Jewish community members work to raise awareness of human trafficking and help victims.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness month. Motivated by our own traumatic history, from Joseph being sold into slavery to the Exodus from Egypt, many in the Jewish community here in Detroit and around the nation have taken up the cause of fighting and preventing human trafficking.

Organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Polaris, Sanctum House and others are ramping up efforts to educate the public about this criminal industry, teaching people to recognize the signs that a person is being trafficked and fighting to create environments and legislation that will ease the way for those reclaiming their lives after surviving sex or labor trafficking.

Robert Beiser
Robert Beiser

“Even the Haftarah we read each Yom Kippur from Isiah speaks about breaking the yoke of slavery,” said Robert Beiser, strategic initiatives director of sex trafficking for Polaris, a national organization that keeps statistics and data on human trafficking by operating the National Human Trafficking Hotline. “Fighting against human trafficking is a Jewish value with roots that go as deep as the Exodus from Egypt and carry on through the generations that Jews endured persecution and captivity, all the way up to the Holocaust. It is our calling and responsibility to not look away and to take action against modern-day slavery.”

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there were 1,186 signals to the hotline of trafficking activity that originated in Michigan in 2021. The victims were predominantly women, with 252 females and 28 males caught in sex trafficking activity. There were 295 identified cases that involved 429 victims in total. The locations and nature of the acts were varied.

Nationwide, the Hotline received 50,123 tips from calls, texts and online chats in 2021 alone. Since its creation in 2007, Polaris has identified 82,301 cases of human trafficking that involved 164,839 victims.

The Polaris Project noted the sharp increase of trafficking of people in known relationships during 2020. For example, in 2020, among all forms of trafficking whose recruitment relationships were known (4,142), the proportion of victims recruited by a family member or caregiver increased significantly — from 21% of all victims in 2019 to 31% in 2020 — a 47% increase. In addition, the proportion recruited by intimate partners jumped 21% — from 22% in 2019 to 27% in 2020. In labor trafficking situations, of the 1,572 national victims whose recruitment was known in 2020: 69% were recruited by a potential or current employer; 15% were recruited into trafficking by a member of their own family; and 5% by an intimate partner or marriage proposition.

Keeping an accurate tally on such statistics while also shining a light on the individual stories of survivors in recovery, Polaris dispels human trafficking myths and makes an impact on the lives of those who have been trafficked by harnessing data to reduce, prevent and end the practice while showing how the crime intersects in the worlds of business, finance, government and society.

Beiser has been working with Jewish organizations across the country to raise awareness. He said that NCJW chapters across the country have been instrumental in aligning leaders in the Jewish community with anti-trafficking activists and other Jewish organizations such as the Religious Action Community to not only bring awareness and understanding to the general public, but also to enforce and strengthen the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which makes trafficking a federal crime and provides resources and funding to aid survivors.

“Trafficking survivors want to see many changes to our labor and immigration practices, and this requires a great deal of advocacy,” Beiser said. “From my previous work in the Jewish community, I know that it’s not just adults who are getting involved, but there are efforts within Jewish youth groups and Jewish day schools to teach teens about the issue, who in turn want to teach their peers.”

Cindy Weintraub
Cindy Weintraub

Cindy Weintraub, co-chair for NCJW Michigan’s Human Trafficking Awareness committee, worked for years as a registered nurse specializing in the quality and safety of emergency room patient care at Beaumont Troy. In 2014, she decided it would be beneficial if she and her staff enrolled in a one-hour training course to identify potential victims of human trafficking.

“The course opened our eyes to the shocking fact that we had been treating and caring for human trafficking victims all along, but we didn’t realize it at the time,” said Weintraub, who also sits on the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force. “It was then I realized how big of a problem this is, right here in our own backyard. Those who are trafficked come from every socioeconomic and racial background. And yes, it does happen right here in Oakland County.”

Educating Teens

Weintraub’s co-chair is Rita Sitron, who is working to bring human trafficking awareness and education into the public-school arena.

Rita Sitron
Rita Sitron

In 2016, NCJW, in partnership with Bloomfield Hills and West Bloomfield School districts, held a symposium for hundreds of teens and their caregivers to teach how traffickers ensnare their victims and to offer community resources to prevent the crime. Now, Weintraub and Sitron are looking to re-energize their efforts with upcoming action and educational programming in the spring. Those looking for more information or who may want to get involved can contact NCJW at https://ncjwmi.org/volunteer.

A retired high school teacher with 17 years in the Detroit Public Schools and Walled Lake school districts, Sitron’s mission is to teach today’s teachers how to spot red flags that might indicate a human trafficking situation among their students.

