Feb 7, 2013

Sisters of St. Joseph host educational workshop on human trafficking



Story and photos by Stephen Kiltonic

HOLYOKE – According to the U.S. Department of Justice, human trafficking is the second fastest growing criminal activity – just behind drug trafficking – with children accounting for roughly half its victims.

United Nations statistics reveal that human trafficking generates an annual income of $32 billion. Additionally, it is described by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a modern form of slavery where victims are subjected to force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor.

On Jan. 13, the Justice and Peace Committee of the Sisters of St. Joseph presented a free educational workshop on human trafficking in the Community Room at the Mont Marie Senior Residence. More than 70 people attended the program, which included prayer, education, videos, group discussion and some practical action plans for addressing the problem.

"We hope that people get an awareness of what human trafficking really means and how it is such a horrific injustice to the human person,”said Sister of St. Joseph Roberta Mulcahy. The workshop was held in conjunction with President Barack Obama's declaration of January as National Human Trafficking Awareness month.

The U.S. government also reports that approximately 900,000 victims are trafficked every year worldwide, with women and children being the primary victims. Sexual exploitation (79 percent) is the most common form of human trafficking with 18-20,000 of victims trafficked yearly into the U.S. alone.

Lee Bennett, a captain with the Springfield Police Department, joined the Justice and Peace Committee a few months ago to increase her own awareness level of the issue.

“I didn’t understand how vast it was. I had a lot of questions and I didn’t have many answers,” said Bennett. “What do we do with these victims? How do we help them? I’ve spent the past few years trying to find information to pass it along to other officers so we can try to combat the problem."

Several years ago, Captain Bennett worked with a Springfield Police Department vice unit which dealt with prostitution. “We came across a woman who was clearly here illegally and clearly a victim of trafficking. We didn’t really know what to do with her,” said Bennett.

“You really have to look under the surface. If we hadn’t asked a few questions, we would have just prosecuted her as a prostitute. It would have been very easy not to see what the problem was,” Bennett added.

Bennett claims that identifying individuals who are being trafficked is often difficult because of the "fear factor."

“They’re not going to come forward and walk up to a uniformed police office and say ‘I’ve been trafficked.’ They’re afraid of uniformed police officers,” she said. “They’re afraid of government officials. They’re afraid of school officials. Anybody who is official is going to be a red flag to them.”

Bennett said victims need someone whom they can feel comfortable with and who can advocate for them before they will agree to speak out.

One of the attendees, Joy Danita-Allen of Springfield, works in the social work field and has seen human trafficking come up more frequently in her job.  

“I wanted to find out more about who is involved in human trafficking. Who are the targets? Who are the main players and what’s being done about it?” said Danita-Allen.

Myra Cardona-Grammo, of South Hadley, came to the workshop with her daughter. “I wanted her to be more aware of it and help others become more aware of it,” she said.

“It’s a topic I was always interested in. I needed to know more what the U.S. is doing and also locally how we’ve been addressing human trafficking,” said Cardona-Grammo. “I wanted to find out if there are services out there for people and how I could help or identify people who may be involved in it."

In February 2012, Massachusetts signed into law “An Act Relative to the Commercial Exploitation of People," a bill that makes human trafficking a felony, in addition to increasing fines for those who buy trafficked labor and addressing the needs of victims. Today, all but one state has some form of anti-trafficking law.

“We’ve worked with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Boston. We’ve gone to some of their workshops and in 2005 made a public statement about human trafficking,” said Sister Mulcahy. “We’ve taken our guidance from the Catholic bishops of the United States, who came out many years ago against human trafficking. So, we keep working at educating around the issue for awareness.”

Attendees at the program also received handouts about human trafficking and learned about various organizations like The Polaris Project, which operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline (1-888-3737-888) and pushes for stronger state and federal anti-trafficking laws.

Watch for more on the human trafficking workshop on an upcoming edition of the Springfield Diocese's weekly newsmagazine program, "Real to Reel," which airs Saturday evenings at 7 on WWLP-22NEWS.