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Is the Super Bowl the “largest human trafficking incident” in the United States?

(This concludes the excerpts from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery, I’ve been posting for the past weeks. I hope you have found these useful, and insightful. Human trafficking – and the response to trafficking – are both complex topics that require study and understanding if we want be be effective in our actions. I end this series with perhaps the most common myth about human trafficking as we just a few days away from the Super Bowl. As mentioned, multi-agency task forces are formed to operate in the week up to, and including, Super Bowl weekend. As I write this colleagues have already initiated operations in Minneapolis, and with success.)

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In the run-up to the 2011 Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas, the Texas Attorney General (now Governor) Greg Abbott made several comments regarding human trafficking and the Super Bowl including, “It’s commonly known as the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.”[i]

Like any good myth, this comment went viral and took on a life of its own. It is now common in the weeks before the Super Bowl to see news articles and social media posts promoting this myth. Yet little evidence exists supporting this claim.

The Arizona State University School of Social Work closely examined human trafficking surrounding both the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey and the 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona.[ii] Though the results were inconclusive, this study includes a useful examination of online advertising, levels of demand, and other topics related to online advertising of commercial sex. The report, issued in February 2015, states,

In years past, media reports have speculated that the Super Bowl was one of the most prominent national events where sex trafficking occurs; however, researchers have yet to substantiate these statements. While there is no empirical evidence that the Super Bowl causes an increase in sex trafficking compared to other days and events throughout the year, there was a noticeable increase in those activities intended to locate victims from both law enforcement and service provision organizations.

The statement includes a significant observation: the increase in law enforcement and VSP activities aimed at locating victims. Any increase in effort to locate victims and traffickers should increase results. This—by itself—should not be seen as proof of an increase in human trafficking around the Super Bowl.

In recent years temporary task forces have been created within the host city to focus on human trafficking, typically operating from the weekend before the game through Super Bowl Sunday, about ten days. The most basic research methodology would demand a control study with the same effort being made, for the same amount of time, in the same or a similar city. The Arizona State University study points to this lack of control groups and other research challenges that need to be addressed.

Exacerbating this myth are headlines like this from a 2015 Los Angeles Times article, “National sex trafficking sting nets nearly 600 arrests before Super Bowl.”[iii] The casual reader may believe the article cites arrests in the host city, but the article actually addresses sting operations in 17 states during the two weeks before the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl, like any other major event in a large city, provides an opportunity for crime to increase, including sex trafficking. Dispelling this myth is not to say trafficking doesn’t occur at all at the Super Bowl, but focusing on specific events can give the impression that anti-trafficking activities are important only at specific times. But we know the truth: Sex and labor trafficking occur every day, and efforts need to be consistent every day of the year.

[i] Jervis, A. (2011, February 1). Child sex rings spike during Super Bowl week. USA TODAY. Available at http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2011-01-31-child-prostitution-super-bowl_N.htm

[ii] Roe-Sepowitz, D., & Gallagher, J. (2015). Exploring the impact of the Super Bowl on sex trafficking. Phoenix: Arizona State University School of Social Work. Available at https://www.mccaininstitute.org/programs/humanitarian-action/exploring-the-impact-of-the-super-bowl-on-sex-trafficking-2015

[iii] Queally, J. (2015, February 2). National sex trafficking sting nets nearly 600 arrests before Super Bowl. Los Angeles Times. Available at http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-sex-trafficking-sting-super-bowl-20150202-story.html

How Do I Learn About the Trafficking Response in My Community?

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)

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Determining the current response efforts in your community can be easy or difficult, but is the first step for an abolitionist interested in getting involved.

If you are lucky, a quick Internet search for human trafficking task force (or coalition), human trafficking events, or human trafficking victim assistance along with the name of your city or community will return websites for local organizations involved in the response. Contact them and ask to speak with the person involved in anti-trafficking work. Often, in multisector teams, this person works under the title coordinator. If you find an organization involved in anti-trafficking efforts they should be able to connect you with others including the local task force or coalition if one exists. Ask them what response activities are in place and how you can get involved.

