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Human Trafficking Awareness Month

“Human trafficking is one of the worst offenses against human dignity.” 

– former President George W. Bush

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. So, we wanted to share our experience and some valuable resources.

In the Fall of 2010, I was invited to the Human Trafficking Conference at Kean University. There were round tables set up with a white easel at each table. Sitting at each table were representatives from each of New Jersey’s county Women’s Centers, along with university departments in Women’s and Gender Studies, law enforcement, and the staff of State Senator Tom Kean Jr. Rotating to each table were Homeland Security and FBI agents explaining the seriousness and depth of modern-day slavery. I believe that the Junior League of Montclair-Newark and the Junior Leagues of New Jersey arranged the event, and the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking (NJCHT) was born in 2011.

It was very exciting to witness the beginning of NJCHT; to see the wheels of justice turn and see legislative changes. Some of the goals of the day were to recognize that johns can be pedophiles and criminals, charge them as such, and use the fees generated to build shelters.

Nationally, the average age of a sexually exploited child is twelve to thirteen years old, and in New Jersey it is nine. The youngest victims have been infants. At the time of the founding of NJCHT, underage prostitutes were charged as adults. Not only did these victims need Child Protection Services instead of jail, but any adult survivors needed their criminal records expunged.

But the real kicker (no pun intended) was the Super Bowl, scheduled to come to MetLife Stadium at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey on February 2, 2014. In May of the previous year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed the bipartisan “Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection, and Treatment Act,” which later helped the coordinated efforts of the state’s Attorney General’s office, law enforcement, and NJCHT to help make New Jersey a leading state in combating human trafficking. The effort rescued fifty women and sixteen minors from the 2014 Super Bowl and arrested forty-five pimps.

I was first struck with horror and a feeling of hopelessness at the plight of these victims in 2004, by The Girls Next Door, an article in The New York Times that tracked victims who were trafficked from Moscow and Eastern Europe to airports in Paris and London to Mexico City; one final destination was in my home state of New Jersey – Plainfield People wrote letters to the Times for months and one stuck in my memory: how was it that the NY Times reporter could follow the trail but not law enforcement? I was haunted after I read the article and the following letters to the editor.

Two years before this article, on February 14, 2002, the Polaris Project was founded to help victims escape their enslavement. The Polaris Project began a hotline, started keeping records and statistics, and pushing legislative action. By 2010 there were more than fifteen hundred animal shelters and under one hundred beds for survivors ( ). I am not knocking animal shelters – I have rescue dogs myself. But what about the women and children?

I was introduced to the work of Rachel Lloyd, a sexually exploited human trafficking victim from London. A survivor once pointed out to me that it is incorrect to use the term “worker” with respect to trafficking victims, because it implies “a job with a fair wage.” Lloyd participated in Out from the Shadows, the first International Summit of Sexually Exploited Youth in Canada in 1998. She realized that more than shelters were needed. To victims and survivors, education and mentoring were of the utmost importance. That same year, Rachel Lloyd founded the Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS) in New York City ( ).  Her documentary, Very Young Girls, made public the horrors of human trafficking, who is being destroyed, and how victims are being manipulated and stripped of their human rights. Most important, Lloyd’s documentary exposes who are committing these atrocities against our children. The documentary begins with tapes of two pimps, who thought they could film themselves preying on young girls with impunity. The pimps actually brought the films to Showtime to sell for their own reality show, and the NYPD was promptly notified.

Teresa Flores, another survivor and activist, wrote The Slave Across the Street, an autobiography. I had the honor of meeting her and hearing her story. Some friends and I were at a church event to hear a trafficking survivor discuss their book and story, and I went over to a table for tea and chocolate chip cookies. I struck up a conversation with one of the attendees; she was your basic soccer mom, very pleasant. The event was starting, so we took our seats, and the speaker was called to the stage. I nearly passed out and was gripped with nausea and horror as I saw that my chatting buddy, over chocolate chip cookies, was Teresa Flores!

Flores began her story of growing up in suburban Michigan, where her father was an automobile executive. She was a high school student and not allowed to date. But a cute boy in a Pontiac Trans Am, whom she knew, offered to drive her home from school and she accepted. Instead of turning towards her home, he drove her to his house where she was raped and photographed by the boy and his cousins. The photos were used to blackmail her with the threat that they would be sent to her father’s office. Ms. Flores is a pinch younger than me, and she had the ultimate luxury before the cell phone: a princess phone in her bedroom with her own phone number. The “cute boy,” the kidnapper, rapist and and blackmailer, would call her in the middle of the night to demand that she sneak out, go through her yard to the Trans Am and he would sell her. She did this, to keep her shame and secret. This went on every night; Teresa wanted out and was eventually left for dead in an all-night diner in Detroit. A waitress rescued her, and Teresa became a beacon of light in battling this evil.

Teresa Flores is also the founder of the Soap Project that I have worked with over the years The Soap Project’s aim is to visit hotels with soaps imprinted with the Human Trafficking hotline. Victims use the bathrooms in the rooms and can see the soaps for help. Also, we at the Soap Project bring photos of missing girls to hotel management and employees, hoping for a lead, and the employees hang the photos in their break rooms.

My small personal contribution to this war effort is that I ran three conferences at William Paterson University, titled “Human Trafficking in Our Backyards.” Two of the conferences were a series and I brought together religious leaders to discuss this crisis and how we can come together to combat human trafficking. Our participants were an imam, conservative and reformed rabbis, a Catholic priest who rode with the Newark Police Department to assist with gangs, a Christian minister, a wiccan, and a Buddhist. The events were moderated by former Passaic County Prosecutor Kevin Wronko, attorney Michele Murphy, and me. The other event was led by two agents from Homeland Security and the FBI. The more we talk about it, the more changes we can make.

So many groups and people are working so hard to rescue victims. Victims are not only sexually exploited but include restaurant/food service, day workers, domestic servitude, agricultural labor, sweatshop factory labor; custodians, begging, nail salon workers, landscaping, etc…the list is vast.

If you see something or know someone who needs help, or if you need help, please report it. All contact can be anonymous.

1 (888) 373-7888

National Human Trafficking Hotline

SMS: 233733 (Text “HELP” or “INFO”)

Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week

Languages: English, Spanish and 200 more languages




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