Panel raises awareness of daunting challenges in ending human trafficking

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Human trafficking is both global and local.

While there has been  increased awareness of what is often called modern day slavery, there is still a large percentage of the population that is uninformed or under-informed. But if the dedicated people on a panel at Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus last week have their way, that will change.

Each one of them, in their own way and for their own reasons, is working tirelessly on different aspects of the daunting problem, making sacrifices so others will know more about human trafficking and join them in the struggle to bring it to an end.

Ayda Rezaian, the staff attorney for the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project who organized the event, said in her introduction that she was surprised both at how widespread the problem is and at how little people she spoke with knew about it.

The statutory definition of human sex trafficking, as taken from  Trafficking Victims Protection Act, is “the  recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person... has not attained 18 years of age.”

The labour trafficking definition is similar: “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

The WMU-Cooley panel dealt primarily with sex trafficking, often of greater interest to the public because its victims are among the most vulnerable people in the world – for the most part, very young girls.

There was a time when people might have called prostitution as a victimless crime, but it is becoming clearer that the victims are those who are forced to engage in the activity, regardless of what form that coercion takes.

That raises a conundrum: if the act of prostitution is a criminal act, how can law enforcement handle it without regarding the people committing the act as criminals?

Those who really benefit from commission of the crime of prostitution are the traffickers, and thanks to greater societal understanding, they are increasingly being prosecuted.

But in the meantime, society has a whole set of victims who are difficult to categorize without that thorough understanding. Often the situation is more complex than the stereotypical story that girls are kidnapped or lured with false promises, though that does happen.

After being removed from the life, some victims resist changing. It is very common for traffickers to mistreat their prostitutes physically and emotionally, but some traffickers also engender feelings of love through capitalizing on psychological hooks in their victims. Some of the trafficked girls may even feel like they are living the good life.

Panelist Carmen Kucinich, a victim specialist at the Federal Bureau of Investigation stationed in Grand Rapids who has worked for 12 years with such victims, said, “With most of them, it takes time. It’s not uncommon for our children to have a high level of distrust for law enforcement. But you check in with them, let them know this is not a one-time offer, keep your promises, and they’ll often come around.”

She emphasized that limited resources make long-term commitment to help exceedingly difficult.

Kucinich not only acts directly to provide services, she also speaks all over West Michigan to hundreds of schools and social groups.

Panelist Andy Soper stressed even more strongly the need to view sex trafficking victims with compassion and empathy. He has years of experience practicing that, and he understands that the shame victims feel can stand in the way of seeking healing. “But shame,
according to [Dr.] Brené Brown, cannot survive in the face of empathy,” he said.

Muskegon Police Officer Jodi Dibble, who chairs the Lakeshore Human Trafficking Task Force, has a special interest: she adopted her niece whose parents trafficked her.

Dibble said that her niece’s worst problem has been not wanting to talk about her experience because she does not want to relive it. She notes that a social worker from The Hope Project, which counsels young victims while raising funds to open a home for them, has been able to get through to her niece and help her a great deal.

So, in addition to all she already does, Dibble is now vice-president of The Hope Project.

At the same time as her soft-edged emotional response to her niece’s situation, Dibble has a cold and clear view about trafficking. In
response to a question from someone who had read an opinion that legalizing prostitution might help, Dibble said, “The whole premise of human trafficking is that somebody wants to make a profit over someone else’s body – you can use it over and over and over. So even it you legalize it, that’s not going to go away.”

Finally, E. Christopher Johnson spoke of his journey from  vice president and general counsel at General Motors?North America to a moment of truth about human trafficking in the red light district of Mumbai, India, to the founding of the Center for Justice, Rights & Dignity, after serving on the faculty of WMU-Cooley where he started focusing on these issues.

The center works with reducing the “demand” side of prostitution, gathering and disseminating data, and with the Michigan Abolitionist  Project on awareness and support.

Johnson also talked about labor trafficking, and the need to work with companies of conscience on eliminating slave labor from their supply chains.

He advised visiting to find out how many slaves “work” for you, making the products you use.