States are not doing enough to stop modern-day slavery, victims' advocates say. Shutterstock photo

Advocacy efforts have helped to raise awareness in recent years of the widespread prevalence of human trafficking within the United States, but legislators and law enforcement are still playing a game of catch up when it comes to tackling modern-day slavery. 

Since Congress passed the first federal anti-trafficking law in 2000, efforts at the state and federal level to stop traffickers and protect victims — the majority of whom are women and children — have increased dramatically. But a recent report by faith-based advocacy group Shared Hope International finds that despite improvements, most states are severely lacking when it comes to comprehensive anti-trafficking laws. 

Though the crime’s hidden nature makes accurate statistics difficult to come by, the Justice Department has estimated that as many as 17,500 people are trafficked within the United States each year for forced labor or prostitution. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, just over 2,500 suspected incidents of trafficking were investigated by federally funded task forces between 2008 and 2010, with only 527 victims being identified during that time period. 

Poor performance

At the state level, Shared Hope’s report finds widespread failures in the law to protect child sex trafficking victims and to prosecute traffickers effectively. The report assigned each state a letter grade based on their efforts in six different areas, with 41 states receiving a grade of “D” or “F.” 

The poor performance of so many states comes as no surprise, said Samantha Vardaman, senior director of Shared Hope International. 

“The United States only began recognizing this as a domestic issue within the past decade,” Vardaman told Our Sunday Visitor. “Legislation has yet to catch up with the growing knowledge and awareness of the significant impact this crime has on the moral fabric, physical health and economic prosperity of our nation.” 

Looking at the nation as a whole, she said, the biggest failure has been addressing the demand that continues to fuel sex trafficking. 

“We found that many states have large loopholes in criminal provisions for demand, making it not only easier for a buyer to avoid serious penalty but also providing little incentive for law enforcement to pursue investigation and criminal proceeding for such minimal charges,” she said. 

Dispelling myths

Several states, including Ohio, Texas and Massachusetts, have recently passed new laws designed to combat trafficking. The states’ Catholic conferences have been at the forefront of efforts to improve existing laws. 

Jennifer Allmon, associate director of the Texas Catholic Conference, told OSV that there has been improvement in the state’s laws, with broad anti-trafficking bills being passed last year. “But in terms of the impact of some of the trafficking laws on immigrants and on helping target who is a victim of trafficking,” she said, “there is still some wide disagreement.” 

Some proposed bills have failed to classify trafficked minors as innocent victims, Allmon said, while other attempts have been made to label any transportation of an undocumented immigrant as trafficking. And some legislators are even hesitant to grant legal status to international trafficking victims for fear that it will encourage others to use trafficking as a means to citizenship, a premise that Allmon finds highly suspect. 

“We have to say, ‘Do you really believe that someone would purposely get kidnapped and subject themselves to exploitation for citizenship?’” she said. “So we have to dispel those myths and deal with misconceptions that people have.” 

Victim assistance

Catholic agencies have also taken an active role in partnering with state officials to provide comprehensive legal and social services to trafficking victims. 

Under a New York law that passed in 2008, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rockville Centre now receives case referrals directly from the state, which has greatly improved the process of serving victims, said Carmen Maquilon, director of immigrant and refugee services for Catholic Charities. Before the law’s implementation, the agency could not aid a trafficking victim until first communicating with federal officials. 

When law enforcement identifies victims, Catholic Charities can provide them with everything from a lawyer to trauma counseling to basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. And Catholic Charities has an advantage over government agencies, Maquilon said, because victims are more likely to cooperate with a Church-affiliated organization. 

“It takes sometimes a few days to convince them to talk to us. In some cases, it might be a few months,” she said. “But trust is of the essence to provide services. Once they trust us, they become more willing to cooperate in the investigation and to give information to law enforcement about their case. 

“It takes time,” she added. “And it depends on what type of trafficking they’ve been through. But the most important thing is their mental health and dealing with the trauma they’ve been through.” 

Funding challenges

Yet even with Catholic Charities’ success in aiding victims, Maquilon said the program is still in danger of losing its state funding due to budget cuts. Allmon added that in Texas, financial limitations have also prevented the implementation of training programs for law enforcement to help them identify potential trafficking victims. 

At the same time, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services was denied a federal grant to support its anti-trafficking program by the Department of Health and Human Services, which cited the Church’s refusal to provide abortion and contraception to victims. Catholic Charities in Portland, Ore., also lost a federal grant to fund its program for similar reasons. 

With such obstacles limiting the services available to victims, Vardaman said that it is increasingly important to raise awareness of the issue of trafficking and to promote better policies to deter traffickers. 

“Advocates must make this a priority issue in their state,” she said. Given time and financial restraints for legislators, she added, the most effective strategy will be to push for laws that create stringent penalties for those who exploit victims. 

“We believe the largest impact will be made when legislators target the crime at the source,” Vardaman said. 

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.