More needs to be done for Michigan sex-trafficking victims

Shared Hope International, a nonprofit that monitors and advocates for sex-trafficking legislation at the state level, has been grading states for the last four years – and Michigan received an “F” from 2011 to 2014. Gov. Rick Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette and the state legislature should be commended, however, for taking a number of steps to tackle this global problem at a local level, including the formation of the Michigan Human Trafficking Commission.

The magnitude of the problem is difficult to assess; the Michigan commission reported over 300 cases over a two year period, but believes that this number is not nearly capturing the actual number of cases. Based on the commission’s report, several pieces of legislation have been passed to help tackle the problem at a local level. After speaking with survivors, former law enforcement officials, and those who work with both, I believe there is still much to be done.

In order for Michigan to be more effective in regards to sex trafficking, policy makers should focus on, first, proper education for institutions where victims can be identified, as well as changing law enforcement’s dynamic with victims and providing adequate recovery resources.

Education for teachers, healthcare workers and hotel employees

“Maggie,” a sex-trafficking survivor, reports that while she was being trafficked, neither her teachers nor her pediatrician noticed. She fell asleep in school during the day and wore long-sleeve tops no matter how warm the weather, to cover the bruises on her arms. Her pediatrician never noticed the signs of her abuse; when it came time for her to have gynecological exams, she would tense up, and her doctor would defer the examination.

Published under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Jenee Littrell’s report on human trafficking among American school children encourages education for teachers and administrators. While the Hollywood image of sex trafficking victims may bring up images of young women kept in dungeons, Maggie’s story makes it clear that victims may be in plain sight.

In a 2014 study, 88 percent of sex-trafficking victims had been seen by a healthcare professional during their victimization, but none were properly identified. Recent state legislation mandates required education on human trafficking for medical professionals (PA 343 of 2014). The Genesee County Medical Society has developed their own toolkit to help identify and treat victims. I would recommend that each major health system and hospital make sex-trafficking education mandatory for all employees in order to maximally ensure identification of victims.

According to the Human Trafficking Resource Center, hotels are prime venues for sex trafficking. Several members of the hospitality industry have adopted the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. The Michigan Lodging & Tourism Association, the largest organization representing hotels in Michigan, has not, but should.

Changing the law-enforcement dynamic

Greg Bristol, a retired FBI agent and former Michigan State Police trooper who has worked on human trafficking cases, provides training on this issue for law enforcement. While education for law enforcement officials is important, the historical dynamic between sex trafficking victims and police officers requires more than education.

In Bristol’s class, he points out that referring to a trafficker as a “pimp” mitigates their crime and makes victims out to be prostitutes. By painting all of these young women as prostitutes, some communities take the perspective that this is a victimless crime and that overzealous policing is a waste of resources.

While Michigan does have a human trafficking task force, the number of actual prosecutions have been fairly minimal. Until local police departments invest in ongoing training for police officers on how to identify victims, how to approach them, and how to build a case against human traffickers, I fear that law enforcement will not have the tools they need in order to be successful.

Supporting survivors

Trafficking victims suffer from a number of psychological conditions: post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, anxiety and depression. The trauma is compounded by the stigma of being considered a sex worker. Many victims believe they have little or no value, may have arrest records, and often lack employment skills.

Laura Fiyak is the CEO and one of the founders of Heavenly Hope International, based in southeast Michigan, which focuses on providing resources and support for female victims of sex trafficking. She said victims will often return to their trafficker after they have been “rescued” because they feel they had nowhere else to turn. Some victims do not do well in traditional shelters.

Fiyak said Michigan needs something akin to Dream Center, a faith-based organization with outreach programs for homelessness, hunger relief, and medical care. Dream Center also has residential housing for victims in a safe, resource-rich environment.

The legislature and Gov. Snyder have done a good job of passing several pieces of legislation (eliminating a statute of limitations on human trafficking, allowing victims to sue captors, and clearing certain criminal convictions from a victim’s record), but that’s easy compared to the long road to recovery. Without adequate funding for survivors, particularly in regards to multidisciplinary recovery centers, we will continue turn our backs on victims.

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Sun, 11/15/2015 - 1:32am
Why grade the Governor so low after identifing positive things he has been involved with [why the ‘F’?]? My physician grades my health, but he lists each element that enters into the grade and compares it to a reference criteria. When there is a deviation from the desired we both know what it is and can plan how to improve it. Why doesn't the good Dr. offers activities and actions each of us let alone the Governor could be doing? As dire as the situation is for those victims of the atrocities of trafficking, the potential victims, and the families, the rest of us need to know what are the important factors surrounding this tortuous scheme/practices, what might be done at each level from the individual, the family, local organizations, State agencies. I believe the issue/problem he raises deserves the active support of our communities, but I wish he would have presented it in a better manner, one less driven by emotion and more driven by his clinical training. Just like the body systemic illness, that he was trained to address, this is a community systemic illness that we need to address.