For clarification, though multisector team members work closely with one another, most of the time they do not physically share the same office. Typically, team members operate from the office of their organization, and the members come together at monthly or quarterly meetings. But as anti-trafficking efforts grow, more task forces strive for the best practice of co-location, in which local and federal law enforcement officers, a trafficking victim advocate, and the task force coordinator share office space for ease of communication and coordination.

In addition to searching for local anti-trafficking organizations, connect with other members of the community. For example, if you know a local police officer or deputy, ask what they know about their agency’s response to trafficking. Attending public events focusing on human trafficking and related topics is an excellent way to become involved. These events usually highlight the work of local organizations. After attending several of these events, a clear picture of the current response efforts should emerge.

Contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (888-373-7888) and ask if they know of organizations in your area. FBOs (faith-based organizations) are also good resources for learning about local efforts.

If you cannot find any anti-trafficking efforts in your community, start one yourself! If current data doesn’t exist in your community, perform an assessment. Contact all of the agencies, NGOs, and FBOs you can find and ask them whether they have served or assisted victims of trafficking. Collect as much data as you can (without asking for any personal information about the victims) with the promise to share your findings with every organization, local law enforcement, and the press. This is a great way to initiate a community response to trafficking. You can also contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center for data on incidents they have collected and information on trafficking laws within your state.

If you cannot find local events, organize a day- or weekend-long conference. This is the best way to bring together and highlight the efforts of local organizations, which may be too busy to plan and coordinate an event.

A common error made by passionate abolitionists is launching efforts without taking the time to learn what is already in place, possibly duplicating efforts, or more likely, launching an effort before the need exists. For example, many people wish to aid victims of trafficking by opening a shelter. But for a shelter to succeed, there must be identified victims, and the agencies identifying the victims must know about the shelter and be confident in the shelter staff’s background, expertise, and reliability. Forming the partnerships required to create a shelter takes incredible effort. In addition, the facility and shelter staff may have to meet certain state regulations and criteria before opening. Do the research before embarking on any endeavor, however well-intended.

In all cases, abolitionists should continue to study trafficking and response practices both within the United States and internationally; there is always more to learn, and a great idea in one location may work just as well in another.

Where some people find frustration in the lack of anti-trafficking efforts, others see opportunity. One of the most exciting aspects of the anti-trafficking movement is the field is wide open to new ideas and efforts. Many creative and passionate abolitionists have launched collaborative efforts in their hometown or on the other side of the world. Many have created new ways of fighting slavery. Find your passion, align it with your skills, and make something happen!

Two Important Human Trafficking Grant Opportunities

This is important if you have an interest in obtaining federal funding for a Human Trafficking Task Force, or for serving victims of trafficking. The two grants listed below are the largest grant programs in the country. This year they have been released earlier than usual! That means the deadline for submissions are earlier – late February!!

The Enhanced Collaborative Model to Combat Human Trafficking grant is the “task force” grant; it funds a local law enforcement agency and a local victim services provider for a total of $1.5 million for three years. You must have MOUs with the USAO, and either the FBI or HSI. Submission Due: Feb 27th

The Comprehensive Services to Victims of All Forms of Human Trafficking funds a service provider up to $750,000 for three years. Submission Due: Feb 21st

Please excuse a little self-promotion: Since 2012 I have been a peer-reviewer on the Enhanced Collaborative Model grant (that means I’m scoring them). One of the most common errors (and, consequently, loss of points) is due to the writer’s lack of understanding of many general issues within human trafficking, particularly on the issue of statistics. If you, or your grant writer, needs to enhance your knowledge of trafficking, I recommend you read my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery. The Kindle version is 50% off during January. It will help you write a much better submission.

So if you want to get federal funding (or continue your funding if you are already a part of either of these programs), get to work! Time is very short this year!

Best wishes for successful submissions!

John

Human Trafficking Estimates: Local is Best, Part 1

Over the past several weeks we’ve examined the problem with most estimates related toStatistics human trafficking: They are very broad, hard to obtain, and often the data supporting them is unreliable. So what estimates should anti-trafficking organizations use?

The very best data reflects the work actually performed. Victim services providers (VSPs) who render assistance know exactly how many victims they have served. Law enforcement agencies know exactly how many cases of trafficking they have investigated, number of cases prosecuted, and number of offenders convicted. This sounds simple, but the reality is more complex.

