Conference speakers urge advocacy on behalf of trafficking victims

August 15, 2015


WASHINGTON, D.C. — A lack of public understanding of human trafficking and problems with enforcement of trafficking laws have allowed this form of modern-day slavery to become prevalent — there are more people in slavery today worldwide than at any time in human history, according to speakers at a conference on human trafficking at the Catholic University of America here July 9 and 10.

Conference presenters said that with advocacy efforts, collaborative initiatives, awareness building and grassroots work, organizations and individuals can help combat servitude in the U.S.

Rev. Peter Heltzel of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) leads a prayer at a march in Columbus, Ohio, in July, connected with the Campaign for Fair Food. That campaign from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in part calls for adherence to a code of conduct that has safeguards against human trafficking in farm labor. The coalition was represented by a speaker at the July 9 and 10 human trafficking conference at the Catholic University of America.
Image source: Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Speakers at the conference "Answering Pope Francis's Call: An American Catholic Response to Modern-Day Slavery" explained how widespread human trafficking is in the U.S., how it operates, how to identify victims and how to help them. Keynote speakers included a human trafficking survivor and a former farm worker, both of whom advocate for trafficking victims. Other presenters included human trafficking experts from academia; human rights, social work, policy, law and governmental sectors; and Catholic religious orders and organizations. The gathering attracted about 300 attendees from across the U.S., including workers and advocates from Catholic parishes, social service agencies and health care organizations, as well as religious leaders working on the human trafficking issue.

Papal challenge
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Catholic Charities USA; Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Washington; and the university's National Catholic School of Social Service co-sponsored the conference in response to a papal challenge to act on behalf of human trafficking victims. During the April 2014 International Conference on Human Trafficking at the Vatican, Pope Francis characterized human trafficking as "a crime against humanity" and "an open wound on the body of contemporary society." His attention to the issue inspired this year's U.S. conference.

Human trafficking conference speaker Tina Frundt was trafficked into the sex trade as a teenager. She founded Courtney's House, an organization to help other victims.

Keynote speakers Tina Frundt and Gerardo Reyes Chavez explained how they now fight the practice and help victims. Frundt was 14 when an older man lured her from her Chicago home and forced her into child prostitution. She later was incarcerated for one year in juvenile detention for her involvement. She and other conference speakers underscored that victims should never be treated as criminals, as she was. She emerged from prison without any resources or referrals for services. Reflecting on these hardships, Frundt told conference attendees, "The impact of nonjudgment is spectacular; places that don't judge victims help from inside out."

Frundt escaped the sex trade and in August 2008, she founded the Washington, D.C.-based Courtney's House, which helps victims break away from sex trafficking, offers them and their families shelter and support, trains community officials and organizes awareness campaigns.

Chavez was working as a farm laborer when he came into contact with human trafficking victims who had been helped by the Immokalee, Fla.-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-based human rights organization. Chavez now works with that coalition.

He told conference-goers that there is a "lack of recognition about what's going on in our own supply chains" when it comes to the amount of food produced in the U.S. by enslaved workers. He described the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food Program, which unites farmworkers, farms and retailers in ensuring that no food at organizations certified by the program has been grown or harvested by trafficking victims. The organization's focus is on securing just wages for workers in Florida's tomato fields.

Like Chavez, other conference presenters said there is a lack of awareness about trafficking in the U.S. John Garvey, Catholic University of America president, said that human trafficking "may be closer to us than we thought, or would like to admit." He told the audience it is possible that many Americans' lack of awareness of trafficking can be attributed to the fact that today's slavery differs from the public's antiquated notion of bondage. Victims of modern-day slavery no longer are targeted on the basis of theological, physiological and racial differences as they often were in the past, he said. Nor are victims repressed using shackles and chains. The victims of modern-day slavery are held captive by manipulation, psychological abuse and substance addiction.

Conference speaker Terry Coonan, associate professor of criminology at Florida State University and executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, described the scope of the problem internationally, explaining that 2.4 million enslaved individuals generate $32 billion for their captors annually. He said human trafficking has become the second most lucrative form of business in organized crime. The first is drug trafficking.

Righteous antislavery advocacy
Presenter Sheldon Zhang, professor of sociology at San Diego State University, described top challenges hindering anti-trafficking efforts. One problem: legal definitions of trafficking, victims and traffickers are inadequate in the U.S, often hindering prosecution efforts and complicating affirmative defense provisions. For example, the legal definition of "forced labor" found within applicable U.S. code does not cover fraud or coercion as means of force that can be punished under federal law. Also, government agencies, law enforcement personnel and community members have challenges building trust with victims, especially those who want to move on with their lives and avoid the publicity and embarrassment associated with legal proceedings.

Multiple conference speakers lauded women religious for their decades-long involvement in combatting human trafficking. Sr. Margaret Nacke, CSJ, is coordinator of the Bakhita Initiative, a nationwide network of Catholic sisters involved in efforts to end human trafficking. She said, "Catholic sisters try to (make) the invisible visible." Sr. Nacke said through efforts including U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking and the Nuns on the Bus advocacy tour highlighting the evils of trafficking, sisters are raising awareness of trafficking in the U.S.

Conference speakers said it is necessary to further galvanize the Catholic response to human trafficking. Dana Davenport, associate director for social concerns at the Maryland Catholic Conference of Annapolis, Md., described ways to advocate for change in legislative policy at the state level, including by mobilizing parishes. This can be done by hosting advocacy, lobbying and letter-writing days, she said. Organizations also can collaborate with local Catholic conferences and join existing coalitions and grassroots efforts to unite against trafficking. She also suggested that individuals and organizations directly contact state legislators to advocate anti-trafficking policy.

"Human trafficking is the human rights issue of our time," said Mary Leary, professor of law at Catholic University of America. "We all have a sacrifice to make — even if it's something as small as eating higher-cost tomatoes."


Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.