Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #058. First published in the St. Cloud Times May 22, 2012

If you came across reports of a program called “Freedom Here and Now: Ending Modern Slavery,” you might think you had stumbled into a 19th-century archive. But this was the title of a conference I attended in Minneapolis earlier this month.

Human trafficking, including forced prostitution, is widespread throughout the world, both across national borders and within them, but it is only in the past decade that the phenomenon has broken through to public consciousness.

In 2000 the United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and the United Nations adopted the Palermo Protocol, which provides for the criminalization of all acts of trafficking and declares that governmental response should incorporate the “3P” paradigm: prevention, criminal prosecution and victim protection.

The conference in Minneapolis, sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Integrative Leadership and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, focused attention on the problem itself and on actions to solve it.

The evidence hits close to home, as was acknowledged in a similar conference in April in St. Cloud. “Free at Last: Human Trafficking Prevention Campaign” was a project of Hands Across the World, and the list of co-sponsors demonstrates the range of concern about the issue: Anna Marie’s Alliance; Catholic Charities’ Department of Social Concerns; St. Cloud Legal Services; League of Women Voters, St. Cloud Area; Joint Social Justice Committee of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls and the Benedictine Sisters of St. Joseph; and Center for Service-Learning and Social Change. I was out of town on the day of “Free at Last,” but was encouraged to hear that 120 people attended.

We in Minnesota think of our children as “above average,” and mostly that’s something of which to be proud. However, our children, especially our girls, are above the national average in the prospect that they will be lured, forced, trapped into prostitution. Sex trafficking is not a statistic on which a state wants to rank high, but that’s where we are. A 2010 study found that each month in Minnesota at least 213 girls are sold for sex an average of five times per day through the Internet and escort services — and this number does not include gang, street or hotel activity.

“Freedom Here and Now” featured a new documentary, “Not My Life” by Academy Award nominee Robert Bilheimer. The film takes us to a dozen countries on five continents, from slavery of boys in the fishing industry in Africa to the brothels of India to sex tourism in Cambodia to . . . Interstate 35 in the United States.

We hear firsthand stories of victims and of perpetrators, and of people who have devoted their lives and their skills to fighting what Bilheimer calls “this multibillion-dollar industry flourishing in our midst.” The film is finally hopeful, both because of these heroic individuals who shine a light into the heart of darkness and because the human spirit is resilient.

But no one, and especially no child, should ever be subjected to the cruelty committed by the traffickers.

Trafficking has remained hidden in plain sight for so long partly because its victims may appear ordinary. The travel and hospitality industries, spearheaded by the Carlson Companies, are training employees to be alert for behaviors that signal exploitation.

The Women’ Fund of Minnesota campaign “MN Girls Are Not For Sale” is designed to help make real the new understanding of the problem enshrined in the Safe Harbor Act, signed in July by Gov. Mark Dayton. The law says that juveniles younger than age 16 may not be prosecuted for prostitution under the delinquency code. It also increases fines on “johns” and develops a statewide victim-centered service model.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi was recognized at the conference for his leadership in implementing Safe Harbor’s identification of children as victims of crime, not criminals. He says it’s simply good sense: “By using a victim-centered approach that is cost-effective and sound public policy for these children, we can truly give them the appropriate intervention and treatment necessary for their safety and welfare, while protecting our communities.”

The abolitionist movement accomplished much in the 19th and 20th centuries, but there is still a lot of work to be done in the 21st.