michigan’s Attorney General also feels passionately about pursuing those who traffic in human beings. On Jan. 11, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, AG Bill Schuette said, “Human traffickers use force, fraud and coercion to hide their victims in the shadow. We must not turn a blind eye to the exploitation of fellow citizens in our own backyard.”

Kelly Carter and Schuette's Human Trafficking Unit have brought two cases: in People v. Mitchell, a Detroit man was charged with human trafficking of young girls forced into prostitution, with trial coming up in March of this year; and, in a trial taking place this month, members of the “Detroit Pink Prostitution Ring” have been harge with human trafficking as well as other crimes.

Cooley’s International Law Society, American Constitution Society and Graduate Program in Corporate Law and Finance co-hosted last Friday’s human trafficking conference.


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