Chicago Responds to Being Labeled a Trafficking Hub

Amy Alvarado, a human trafficking specialist at the Cook County State Attorney’s Office, said that Chicago is fast becoming the national hub of human trafficking because it is a large “convention city” with a “huge international airport.” Recent hotline statistics from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) show Illinois had the fifth highest call volume, falling behind only New York, Florida, Texas and California.

The situation has worsened over the past five years, particularly because of the Internet—“Traffickers or predators can [now] sit anonymously behind computers,” said Joanne Bieschke, Deputy Director of the Cook County Youth Services Department. Online traffickers typically form cyber relationships with young teenagers, steadily gaining their trust and making them feel like nobody but the [trafficker] can empathize with their struggles. Those especially vulnerable to these deceptions are individuals experiencing conflict in school or at home, who are seeking escape from their current situations.

Organizations such as the Chicago Dream Center (CDC) work to contact trafficking victims in Chicago and provide them with the necessary resources to start move beyond their abuse. A two-year CDC program, aimed at nurturing victims just emerging from the sex trade, trains women in in job readiness and self-sufficiency, and helps them with housing.

On the law enforcement level, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has prioritized human trafficking. The sixth and latest National Day of Johns Arrests in July 2013, a sting operation organized by Dart’s office involving at least 20 law enforcement agencies nationwide, saw its highest number of arrests. However, the number of pimps arrested during each operation is consistently much lower than that of johns arrested. “We can arrest a lot of pimps, but if the victim says [she] was not victimized then you really have no case,” Cmdr. Michael Anton of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office said. “We really rely on the victim[s] and their talking, [but] most of the time they don’t because of brainwashing [by their pimps]”.

The issue of human trafficking has also impacted students. Judith Kim, a Northwestern University undergraduate, founded an organization dedicated to the fight against human trafficking. “When I heard that slavery still existed it made me really angry,” the founder of Fight For Freedom (F3) said. “It was infuriating … freedom is such a fundamental right that I couldn’t just sit still.”

F3 has brought in speakers from the Not For Sale campaign, and from the International Justice Mission, one of the leading international human rights agencies. Most recently, F3 hosted guest speaker Leif Coorlim, executive editor of the CNN Freedom Project, which raises awareness on human trafficking. Kim thinks it is crucial for people not to see prostitutes as criminals — something many states, including Illinois, are starting to recognize with harsher penalties against johns and treatment for women caught in the trap. “Many people we identify as prostitutes are in fact sex trafficking victims,” Kim said. “[They are] people who might need help.”

For civilians to contribute to combating sex trafficking, efforts must start from home, Mary Bonnett, director of the play “Shadow Town” about sex trafficking in Chicago, said. “We as a community can do something about it through our own activism … just talking to your son or husband, or looking into [their] bedrooms and see what’s going on,” she said, including keeping an eye for pornography watching by youth and adults – particularly pornography featuring sex slavery. Bonnett also encourages people to join the neighborhood watch and “see if that girl’s still on that corner.”

Learn more at Astrid Goh’s Juvenile Justice Information Exchange article: Chicago: A National Hub for Human Trafficking.

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