For example: A VSP may identify an individual as a victim of both trafficking and domestic violence. But if the VSP has a policy of “client defined services,” (which means, if the client [victim] chooses only to receive services as a victim of domestic violence, that is the only victimization data the VSP collects) the human trafficking victimization may never be reported.

Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have their own challenges with data. For instance, prosecutors may choose (for a variety of reasons) to charge an offender with criminal statutes that do not include human trafficking, even though the case is exactly that. In commercial sex exploitation cases, prosecutors may choose to charge pimping and pandering, for example. Yet, in the perspective of the prosecutor this is a case of human trafficking. They may even refer to this case in public as a human trafficking conviction. This explains the discrepancy when the number of convictions reported by law enforcement and prosecutors don’t always match the data from a state’s database of criminal convictions. Those who understand the dynamics of trafficking will call the case human trafficking, but if the conviction was actually for pimping, only the pimping conviction will appear in the database.

So how is a community, or a region, supposed to collect this data in an attempt to derive meaningful numbers of victim identified or served, along with cases investigated, prosecuted, and offenders convicted?

First, and critically, there needs to be a spirit of collaboration and a willingness to share the data with other stakeholders! This can be a huge stumbling block for some individuals and agencies due to the issues described above (or others); a hesitancy to report data based upon experience or observation instead of empirical data (an example would be police identifying a brothel where they know the women are coerced, but none of the women give statements to the fact – therefore the case will not move forward as a trafficking case), or; on grounds of confidentiality – the laws that state who information can be shared with, and what types of information can be shared.

While these problems may seem insurmountable, they have been overcome through effective collaboration. And while it may be impossible to say how many trafficking victims exist within the United States, many effective collaborative teams can give very good numbers reflecting the work they have done within their community or region.

In the next post we will examine some ways to categorize data, and what information truly needs to be shared, when the goal is for a community to be able to answer this simple question: How much trafficking is occurring in our community?

Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on this topic?

(The discussion of estimates related to human trafficking, the challenges of gathering accurate numbers, and how many of these estimates are incorrectly used is addressed in The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery.)

Baseball and Human Trafficking: Unlikely Lessons on Slavery From America’s Favorite Pastime

baseballThe baseball season is upon us once again. Fans are pouring into stadiums to cheer their favorite teams, while sports writers wax poetic on the rejuvenating powers of a new season, freshly mown baseball fields, and the simple joys of a day at the ball park. Every spring, baseball offers us the hope of fresh starts, clean air and sunshine, and an unapologetic opportunity to enjoy hotdogs and beer.

Few fans would ever suspect a connection between baseball and the dark world of human trafficking; where victims are exploited through their labor, or commercial sex acts, by means of force, fraud, or coercion. Fewer still would suspect we can learn two valuable lessons about the complexities of human trafficking when viewed through the prism of America’s favorite pastime.

The first lesson we can learn is that anyone—even professional athletes—can be exploited when a trafficker instills fear in their victim.

Last February, certified Major League Baseball Player Association agent Bart Hernandez was indicted in federal court on charges of human trafficking and conspiracy, stemming from his alleged involvement in bringing Cuban baseball players into the United States who, in some cases, have received lucrative contracts. The indictment focuses on the case of Seattle Mariners center fielder Leonys Martin. Hernandez allegedly conspired with others to hold Martin and his family hostage while he negotiated Martin’s first MLB contract. Hernandez may have also coerced Martin into signing a contract which paid Hernandez a much higher agent fee than is usual. If true, Hernandez profited through Martin’s labor (playing baseball), after using force, fraud, or coercion to gain Martin’s compliance. This is human trafficking. If Hernandez is found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in prison. Lest we think this is an isolated case, associates of Hernandez are already serving time in federal prison for similar offenses.

Though trafficking cases involving professional athletes are rare, it illustrates an important concept in combating modern slavery: Human trafficking is limited only by the imagination of the trafficker, and the trafficker’s coercive skill in manipulating their victim through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. If true, Hernandez invented a ploy to exploit a talented baseball player, and by separating Martin from his family and then holding them hostage forced Martin into signing a contract favorable to Hernandez. Martin, a highly skilled athlete, may have been victimized while on the path to playing in the major league—just as other talented and smart people have fallen victim to traffickers.

