On Wednesday, the SSA hosted a panel clarifying misunderstandings from the public and approaches to combating the shadowy world of human trafficking around the world and in the Chicago area.
The panel, moderated by Fox 32 news anchor Robin Robinson, included law enforcement officers, members of NGOs such as the Salvation Army, and a member of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
The panelists characterized human trafficking as a problem hampered by misconceptions, including the beliefs that most victims are not from the United States or that they have made the conscious choice to be prostitutes.
According to the panelists, many of the victims are in fact young Americans, often children, from disadvantaged backgrounds who have been manipulated by older individuals. Runaways and those in foster care are especially vulnerable.
“Oftentimes, these pimps will approach children as a boyfriend, will get them to trust them, to love them, and then they bring them into the business,” said Laurie Nathan, an employee of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “It’s a situation that’s pretty horrific. We’re talking about children who can be as young as 12.”
A common theme that several panelists echoed was the difficulty of getting victims to trust those trying to help them.
“We’ve realized that a lot of these victims don’t trust law enforcement—they don’t really know what law enforcement’s end goal is,” said FBI Special Agent Ashley Kizler.
In dealing with this difficulty, the panelists emphasized the importance of having law enforcement and government agencies coordinate their efforts not only with each other, but also with outside organizations, known as the Chicago Approach, according to Brigid Brown, a representative from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
“What we’ve found is by having service providers and NGOs and other people present and all working together to not only educate but to help get resources and money to provide services for victims…that we’re having some success in getting victims to come forward and trust us,” Brown said.
Rachel Ostergaard, from the Salvation Army’s STOP-IT program, said that NGOs could provide support and services to the victims that law enforcement cannot and also act as an intermediary between the victims and government officials.
“There’s a very broad range of things that are needed. The big things are standard: looking for housing, safety planning stuff like that. Everyone that we work with works with us willingly,” she said. “A lot of it is emotional support.”
All of these efforts reflected the panelists’ focus on protecting and helping the victims of human trafficking.
“It’s really a victim-centered approach.” Special Agent Ben Bowman of the Department of Homeland Security said. “We’d rather have a case totally lost and keep the victim safe than to put somebody at risk.”