The issue of human trafficking has come to the forefront of people’s minds and caught the attention of New Jersey Attorney General Jeff Chiesa who intends to crack down on the practice. Representatives from the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking Ingrid Johnson and Patricia Devine Harms told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that human trafficking is a form of slavery that is occurring throughout the state and the country and they hope to raise awareness and create harsher penalties for offenders.
Harms explained that wherever money can be made, there is an opportunity for trafficking, which doesn’t only include prostitution. “You hear a lot about sex trafficking because everyone can acknowledge there’s a horror involved in that. Then there’s also labor trafficking. It can take place in nail salons, hair braiding salons, farm workers can be trafficking victims,” she said. “It’s different from labor exploitation but it is happening, across the state and across the nation.”
Johnson said the type of enslavement differs in various parts of New Jersey. “So in the inner city, for example, you would see a higher level of prostitution versus farm labor. But you’d see labor trafficking in the braiding salons,” she said.
Those who traffic others can be “skilled manipulators,” according to Harms. “People will target girls, boys, under the age of 18 and lure them in almost like a pedophile goes through the grooming phase,” she said, adding that anyone under 18 that is found involved in the commercial sex industry is automatically considered a victim of trafficking.
Harms became involved in the coalition after reading a report about human trafficking. “I’ve been involved with the junior leagues of the New Jersey State Public Affairs Committee and we read an article back in 2005 about trafficking taking place in Elizabeth, N.J. and we were horrified. And we thought if this is happening, we must speak out against it,” she said. “And so we’ve been involved in legislative affairs as well as working with survivor services because action without giving the survivor voices in the mix is only part of the solution.”
Johnson has a more personal connection. In 2004, her daughter ran away from Irvington and Johnson recovered her from New York City 11 months later where she had been forced into prostitution.
“I worked closely with law enforcement and the New Jersey State Police,” Johnson said of how she was able to find her daughter. “And my daughter made one phone call and it took a few months, but they followed the tip and I was able to then scour New York City posting up fliers and petitions, working with the New York Police Department and eventually people heard her mother was in town and they did not want to go back to jail so they encouraged her to be released.”
Johnson’s daughter has moved passed the ordeal and is now a junior in college. Both mother and daughter have spoken publicly about what happened. “We’ve talked publicly about it because quite frankly we believe faithfully that if god could give my daughter back to us that we owed it to America to be public about it to help other families,” Johnson said. “So we do talk about it. We talk about the issues of teenage people, teenage youth hanging out. And that parents should be aware and talk to the youth about the risk.”
Harms said members of the New Jersey coalition are excited about the Human Trafficking Prevention Protection Treatment Act, which unanimously passed both houses last week. “What it’s really doing is it’s looking at survivors and providing comprehensive, appropriate survivor services and looking at the traffickers and the people that exploit other people and increasing their fines and penalties,” she explained.
Sugar coating those involved is another problem, according to Harms. She said referring to people as “Johns” doesn’t express what’s really happening.
“Those people are exploiting victims. They’re, in some cases, pedophiles, they are sexual deviants. We’re not talking about someone who goes to a prostitute that’s of legal age who makes a decision. We’re talking about human trafficking victims,” Harms said. “And this legislation is going at several different avenues to really augment what’s available and increase the fines and penalties.”