Victims of Human Trafficking Need Help

By Margaret Howard
Published on January 21, 2013 in the St. Louis Beacon

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As the nation marks, this month, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my hope is that our elected leaders and all Americans will take action to end modern-day slavery and human trafficking. For many years, we celebrated the end of slavery in the world, but now we’ve gone backward.

The U.S. State Department estimates that more than 27 million people are victims of human trafficking, a $32 billion worldwide black market industry.

Many are surprised to learn there is human trafficking in Missouri. The Western Federal Judicial District of Missouri reports it has prosecuted more cases of human trafficking than any other federal district in the United States. Yet, our resources for victims of this crime are few and far between, and most first responders lack the proper training.

The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) is the key to greater resources, but it was allowed to expire in 2011. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., signed on as a co-sponsor of the TVPA in December, but Congress did not get the job done. I call on her now to exert leadership toward securing its quick reauthorization in 2013, and I urge Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to get on board as well. Our civic leaders must also make our intentions clear: We want the TVPA passed.

As a social worker, advocate and mental health professional, I have a unique perspective on human trafficking. My perspective also includes a vantage point that is harder to speak from, because I am a survivor of this terrible crime.

I don’t often tell my story, because doing so is re-traumatizing and because there is still much stigma around being a female victim of a sexual crime. Once in a while I make the treacherous voyage to tell my story when the higher good demands it. This is one of those times, because passing the TVPA is that important. And because the services I did not get almost killed me.

At the age of 13, I was kidnapped here in Missouri, forcefully drugged and brutally held in a room for five days. I do not want to write about what happened in that room. Suffice it to say there was someone making a monetary profit off my suffering.

Once I escaped, I was picked up by the police and held in a cell overnight with no food, water or toilet access. The perpetrators were not sought or charged, and hospital personnel treated me with open disgust and blame. The adults in my life made clear that whatever had happened to me was my own fault, and I was denied psychotherapy until I could pay for it myself.

I did not tell anyone until I was almost 30 years old, and then only once. It was many years before I was able to speak of it again, but I did so because the ridiculously negligent way my case was handled is still the wicked template for how American children are typically treated post-trafficking. For example, trafficked children are still arrested and called “child prostitutes” when they show up at the ER – sometimes while the trafficker sits waiting for their release.

What will fix this? Most important, more training for medical personnel, law enforcement, crisis lines, social service providers, foster parents, teachers and others. We also need more services for victims and prosecution of the traffickers. The TVPA reauthorization provides for expanding all of these efforts.

Men, women and children around the world – and here at home – are trafficked every day into the commercial sex industry, sweatshops, farm labor, domestic work and other low-wage industries. The lack of public awareness about this crime prevents victims and survivors from getting help.

It’s past time for all of us to call upon our political leaders to pass the TVPA, our strongest tool for fighting modern-day slavery in the United States.

Let Missouri lead the way.

Margaret Howard, MFA, LMSW, is a therapist and consultant at Mother Ocean Transformation Services in St. Louis and a consultant for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, Los Angeles.