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Thursday, April 28, 2011 02:54 pm

Springfield urged to watch for human trafficking

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State officials and local social service providers can’t say how big of a problem human trafficking is for Springfield but they’re still encouraging local residents to keep their eyes open. Interstate 55 is known as a “beltway” for trafficking of any kind and sex trafficking has been found in much smaller cities, like Harrisburg, Pa., where a 2005 sting revealed a major interstate operation.

Victims of human trafficking, the second largest and fastest growing criminal industry worldwide, are often manipulated or coerced into sexual exploitation or involuntary servitude. They range in age, are both male and female, and include both U.S. citizens and foreigners transported to the country under force or fraudulent circumstances.

“It’s a matter of being able to recognize that this is going on and being able to report and do something about it,” says Michael Lelys, executive director of the Springfield Community Federation. The federation, along with the six-year-old Illinois Rescue and Restore campaign and the University of Illinois’ Center for Public Safety and Justice, last week hosted a human trafficking outreach program for area social service providers.

Though numbers for suburban and rural Illinois aren’t available, Illinois officials estimate that in Chicago between 16,000 and 25,000 American women and girls are victims of sexual exploitation each year, and Illinois ranks fifth in number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline, which can be reached at all hours at 888-373-7888.

“Sadly, human trafficking does exist in Illinois, in our communities all over the state,” says Grace Hou, assistant secretary with the Illinois Department of Human Services. “We know the facts are not pleasant, but the more we know, the faster we can bring an end to this crime.” Hou and other advocates ask that everyone “look beneath the surface” in order to snuff out human trafficking.

“Trafficking victims come from all walks of life,” says Lisa Fedina, project coordinator for Illinois Rescue and Restore, a statewide campaign run by the Department of Human Services and aimed at educating and mobilizing people to spot and stop human trafficking. “Really there is no discrimination in the sense of who trafficking victims are. Traffickers prey on vulnerability, so those individuals could be coming from circumstances of poverty, past histories of abuses or general lack of awareness of human trafficking. Especially for youth, runaway, throwaway, homeless youth are often targeted by traffickers.”

Signs of human trafficking victimization can include not having identification or travel documents, living and working in the same place, physical signs of abuse, behaving in a fearful or submissive manner and lacking basic knowledge about the community in which a person is located.

Chrystina Diedrich is a Springfield resident and administrative assistant with the Center for Economic Progress, a national nonprofit with a local office that provides support to low-income individuals. She says she recalls bruised and hungry young boys, one of whom couldn’t speak English, once knocking on her door. They told her that they and several others were being housed in a local motel and had been dropped off in the neighborhood to sell subscriptions.

“In afterthought, that [human trafficking] is probably what it was,” she says, contemplating what she would have done had she known then what she knows now. “I would do the same I did before, which was bring them in the house and offer them something to eat, but at the time, I would have also called the (hotline) number. I don’t know where it would have gone from there, but I would have at least outreached.”

For more information about human trafficking, visit www.acf.hhs.gov/trafficking.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com

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