Forum discusses human trafficking in Fox Valley
It was around five years ago a young reporter at the Courier-News in Elgin began working on a story concerning human trafficking in Kane County.
I remember the statistics and horror stories she was finding. I also distinctly remember being surprised – and yes, a bit skeptical – when she told me how rampant this form of human slavery was, not only in Chicago but our own Fox Valley.
I felt less guilty about that prior skepticism Thursday evening after attending a forum on human trafficking sponsored by Congressman Randy Hultgren at the Kane County Government Center in Geneva.
There, a couple of Chicago FBI agents informed the audience that even law enforcement attitudes about human trafficking has changed dramatically over the last five years. That not only includes shifting prosecution away from the victims, but helping them permanently get out of these degrading and dangerous situations.
The FBI is also focusing more on education, not only of other law enforcement groups but the community in general, including healthcare workers who often don’t realize it when they come in contact with a victim.
The dirty little secret of human trafficking – which includes using men and more often women and children against their free will for sex and manual labor — is garnering much more attention these days, thanks to people like those on this forum panel.
In addition to FBI agents Vick Lombardo and Jonathan Williamson, the experts included Nancy Allen from the Human Trafficking Freedom Coalition of Northern Illinois; and Allison Bell, World Relief and DuPage/Aurora representative on the Illinois Human Trafficking Task Force.
All four spoke passionately about how prevalent and heartbreaking this situation is. On a global scale there are an estimated 29 million victims of human trafficking, more so than any other time in human history. In Chicago – with around 25,000 victims, most women and children – the problem is growing because of our major roadways, large agriculture and manufacturing base, immigration populations and major tourism.
Plus, human trafficking is more lucrative than dealing drugs or guns because it’s “an endless profit stream,” said Lombardo. And the laws, which aren’t nearly as stiff as drug penalties, don’t deter traffickers, especially when they have such power over their often frightened and/or brainwashed victims.
The FBI is continuing to ratchet up its efforts to address this problem. But of the 470 agents in Chicago, Lombardo noted, only a half dozen are assigned to this work.
That’s why they depend on other service groups and the community for help.
Bell, who sees the human heartbreak personally through her work with World Relief, says it’s up to each of us to keep our eyes and ears open to suspicious situations. That can be anything from massage parlor activity to young people showing up at our doors selling magazines or other products.
Ask questions, she said. How did you hear about your job? Where do you come from? Where are you going? Do you have possession of you documents? Look them in the eyes she added. Do they seem afraid or uncomfortable?
“The worst thing you can think,” said Bell, “is that it does not happen here.”
And if you do have suspicions, dial the FBI hotline at 312-421-6700, prompt #2.
“If you call and are wrong, said Agent Lombardo, “we will still say thank you.”
While Congress has been working to toughen laws that target the traffickers, these experts agreed there needs to be more refuge houses for victims once they are removed from the offender. Currently there are only 37 beds available in the Chicago area, they noted.
The FBI agentgs also called for more public exposure to the “Johns” – often they are educated professionals, and married with children — who keep demand high. They strongly suggested doing away with the words ‘Gentleman’s Club” and start plastering their faces on the front pages of newspapers. Public humiliation, they said, does make a huge difference.
The problem “will stop,” said Williamson, “if men stop buying sex.”
The Human Trafficking Freedom Coalition of Northern Illinois is also working to improve collaboration among agencies, while also training frontline responders.
Allen said her group’s work with the McHenry County Board led to a stronger adult use ordinance, passed in October, that makes it more difficult for adult bookstores, strip clubs and other sexually-themed entertainment to set up shop in unincorporated areas. It’s an ordinance she hopes will be a model for other counties to use.
The panel also discussed the importance of getting curriculums into local schools. Social media, where so many youngsters hang out, is the number one tool of traffickers, Allen noted. And once these vulnerable youth get sucked in, it’s near impossible to get out.
They are used and abused, the experts agreed, until they have lost their souls, and even their lives.
While society is no longer skeptical about the prevalence of human trafficking, Hultgren said it’s is still difficult to get people to hear the cries of these victims, most of whom go unnoticed.
“But once you know about this,” he added, “you can’t go on living” as before.