By David Cruz
Big events draw big crowds. When we think of the Super Bowl or similar big events, we think of celebrations and cheering crowds, but for human traffickers, this is an opportunity to turn victims into prostitutes or slave labor. At a symposium in West Trenton today, the state’s Human Trafficking Task Force met to discuss ways to devise an anti-trafficking strategy, with a focus on exploitation surrounding events like the 2014 Super Bowl, which will be held at the Meadowlands this year.
“We all recognize that human trafficking is a particularly cruel and dehumanizing crime,” said Acting Attorney General John Hoffman. “Its damage is deep, in large part because it is not one event. It is the long-term enslavement and exploitation of individuals and it leaves lasting psychological and physical harm.”
The symposium attracted representatives from law enforcement, clergy and other non-profits who deal with the victims of human trafficking, the goal being to get them all working together to respond to an expected increase in human trafficking crimes during large events.
“All large events that bring populations to a very consolidated area afford the opportunity for traffickers to bring in young women who are victims of this horrendous crime,” added State Police Major Christian Schultz.
Officials say they’re focusing on the Super Bowl but only as a way to show how prevalent the problem is. For Ingrid Johnson, whose daughter ran away when she was 13 and ended up forced into prostitution, there was no support, no statewide anti-trafficking task force.
“No there wasn’t. In fact, a lot of the focus was on foreign victims and it was not acceptable that someone from the United States could be a victim of human trafficking,” said Johnson. “Today, people like myself are joined by other members of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and Polaris Project, and thanks to many organizations including those, there are many supporters who are now advocating for victims and their rights.”
Victims include the most vulnerable — troubled teens, homeless, undocumented immigrants and drug abusers, among them. The support is now there, officials say, and families like Johnson’s can find help, but even as the word gets out, children like Ingrid’s daughter are still at risk.
“From 2007 through 2011, 533 children from New Jersey were reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” noted New Jersey Assistant Attorney General Tracy Thompson, “and 34 children with suspected or confirmed involvement in prostitution.”
Advocates for victims of human trafficking estimate that as many as 20 million people around the world are enslaved. The purpose of today’s symposium was to make clear that the battle against those types of numbers will require all hands on deck.