By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities
RICHMOND, VA, February 10, 2013 – Last October, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, and Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman announced a partnership among the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Transportation (DOT), and Amtrak to combat human trafficking. Under this partnership, DHS and DOT would work with Amtrak to train over 8,000 frontline transportation employees and Amtrak Police Department officers to identify and recognize indicators of human trafficking, as well as how to report suspected cases of human trafficking.
DOT announced that this partnership is also part of their efforts to raise awareness about the issue and to ensure that the U.S. transportation system is not being exploited for human trafficking. The DOT has stated that, under the leadership of Secretary Ray LaHood, nearly all Department of Transportation employees have completed an anti-human trafficking training that covers common signs of trafficking and how to report it. DOT contractor employees are expected to begin the training soon.
“We cannot let the American transportation system be an enabler in these criminal acts,” stated Secretary LaHood. “In addition to…partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Amtrak, we are working with all modes of transportation to help stop the flow of human trafficking. Raising awareness can save lives, and we all have a responsibility to keep an eye out for these activities.”
DOT recognized the need for survivor input on this process, and for that, I commend them. Without survivor input, any educational data or training program regarding human trafficking is missing a very important perspective. As stated by U.N. Ambassador Mira Sorvino in a recent speech at the National Conference of State Legislatures, “no victim’s advocate or policy maker is as good as a survivor.”
My traffickers (a man and a woman) used taxis to transport me back and forth between their motel room, the local malls, and the streets of Atlantic City. I was clearly young and very quiet. There was an obvious age difference between us- I was 14, and they appeared to be in their 20s or 30s – and we did not appear to be a family.
As a survivor, I would like to offer the following warning signs for taxi drivers:
• Watch for victims of any kind of abuse or exploitation. Victims may appear to be young, confused, inexperienced, withdrawn, or afraid of their older (or generally more authoritative) companions. Be aware and report anything suspicious.
• Watch for children or teens who are dressed maturely and traveling alone or with older companions, especially late at night or early morning, in unsafe areas or places known for prostitution, and / or if the child or teen appears to be lost or inexperienced with using taxis.
• If an adult is instructing a child or teen about sex or prostitution practices, including handing the child or teen prophylactics, report it immediately.
• If a man or woman appears to be hiding a child or teenage companion within the taxi (i.e. pushing the child or teen to the floor or below the level of the window), then report it. They may be attempting to hide the child from the police.
As each survivor’s experience is unique and important, I reached out to others to share tips or portions of their stories as it relates to transportation:
– “Truck stops and adjacent hotels are huge for trafficking of minors. They have trucks set up on lots for prostitution-type setups; truckers are the main target for clients. Taxi [drivers should be on the lookout] for little girls dressed up in big-girl clothes [who are out] late at night [traveling] to and from hotels… with someone else paying the cab fare. Bus stops- [drivers and other personnel should be on the lookout for] young girls being taken to and from or being directed to go to a stop [for] someone [who] will meet them there…
“Toll plaza [workers] need more awareness of signs to look for, like if a child is disheveled, [or appears to be] abused, [or is wearing] inappropriate clothing for the weather… Bathroom attendants and toll clerks can [be informed] to spot [signs,] or posters can be hung up [with signs of what] to look for.” -Katarina Rosenblatt, LLM, Founder of There is Hope for Me
– “I was sent by my trafficker across the U.S. border into Canada, utilizing the bus. I appeared to be traveling alone. Upon my return to the U.S., the Customs Agent, who reviewed my paperwork, looked at me with disgust and told me to ‘just go.’ My face was swollen and covered in bruises after having spent days in the hospital for a very severe beating.” - Jes Richardson, President of Freedom’s Breath
If properly informed, this Customs Agent could have recognized and reported potential trafficking.
– “Work vans are almost synonymous with normal labor; however, in my case it [was] what my trafficker and his network of pedophiles used to transport me and other children around town and to different cities in the U.S. to be sold for sexual exploitation. We were dehumanized and terrified into submission and, subsequently, silence. Traffickers can be stopped in their tracks and lives can be saved. Tips, ideas on how to educate different departments of transportation, and coming up with ways of implementing change can happen by involving survivors in the DOT process of helping to end human trafficking.” -Margeaux, Artist and Advocate
- “My trafficker, who was my father, took me to truck stops very late at night in either a pickup truck, which sometimes had a camper attached, or a van. He used CB radios to ‘advertise’ my availability and to communicate when we would be arriving. We looked like a ‘typical’ father and young daughter traveling. I was terrified and often drugged, which may have [given the appearance] I had just woken up. My father also used the same van to meet groups of truckers at truck stops and then transport groups of truckers to and from our house for parties where I was commercially sexually exploited. I urge [the DOT] to [connect] with Truckers Against Trafficking [as] they do incredible work with educating truckers about what to look for on the roads and instructing them on how to identify trafficking.” -Anonymous –
While difficult to hear, these stories and tips are paramount to an effective program geared to recognize signs of human trafficking. Tactics used by traffickers are known most well by those who endured them. I encourage DOT and collaborators to reach out to Jes Richardson, to Katarina Rosenblatt, and to other survivors of both labor and sex trafficking.
If you are a survivor of human trafficking and would like to offer advice for the DOT program, please contact Trafficking@dot.gov.