The second connection we can make between baseball and human trafficking is examining the level of performance that equates with success. Major league players who can maintain a .250 batting average (getting a hit 1 in 4 times at bat) will likely have a successful career, given they possess the requisite defensive skills. A batter with a .300 average will be among a team’s better hitters. “Success,” in the case of a batter, equates with failing far more often than actually achieving their goal of getting a hit. This success rate is quite similar to those who assist victims of human trafficking, especially those who have been victimized through commercial sexual exploitation.

It is an unfortunate reality that many victims of trafficking do not immediately embrace those who offer to help them, whether law enforcement or victim services providers. Victims are often emotionally bound to their exploiter through the same fear that was used to exploit them, through a misconceived notion of “love” for their exploiter, or because the victim lacks trust in the social and legal systems that have failed to protect them in the past.

Ask a police officer or victim advocate experienced in working with sex trafficking victims how often they are successful in removing a trafficking victim from “the life” of forced commercial sex, and they will likely answer 1 in 4. Professionals skilled in working with sex trafficking victims achieve success the same percentage of time as batters. Sadly, it is not uncommon for the same victim to have multiple contacts with professionals who are ready, willing, and able to help, before they accept it. Tragically, some never do.

But does this stop the police officer, victim advocate, or community activist from continually going to bat for victims of modern slavery? Of course not. Dedicated professionals—just like the athletes who play on emerald fields under a spring sun—accept that success comes in a minority of their attempts. Abolitionists who oppose trafficking in all its form are not defeated by success rates of 1 in 4; they rejoice in it. And like the baseball player who “hits for average,” they take pride in the singles and doubles they hit, yet rarely experience the thrill of a home run.

The response to human trafficking, like baseball, is much more complex than it appears. The trafficking victim advocate, and batter, employs a nuanced approach to increase their chances of success, if only to a small degree. But they are both professionals in their tasks—in responding to human trafficking, and baseball—and they are the heart of the game. Their tenacity, not their high average, is their star quality. They are diligent, consistent, and dependable. And they take pride in their success, even if only a quarter of the time they step to the plate. We applaud them both!

Doing THIS Hurts Your Anti-Trafficking Credibility!

HTlogo_Z-SJPDThe biggest mistake an anti-trafficking organization can make is quoting – or promoting – incorrect statistics. And using incorrect, or unfounded, stats is all-to-common within the anti-trafficking community. Why does this occur and, more importantly, why does it matter?

First, a disclaimer: I have used bad information myself in the past. In the early days of the San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force (which I managed from 2006-2011) few estimates existed and we used what was available. I have also fallen into the trap of repeating what others (many of whom I respected) were saying without verifying the quality of the data or source, or questioning the context in which the statistics were offered. But with time, I’ve become much more critical about the statistics or studies I quote. Even our use of language leads to misrepresenting information.

For example, have you heard someone say (or post online), “The average age of entry into forced prostitution is 12-14 years of age.” But what does the word “average” imply? Using age 13 as the mid-point of 12-14, “average” implies that for every victim who is forced into prostitution at age 16, there must be a victim who was forced into prostitution at age 10. For every victim age 17, there must be a victim nine years of age. When we stop and examine the implication of using the word “average,” we begin to see a potential problem with this quote. While no definitive studies exist to confirm the exact average age of entry into forced prostitution, based upon my conversations with many anti-trafficking professionals across the country, a more reliable statement would be that many victims are forced into the sex trade as young as 12-14 years of age. (Of course, there are always the exceptions of very young victims, but the point is we must be concerned with reliable information.)

A decade ago it was common to see this statement: “14,500-17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year.” This stat – based on a vague analysis – was heavily used by United States government agencies. Though it was dropped from use several years ago it can still be found in use, often repeated by persons or organizations who have not taken the time to verify the source or think about its implication.

And why are we so dependent upon statistics to promote our anti-trafficking work, pass legislation, or raise funds? Agencies who support victims of domestic violence or sexual assault rarely offer big number statistics to justify their existence or their work. But, somehow, early in the evolution of the response to modern slavery statistics became part and parcel with justifying our response to slavery. This needs to change.

