LIVINGSTON, NJ — Most people think of slavery as a terrible institution from our past and look to the outcome of the Civil War as the beacon that ended it. But they are wrong. The United Nations’ International Labor Organization estimates that there are more slaves worldwide now than there have been at any other period in human history, with more than 20 million individuals being trafficked for labor and/or sex as part of a $150 billion industry. And the United States is not exempt from this; although slavery is illegal here — as in every country in the world — the nonprofit Polaris Project estimates there are tens of thousands of slaves in the United States.
But there are people working to end this abusive and seemingly archaic practice. “Fighting Sex Trafficking – Our Children At Risk” will be held Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 7 p.m. at Temple B’nai Abraham, 300 Northfield Ave. in Livingston.
This dessert and dialog event sponsored by the Essex County chapter of the National Council for Jewish Women will feature a panel of speakers with experience in helping victims and combating sex trafficking. Speakers will also try to address some of the psychology behind sex trafficking, ways in which the community can work together to combat sex trafficking, and the risk of exploitation of children and teenagers through social media and what parents can do to protect them.
“NCJW/Essex has been part of the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking since its inception and it is an issue our members feel passionately about,” Mandi Perlmutter, the director of advocacy and community engagement for the NCJW/Essex, said in an email interview. “As an organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and children in our communities, we seek to bring about an end to the scourge of modern slavery.”
While anyone — regardless of race, gender or age — is susceptible to being trafficked into slavery, this symposium will focus specifically on what can be done to protect children.
According to Perlmutter, “325,000 children are at risk for becoming victims of sexual exploitation in North America, and runaway and homeless youth are most at risk.”
Each of the panelists also feels strongly about ending sex trafficking. Panelists include state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle of the 37th Legislative District, whose office has drafted legislation in the past to combat sex trafficking; Jayne Bigelson, the director of anti-human trafficking initiatives at Covenant House, a New York-based nonprofit that assists homeless children and youth; and Nicole Bryan, an affiliate professor at Montclair State University who researches human trafficking. The panel will be moderated by Lauren Hersh, the cofounder of World Without Exploitation, a nonprofit dedicated to ending human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
“I feel so strongly about human trafficking because I have witnessed firsthand how it destroys the lives and potential of young people who are deserving of nothing but love and support,” Bigelson said in an email interview. “In 2016, it is impossible to accept the selling of one human being by another and, at the same time, no one should ever be forced to have to decide between selling their body and having food or a safe place to sleep. Yet I have also been blessed with the opportunity to witness the amazing courage and resiliency of survivors who have overcome their experiences and gone on to successful, safe and loving lives.”
The state and federal government have also been trying to do more to end human trafficking in the United States, according to Perlmutter.
“New Jersey adopted the NJ Human Trafficking Prevention Protection Treatment Act in 2013 and law enforcement is working to combat the epidemic of sex trafficking through training, awareness and intervention,” Perlmutter said. “State and community service organizations have also increased services and support for victims of trafficking, including meeting basic needs such as housing, meals and clothing.”
And while new technologies bring the dangers of human trafficking closer to home in some ways, Bigelson is quick to point out that the underlying story of human trafficking is much the same as it has been for decades.
“In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of the internet to both recruit and sell victims. But in other ways, trafficking is not all that different from when Covenant House first opened its doors over 40 years ago,” Bigelson said. “Pimps and traffickers have always made homeless youth their preferred target. Fortunately, human trafficking is receiving more attention, and the public and law enforcement are starting to understand that many youth engaging in commercial sex are trafficking victims, whereas in the past they were wrongly discarded and thought of as ‘teenage prostitutes.’ We are also doing a better job of identifying trafficking survivors, which means that more are receiving the services they need to free their lives from exploitation.”
And there are many organizations and services available to help those who have been trafficked and to study the institution with an eye toward destabilizing it.
“N.J. legislation mandates training for law enforcement officers so that they can identify victims and effectively intervene, and yet some officers have not yet received this critical training. Readers can help by urging their local law enforcement departments to ensure that all officers receive state mandated training,” Perlmutter said. “The NJ Attorney General Office website also has resources for schools, municipal employees and members of the public who wish to become more educated about what they can do to help. Organizations like Covenant House provide support and services to victims and often need the donation of basic supplies.”
Covenant House, for instance, has a team of social workers, case managers and mental health professionals who offer services such as housing, mental health care, case management, job training, education and legal assistance, among other services, to homeless children and young adults who have been trafficked, Bigelson said.
“We also have teamed up with the LifeWay Network to run an off-site safe house for female identified survivors between the ages of 18 and 24, where they can heal and thrive,” Bigelson said. “We are blessed to be a part of a federation of Covenant House sites across the Americas that also serve homeless youth and trafficking survivors. In addition to offering direct services, we advocate for policy change on the city, state and national level to improve the lives of survivors and bring perpetrators to justice.”
Despite what is already in place to combat the practice, Perlmutter and Bigelson agree that members of the public can help in the fight to end human trafficking.
“We need as many people as possible to join in advocacy movements to change laws and policies to support trafficking survivors and make sure there is sufficient funding to meet their complex needs,” Bigelson said. “But we also need people who can prevent trafficking by getting involved in the lives of at-risk youth. When young people do not have an adult in their life that they can count on, they become easy prey for pimps and traffickers. So being a good foster care parent or mentor of a disadvantaged youth or supporting programming like Covenant House puts you on the front line of trafficking prevention.”
Next week’s NCJW/Essex event “Fighting Sex Trafficking – Our Children At Risk” is being co-sponsored by Temple B’nai Abraham, the N.J. Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, the Reform Jewish Voice of New Jersey, Hadassah of Northern NJ, Temple Emanu-El of Westfield, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, Monarch Housing Associates, Church Abolition Network, Covenant House, Jewish Women’s Foundation, World Without Exploitation, and the Bergen County and West Morris sections of NCJW.
Preregistration for the panel is required by calling 973-740-0588 or by visiting www.ncjwessex.org. An admission fee covers coffee, tea and dessert. NCJW/Essex will also be collecting art supplies at the event for the art-therapy program at Covenant House to help survivors of sex trafficking. For more information about Covenant House, visit www.covenanthouse.org.