“While school psychologists and social workers have been trained in this area, it is necessary for teachers to attain this background as well,” Sitron said. “Looking back at the years I was teaching, I knew of kids who had issues, but I didn’t know anything about trafficking at the time. it would be beneficial to go to various schools and educate the staff as well as the teachers so they can recognize the symptoms.”

According to Weintraub, she and Sitron initially decided to enroll in the training back in 2014 because, at that time, Lansing was starting to report increased numbers of trafficking victims in Michigan. Though numbers are still rising, Weintraub said her committee aims to take away the sensationalism, myths and conspiracy theories surrounding the practice and replace them with hard facts and data.

“For example, it is very rare for a person to be kidnapped into a situation where they are forced into sex work or manual labor like you see in the movies,” Weintraub said. “Often, it can be a vulnerable person who is promised work, fair wages and even housing by the trafficker, and then the person is told they must work off an unforeseen debt.”

Immigration Policy

Ruby Robinson, managing attorney for Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said this country’s longstanding lags in improving its immigration policies only exacerbate the numbers of those trafficked for either sex or labor. Just recently, he said his organization aided a client who was trafficked for three years in a Detroit African hair braiding business.

Ruby Robinson
Ruby Robinson

Robinson explained that from an immigration standpoint, trafficking fits into two categories: when someone is coerced or forced into the commercial sex trafficking trade or when they are forced or recruited into an employment situation where they are fraudulently told they are indebted to the trafficker, resulting in involuntary servitude. Robinson said it is not uncommon to find people in domestic situations such as housecleaning or nannying out in the suburbs of West Bloomfield or Bloomfield Hills.

“Such situations can also be found in domestic or janitorial services, construction or even agriculture,” Robinson said. “Trafficking affects vulnerable populations who may not see themselves as vulnerable. Maybe somebody came to the United States on a temporary work visa, but their wages have been withheld. Or, they have been moved to a different location than the one they thought they were going to be in, and they are living in a dormitory type of housing and don’t have the ability to leave. Basically, they are compelled to do certain work against their will.”

Robinson said that his organization works to build cases against the traffickers, striving to sue them to pay fines to the government or pay money owed to clients. He also pointed to pending legislation that looks to crack down on the illegal industry with stiffer fines and criminal charges.

“There needs to be efforts to educate law enforcement, or others who have first encounters with those caught in a trafficking ring, to make victims aware of their rights and opportunities. Victims who have been apprehended by law enforcement can either participate in an investigation of a trafficking ring or apply to secure a valid work visa. But overall, from those being trafficked, it takes courage to come forward and offer their help in our investigations. It requires that person to put their trust in a system or government when they may have come from a place where there was complete distrust in government.”

Survivor Stories

Behind the statistics are stories of those who survived and are regaining their independence.

This year is shaping up to be a good one for Samantha, 46. After a lifetime of enduring trauma from being trafficked between the ages of 4 and 8 by her mother’s ex-boyfriend, Samantha will soon graduate from an intensive two-year rehabilitation program at Sanctum House and mark that occasion by moving into a transitional apartment, also located on the organization’s campus.

Samantha grew up poor in Portage. Sometimes trafficked to multiple men each night, Samantha said having her body sold for money, first by her mother’s boyfriend and then by multiple men with whom she had relationships from her teens and into adulthood, seemed like a regular part of life.

“It felt normal, like, this is what I learned love was, and I did what I was told,” said Samantha. “My mother’s boyfriend trafficked my brother and me for sex from the time I was 4 until I was 8. All the while, we were told not to tell my mother, who herself didn’t know what was happening. Finally, my mother, brother and I left her boyfriend when I was 8. I didn’t tell my mother about this until I was 15, and all the while I suffered from severe mental health problems.”

At her lowest point, she attempted to commit suicide. She underwent a lengthy hospitalization and rehabilitation program which led her to Sanctum House’s two-year program.

Located at an undisclosed location in Oakland County, Sanctum House, a 501 (c) nonprofit organization, is one of the only organizations of its kind in the state to provide a comprehensive long-term, two-year rehabilitation program that guides trafficking survivors back to a path of self-sustainment. The organization’s partnering professional service organizations provide women in the program with medical and mental health resources that include therapies to recover from trauma, substance abuse, loss of relationships and grief, and restoring severed relationships. Life skills learned include nutritious cooking, housekeeping and personal finance.

Sanctum House is a warm, inviting, beautiful home for the residents.
Sanctum House is a warm, inviting, beautiful home for the residents.