Why is this topic important? If you have not noticed, in the past few years the media has begun to question the validity of such statistics. Some have been bold enough to claim human trafficking is far less a problem than those of us within the anti-trafficking community believe. So we are being challenged to be more responsible with our claims.

At the organizational level, we risk losing credibility with our audiences, community, and financial supporters (or potential supporters) when we offer stats that have little to no merit behind them. Would you support an organization if you realized they were putting out incorrect information? If an organization can’t be relied upon to use current and correct information on a topic, would you trust them with our donor dollars? Simple things enhance – or detract – from our credibility!

This may seem like a minor issue, but it isn’t. We need to maintain the highest levels of integrity and credibility in our response to human trafficking. What we say in public, and post online, reflects upon the entire anti-trafficking community. (This is one reason why the use – and misuse – of statistics is closely examined in my book The Essential Abolitionist.)

For the record, the U.S. government now acknowledges the lack of solid data regarding trafficking; the Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States (2012), a joint effort of the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Homeland Security, includes no estimate of the number of victims within the United States! Instead, it openly recognizes the difficulty in measuring the magnitude of trafficking and calls for more definitive study. Take a close look at the statistics (and the sources) you use in your presentations or post online.

So, what data should we use? I’ll examine that topic in my next post. Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on this topic?

 

The Essential Abolitionist: The story behind the book

IMG_1844With The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery now on sale, I’m often asked about the writing and publishing process. Most often, I’m asked, where did I get the idea to write the book? This is the short story behind the book.

Since 2006 I’ve been involved in the response to human trafficking when I was tasked with managing the San Jose Police Department’s Human Trafficking Task Force. We were part of a nationwide program of task forces funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. When the program was launched in late-2005 it was the first effort to create and sustain multi-sector task forces involving local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) who provide services to victims of human trafficking. Being a brand new effort, each of the task forces was left to design their own plan to achieve the program’s four goals: Identify and rescue victims of trafficking; prosecute offenders; train local law enforcement, and; raise public awareness.

Our task force launched an aggressive campaign of educating the public (mostly by speaking at public events), and creating training programs for law enforcement and victim services providers. So from the start we were being asked lots of questions about human trafficking and how best to respond.

For me, this led to more and more opportunities to speak, train, and advise, usually with partners from other anti-trafficking sectors. What I began to realize over time was that people were usually asking the same questions, regardless if they were the general public, students, community activists, or even professionals with a role in the response to human trafficking.

About two years ago the idea came to me that the most-often asked questions could be condensed into a book, written in a style any reader would find engaging and valuable. What would set this book apart from many of the other excellent books focusing on human trafficking would be my experience putting this knowledge to work, and my experience helping other organizations enhance their response efforts. The book would focus on real-world challenges faced every day by those actively responding to modern slavery. After drafting an initial list of about 100 questions, I asked several colleagues their opinion of the book’s concept and the draft questions. I received enthusiastic feedback about the potential value of the concept, and most of my colleagues told me that they were routinely asked the same questions!

HOW TO MAKE THE BOOK EVEN BETTER?

There is one indisputable fact when it comes to fighting human trafficking: No single sector, no single organization, and certainly no single individual can do the work alone. Effective collaboration is critical. (Collaboration is also one of the greatest challenges faced in the response to human trafficking.)

So, again, I reached out to colleagues from across the country, each with expertise in their own area of responding to human trafficking. I will always be grateful that every contributor I invited to join me on the project quickly agreed. How much better is the book than if I had written it alone? It is immensely better! The contributors come from almost every sector involved in the response to trafficking. And though some of their topics seem focused on a particular sector, they crafted their contributions in such a way that every reader can gain knowledge, and a better understanding of the challenges faced by all. You can read the biographies of the contributors here.

The writing and editing process reduced the original list of 100 questions to 78; each a topic of value to anyone interested or involved in the response to human trafficking. The questions address the essential knowledge we should all possess.

So now you know the story behind the book!

Let me know what questions you have about the book, the writing process, or human trafficking in general. I’ll try to answer them in the comments or in a future blog post!

John