Thursday, July 30, 2015

United Nations Declares Today as World Day Against Trafficking in Human Persons

Every country in the world - including our own - is affected by the heinous crime of human trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit, or destination for victims.

The United Nations General Assembly has designated July 30 as World Day Against Trafficking in Persons to "raise awareness of the situation of victims of human trafficking and the promotion and protection of their rights."  See the reprint of the insightful editorial by Yury Fedetov, Executive Director of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime below to learn how YOU can help:

"Conflict, terrorism, economic turmoil, natural calamities, disease: we are living in an era of unprecedented crises and troubles, as the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned. Record numbers of people are fleeing war and persecution, and the international community is grappling with acute migration challenges in the Mediterranean, the Balkans, in the Andaman Sea, Latin America and Africa.

For human traffickers, these hardships represent business opportunities. Many millions of vulnerable women, men and children are being cruelly exploited - coerced into working in factories, fields and brothels or begging on the street; pushed into armed combat or forced marriages; trafficked so their organs can be harvested and sold.

More and more detected victims of trafficking are children, especially girls under the age of 19. No place in the world is safe: the latest Global Report on Trafficking in Persons by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that the trafficking victims identified in 124 states were citizens of 152 countries. And the traffickers are getting away with it. Over the past decade there has been no significant improvement in the overall criminal justice response to this crime. In the period covered by the Global Report, some 40 percent of countries reported less than 10 convictions per year. Some 15 percent did not record a single conviction.

The world is facing many grave challenges, and our  resources are strained. But we cannot allow criminals to exploit these crises and take advantage of desperation and suffering. You might wonder what one person can do about an entrenched pervasive crime like human trafficking. But we can all do our part.

  • As a first step, you can educate yourself about human trafficking and help others become aware of the problem. You can find out more on our website for World Day against Trafficking in Persons.
  • You can urge lawmakers and businesses to take this crime seriously, and to take action. For governments, that means joining the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its Protocol on Trafficking, and putting these frameworks into action in national legislation. Effective implementation of the Convention and Protocol - backed with the necessary resources - can help to protect trafficking victims, promote cooperation between countries, and ensure that criminal traffickers, wherever they are, are brought to justice.
  • As a consumer, employee or business owner, you can advocate for measures to prevent the use of forced labor in operations and supply chains, and eliminate abusive and fraudulent recruitment practices that may lead to trafficking.
  • Finally, you can encourage governments, companies and individuals to support the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons. 
Financed solely through voluntary contributions, the Trust Fund works with NGO partners across the globe to identify women, children and men who have been exploited by traffickers, and give them the assistance, protection and support they need. Since 2011, the Trust Fund has helped some 2,000 victims annually, providing shelter, basic health services, vocational training and schooling, as well as psychological, legal and economic support. 

The Trust Fund has been able to assist girls like Skye, who was trafficked to India when she  was just thirteen. After escaping back home to Nepal, she sought help from NGO ShaktiSamuha. She went after her trafficker in court and went back to school. Skye won her case and graduated, and now works as a staff member at ShaktiSamuha, helping other trafficking victims become survivors. There are many more young girls and trafficking survivors like Skye who need and deserve our support.

July 30 is United Nations World Day against Trafficking in Persons, established to raise awareness of the plight of human trafficking victims, and promote and protect their rights.  This Thursday, let's take this opportunity to give hope to trafficking victims and pledge to do our part and help end this terrible crime."  

Yury Fedotov, Executive Director, UN's Office on Drugs and Crime

What is Living Better?

Earlier this year while driving within our great state of Michigan, I saw the slogan 'Save Money. Live Better.' on the truck trailer of a large retailer. The slogan really bothered me because I just kept thinking, "What does that mean?" Is this what we have come to in the U.S. - saving money makes life better? What is the cost to our society in general if this is what we believe? Do people care that believing this way, acting this way, shopping this way is hurting other people?

I just recently had the great fortune to attend the Answering Pope Frances' Call: An American Catholic Response to Modern-Day Slavery at the Catholid University of America.  There I heard Gerardo Reyes Chavez speak about his experience as a farmworker in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The CIW harvests tomatoes in Florida. Mr. Chavez did a wonderful job of describing exactly what I was thinking about when I read 'Save Money. Live Better.'

Florida produces 90% of the tomatoes produced in the U.S. and the CIW found that wages of the farm workers producing tomatoes were decreasing over time. CIW started a campaign aimed at the companies that buy tomatoes in order to show them how the low prices being paid for tomatoes effect people down the supply chain. The CIW wants companies to recognize that the artificially low prices that they create lead to basically poverty pay for farm workers.  They want companies to recognize that farm workers are people who need to support themselves and their families. Even more important, they want people to see the farm workers as people - human beings as equally as important as any other people in the world.