The organization also helps women advance their education by putting them in touch with resources to gain literacy skills, advance their GED, and find vocational or higher education opportunities. For example, the organization’s 2021 Annual Report noted its vocational and educational training include work with University of Michigan-Flint to help women identify vocational interests.

Upon their arrival, residents like Samantha who qualify for the two-year program are welcomed into one of two 6,200-square-foot homes that can each house 12 women. The ground floor features a fully equipped kitchen (outfitted by donations from NCJW) where residents build community by cooking and sharing meals together as well as a living room, sitting area and dining room. The homes also feature eight large double-occupancy bedroom suites, each with a bathroom.

The basement features another sitting area with a television, exercise equipment and a room with donated clothing available to residents in the program. There are also private rooms where women meet with therapists several times a week.

Since becoming a resident of Sanctum House in November 2020, Samantha’s life has transformed. She has learned to take care of herself, gotten help in receiving her Social Security card and a government-issued identification card, received mental and substance abuse counseling, worked retail jobs and opened a checking account.

“Outside of rehab, I knew I needed a sustained, longer program to save my life,” explained Samantha. “And the minute I got here, I felt loved. The survivor women who work here are like sisters. They taught me how to survive and love myself. There are always women here to listen and help me.”

Above all, the most important thing Sanctum House has given her is a sense of her own self-worth and the knowledge that she is deserving of love. Working with relationship therapists, she restored ties with her mother, who she learned was also sexually abused, as was her grandmother.

Sanctum House also has an apartment building on its property housing four heavily subsidized apartments where those who have finished the program live until they can transition to complete independence. Samantha expects to move into one of these apartments this spring.

As a survivor, Samantha has begun to share her story and speak out at schools, houses of worship as well as at medical and dental offices to help people recognize the warning signs of trafficking and abuse.

iStock

“When I came here, I had not seen a dentist in so long I had to have many of my teeth pulled and replaced,” Samantha said. “Now, when I go out telling my story to different groups, including those in the medical and dental fields, I tell them that one way you can tell if someone is being trafficked is by examining their dental health.”

Since it opened in 2018, Sanctum House has served more than 100 women like Samantha and is supported by government and private foundation grants as well as individual donations and pro-bono services.

Getting a Fresh Start

Sanctum House Founder Edee Franklin is proud of the strides this organization has made and looks forward to widening its ever-expanding reach of partnerships throughout Metro Detroit. “Human trafficking has no boundaries as to age, gender, race or religion,” she said. “It is vulnerability that is the culprit for its victims.”

Edee Franklin
Edee Franklin

Franklin said even after they recover, there are still challenges ahead for women like Samantha, who may have accrued a criminal record or a bad credit score because of the things they had to do to survive at the hands of their trafficker. For them to truly get a fresh start, they must have these records wiped clean and have more resources made available to them for job training. She pointed to the recent signing of the Countering Human Trafficking Act of 2022 by President Joe Biden as an encouraging sign.

“Most of the women who come to us have been on the streets and have misdemeanors or felony convictions,” Franklin said. “Think how tough it is then to fill out that section of a job application that asks if you’ve been convicted of a crime. So, in our next steps of advocacy, we have partnered with law firms and legal professionals and even organizations such as the Joseph Project to help expunge their records.”

Jeremy Moss
Jeremy Moss

Michigan Senate President Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said recent actions taken by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that include pardoning the crimes of several trafficking survivors at the end of her first term could indicate that the state legislature is preparing to move in this direction. Moss said there is bipartisan support for introducing new laws that protect people while they are being trafficked — such as training those in the hotel and motel industry to detect red flag activity going on in their establishments.

Moss is hopeful that the new session will see several pieces of legislation introduced that will educate multiple industries — including the financial world — on detecting patterns that reveal whether a business is involved in trafficking as well as helping trafficking survivors expunge their criminal records.

“With her series of pardons last December, the governor has taken a lead on this, ensuring that those who have been victims of human trafficking or domestic violence and, as a result, have been charged and convicted of affiliated crimes can truly see justice,” Moss said.

“People who are trafficked are put in incredibly difficult circumstances. We need to recognize them as victims and give them justice. This is the track we need to go down as we move into the new session in the Legislature.”

If you suspect that any child or adult is a victim, or is at risk of becoming a victim, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888. If the individual is in imminent danger, immediately call 911.

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Stacy Gittleman is an award-winning journalist and has been a contributing writer for the Detroit Jewish News for the last five years. Prior to moving to Metro Detroit in 2013, she was a columnist and feature writer for Gannett's Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY. She also manages social media pages for other local non-profit organizations including the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Contact her with breaking news and feature story ideas that impact Detroit's Jewish community at stacy.gittleman@yahoo.com