Slaves Among Us are Focus of Rochester College Conference

You may have seen the recent headlines about a Ukrainian man who has been ordered to stand trial in federal district court in Detroit for trafficking women for a local nightclub.  Several experts who spoke at a conference at Rochester College April 1-2 said the story is, unfortunately, not unusual.

Human trafficking is a global problem that’s happening right here in Michigan. It may be adults or children forced into unpaid labor; it may be women and girls tricked into the sex trade.  If force, fraud or coercion is involved, or if the victim is underage, it’s considered trafficking.

Bonnie Laudeman, an adjunct professor at Rochester College and children’s pastor at Clarkston Community Church, brought the idea for the conference to Rochester College after being turned down by Oakland University. She said most people don’t know there is a problem here. After she attended a conference several years ago, “I decided we could probably pull this off at our church, but it didn’t bring in the college students,” she said. “They have justice in their bones.”

Among those speaking at the Global Justice Conference was University of Michigan law professor Bridgette Carr, who runs the only law clinic in the country devoted to human trafficking. Victims represented by the clinic include nine African children who worked 14-16 hours a day braiding hair, earning $4 million for their bosses before they were rescued.

“Does it happen here? Yes. Yes it does,” she said. “This is an extremely profitable industry.”

Carr was one of several speakers who provided graphic testimony and explained that victims don’t run and don’t tell, even when they might have the chance, for a lot of reasons, including threats of violence against family members.

Michigan adopted a human trafficking law in 2006 and amended it just this month. Carr said the law was written without input from those working on the problem, and that the amendment is inconsistent and confusing. “We at the clinic are working real hard to try to fix it,” she said.

She’s also working hard to raise awareness. Unless the victim is a young white girl, “We walk by them,” Carr said. “We have to have a more inclusive approach to trafficking. We have to improve support services. Until we do, our cops can’t do better.”

Often, victims are hiding in plain sight. A dozen enslaved African children were living together when their house caught fire.  Firefighters put out the fire, but didn’t question the living arrangement. At an adult club on Eight Mile, girls who had been trafficked from the Ukraine danced for customers every day.

Carr pointed to the progress made in domestic-violence awareness as an example of a how activism can change perceptions.

“Law enforcement responds to what communities make a priority, plain and simple,” she said. “If I have not trained my community, we’re not going to identify victims. … And then we’re going to have a problem where law enforcement says we don’t have a problem here. …

“Raising awareness is the core of what needs to be done.”

When Amy Allen first arrived at the Office of Investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement just a couple of years ago, “They weren’t sure they needed a victim-centered approach,” she said.  Now the agency rescues victims first, then goes after the perpetrators. ICE is now “totally open” to working with other agencies and taking information from the public on potential victims, even if the information is received anonymously, she said.

“We don’t wait until we have a perfect case and a perfect search warrant,” she said.

After a victim is rescued, making a criminal case isn’t necessarily easy.

“We do hear a lot of rehearsed stories,” Allen said. “They’ve been trained. … And when we don’t know what the threat is that’s used against them, it’s very hard to get to the root of the measure.”

The purpose of the conference was to encourage activism, according to organizer Adam Hill, Rochester College’s campus minister. “Spiritual activism is not enough,” he said. “We want to create personal activism … that is rooted in the shared conviction that all human life is valuable.”

High-school students Sarah Hensley, 14 and Lauren McConnell, 15, got the message loud and clear. After sitting through some horrifying true stories, they said there is a lot of work to do.

“It’s hard to imagine it’s actually going on here, not just far away,” Lauren said. “We were talking before about how we could help. … Now we have so much more information. The way I see it, the possibilities are endless.”

‘Raising awareness is the core of what needs to be done’

If you suspect a case of human trafficking, call the national hotline for victim assistance at 888-3737-888.

The first picture is Bridgette Carr, the director of the University of Michigan’s human trafficking law clinic.

The second picture is a local band called Abolitionist Hymnal Project. The band, which has taken 19th Century hymns and freedom songs and set them to contemporary music, performed several times during the conference.

By Annette Kingsbury

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