Mr. Chavez said the CIW started its campaign out of necessity for farm workers' lives and because they are "fighters because we have no choice." They have won many battles in their fight:

  • 7 court cases regarding labor trafficking;
  • 1200-1500 workers liberated;
  • 15 bosses prosecuted;
  • several multi-billion dollar companies signing Fair Food agreements; and
  • $15 million added to farms' payrolls in the past 4 years.
Fair Food agreements include a provision that the retailer must pay a small premium on each vegetable which is how the millions of dollars have been added to the farms' payrolls. What about that large retailer with the slogan that made me question what we as Americans really want? They signed a Fair Food agreement just last year!Hearing Mr. Chavez speak was very powerful to me because it demonstrates the reasons we all must continue this fight against human trafficking and that success is happening - lives are being liberated. 

Most of us might not have the same reasons to fight as the CIW - we have more choices - but if we choose humanity and dignity for all then we must fight. We need to eliminate the possibility of slavery by fighting for what is fair and right.

TAKE ACTION: You can help stop labor trafficking by telling your retailers and the restaurants you frequent to sign Fair Food agreements.  Visit the CIW or the Fair Food Program for more information and to participate in current actions.

Renee Gonzales, M.S.W. is the Permanency Planning Director at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. She has been a social worker for 17 years in the child welfare field and has held a variety of positions at MDHHS.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

At A Crossroads: The Genesee County Human Trafficking Task Force

The Genesee County Human Trafficking Task Force is at a crossroads today. It's been in existence, formally meeting as a group, for almost three years.  In that time, we've developed a five year plan with a vision, milestones and strategic priorities. We've established a dues structure. We have committees and officers, a facebook page and a number of activities in place. We meet monthly and we have quarterly educational programs open to the general public. We've had enough discussions to know what we agree on and where we still have differences of opinion.

But there are two main challenges right now, probably inter-related: 1) sustaining our energy level to maintain and even ramp up that work; and 2) getting resources in place for victims and for sustaining the work of the task force.

Fortunately, several individuals and/or organizations have really stepped up and moved ahead with innovative ideas. One member of the Task Force, who is also a court referee, has worked with a local judge to form a Girls Court for adolescents at high risk of trafficking. They've figured out the procedures, developed partnerships, have found some resources and are really making progress. It is the first such court in Michigan.

Another founding member of the Task Force, and a member of several statewide groups has led an amazing public awareness and community outreach committee, reaching thousands of people over the past three years. The committee brings in national, state and local speakers and has focused on key target audiences from medical professionals to schools and law enforcement. 

The University of Michigan-Flint's Women's Center has really embraced trafficking issues and has held numerous presentations and educational sessions for students and the community. A local pastor, also a member of the Task Force, has held several educational workshops, bringing in national speakers to raise awareness about trafficking. A new Task Force committee is working on developing a county-wide protocol for suspected trafficking victims, similar to the inter-agency agreement in place for child abuse investigations and interventions. 

Several organizations have been planning how they can ramp up the services they have and offer more for victims.  These include winning grants for street outreach, ministries in strip clubs, more overnight short-term beds in shelters, case management, and building a new residential program from the ground up.

These are just some of the examples of the great work going on in Genesee County.  But all of this is being done by volunteers and that means that other priorities from their "day jobs" may take them away from focusing on trafficking issues, or they just may have other personal priorities that change. One key agency partner of the Task Force recently closed although most of its programs have found new homes. The next focus for Task Force leadership is finding resources, ensuring focus on all forms of trafficking and making sure that there are places to refer victims, as awareness builds and victims are identified. What we have is still a long way from the vision but we are decidedly making progress to fulfilling our vising of having an effective, unified community response to human trafficking in Genesee County by 2019.

TAKE ACTION: To learn more about the GCHTTF, visit our facebook page or contact Polly Sheppard, Task Force Secretary, to be added to our email list at or 810-938-3020.

Polly Sheppard is an independent consultant focused on building capacity in the nonprofit sector. She represents the Weiss Child Advocacy Center Board of Directors on the Genesee County Human Trafficking Task Force and has served as Secretary of the Task Force since its inception.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Power of Mindfulness

You learn something new every day.  Some days can be exhausting. When working with people that have survived traumatic situations, you have to be careful not to take on the weight of their stress. It can be difficult. One particularly challenging day my intern asked me if I practiced "Mindfulness".  I am sure that I replied with a statement about the lack of time in my life. Wise beyond her years, she reminded me that I cannot help others if first I do not help myself. I stopped, ordered some books and began my practice. It has been a great help to me.  We started discussing the benefits of Mindfulness for trauma victims.  She did some research and together we wrote the information below.

Trafficking Survivors and Mindfulness

It is necessary to be aware of the routines that were formed by trafficking victims during the traumatic events they experienced.  During times of trauma, the part of the brain that makes decisions has been put on the back burner. When performing activities that have become habit, the decision-making brain becomes less active. This leaves the trauma victim stuck in the same mind-set of what was enduring during her or his time of being trafficked. Treatment offered to trauma victims should include bringing the victim's attention back to the present moment. Practicing Mindfulness allows a trauma victim to be present in the moment and make decisions rather than relying on habit. It keeps the victim from falling back into the fight, flight or freeze mode.

Practicing Mindfulness brings clarity and awareness that will help an individual reduce stress and contribute to overall well-being. Being able to focus distinctly on the present moment, at any given time, returns the control of thought to the victim - something that was taken from them in their trafficking past. Being able to focus on "the now" gives a trauma victim better understanding and acceptance of her or his emotions. This allows the trauma victim to feel more "at home" in her or his own body.

Obviously Mindfulness should be practiced together with other medical and psychological treatments. Once one learns to bring their thoughts to the current moment, the awareness brings non-judgmental and purposeful thoughts. This can be a powerful supplement to traditional medicine, creating an easier transition from victim to survivor.

I often become frustrated with society's inability to help crime victims. The justice system is often difficult to navigate and when first introduced to it, very much overwhelming. The ability to help victims take it moment-by-moment has been beneficial to both the trauma victims and to myself. Mindfulness helps me not to lose myself as I attempt to help them navigate the system. It also reminds the victim that trafficking does not define who they are as a person but is something that happened to them in the past. Mindfulness helps victims learn that they are in control of their own thoughts.

TAKE ACTION: Learn about the power of Mindfulness by exploring the available resources online, including Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Pennman.  Other sources used for this blog include Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence of Salutary Effects by Kirk Warren Brown and J. David Cresswell and Self-Regulation and Mindfulness by Gernot Hauke.  A variety of sources by these and other authors are available on Amazon and can be ordered for you by your local bookseller.

Kelly Castleberry, Pendulum Restoration Project with Andrea Rumler, Senior at Sienna Heights University.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Human Trafficking Law Clinic: What do We do?

The University of Michigan Law School’sHuman Trafficking Clinic (HTC) was established in 2009 by Clinical Law Professor and Director Bridgette Carr. HTC has three faculty members (Carr, Suellyn Scarnecchia, and Elizabeth Campbell). We are licensed attorneys who supervise student attorneys. The law school pays us to teach our students through our cases and the students receive law school credit for their work. So, we are able to provide free legal services. All of our clients are victims of human trafficking.

HTC usually has about 65 clients at any given time. Some of our clients stay with us for several years because they have a variety of legal needs. Many of our clients are referred to us by law enforcement officers who discover victims when they are investigating traffickers and from the Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline. We also receive referrals from prosecutors, foster care agencies, and domestic violence/sexual assault service providers. We can take client referrals from any source. Our clients are foreign nationals from all over the world and U.S. citizens from all over the nation. They are adults and minors, male and female, and they have experienced labor and/or sex trafficking.

Our goal for each client is to provide him or her with comprehensive legal services for the legal problems that stem from the trafficking. Our clients often need a variety of legal services and we try to provide them all or we find another attorney to help them. Here are some of the ways we help clients:
  •  Advocate for a victim-centered approach to a criminal investigation and prosecution, to try to avoid re-victimizing clients in the criminal justice system and to seek restitution; 
  • Apply for temporary and permanent legal immigration status for clients and their families, including visas to bring relatives to the U.S. to reunify clients with their families;  
  • Apply to set aside criminal convictions that arose from the trafficking;Apply for services and benefits that are available to victims;
  • Handle family, housing, consumer, and tax law issues;
  • Locate an attorney to file a civil case against the trafficker(s); and 
  • Assist a client who wishes to “go public” with his/her story to navigate the media, legal system, and other public challenges.

This work requires us to understand the trauma many of our clients have experienced and to represent them in a trauma-informed manner. It also requires us to work in cooperation with many other professionals and volunteers in the client’s life to maximize each client’s chance for a better life after escaping and surviving human trafficking. Finally, we look out for our students’ and our own reactions to our clients’ experiences for signs of secondary trauma and teach best practices for healthy practitioners in this and related fields.

Take Action:  If you or someone you know wishes to contact HTC for legal advice and/or possible representation, please call 734-615-3600.

Suellyn Scarnecchia is a Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.