Human Trafficking Awareness Day: The battle against modern-day slavery in the U.S.

Published: Saturday, Dec. 10 2011 1:00 p.m. MST

When Keisha met Sir Charles, she was living in an abandoned building in Atlanta and hadn't eaten for several days. Born to a schizophrenic mother, she had spent most of her life wandering through foster homes — 42 in all — until a child welfare official told her the state mental hospital was her only remaining option. She ran away. Sir Charles gave her food and replaced her ragged, dirty clothes. She found herself telling him things she'd never told anyone: how she'd been molested, how she had gotten pregnant and how, because she had no money, she had sorrowfully given the baby up. He dried her tears and offered to take her to visit the 6-month-old.

"I felt like I'd finally found a home," she said.

Three days later Sir Charles asked Keisha to turn her first trick. She refused.

"You know that little girl you took me to see?" he said. "I can make sure something happens to her."

Because of a deep-seated perception that slavery is a Third World issue, states have had a hard time getting the ball rolling on anti-trafficking initiatives, said Texas state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who has been at the forefront of the legislative battle against modern-day slavery. When she first suggested an anti-slavery law in 2001, "I was patted on the back and told, 'Little lady, that doesn't happen here,' " she said. The movement started out small, with just a few states taking a look at slavery. Over the past decade, 48 states have criminalized human trafficking. In 2005, states passed nine new laws, then, in 2008, 13. In 2011, legislatures approved 42 bills.

Van de Putte pushed for state legislation because she believes states are better equipped to detect the crime. It's local police who are on the ground, responding to domestic violence and prostitution calls, she said.

"They are the ones who are going to be able to peel back the layers to figure out whether this is actually a case of human trafficking," she said. "The feds can't do that. They aren't even here."

Texas gets high scores from advocates for its anti-slavery laws, as do Illinois and Washington. But in a comprehensive analysis of trafficking laws released last week, Shared Hope International gave 26 states failing grades. Many states, like Utah, have good criminal statutes in place but don't offer protection or services to victims. West Virginia and Wyoming have yet to address the issue at all.

When it comes to sex trafficking, oftentimes it's the victim who is prosecuted while the captor goes free, Wilson said. Shared Hope International argues, regardless of whether or not there is proof of coercion, minors should never be charged with prostitution because they cannot legally consent to have sex. While federal law protects children from prostitution prosecution, only three states do the same.

"We need to be shifting the mind-set, taking this from a delinquency proceeding to a child protective proceeding," Wilson said. "These are not criminals. These are vulnerable children."

Sir Charles expected Keisha to bring in $1,000 a night. If she didn't meet quota one night, she had to make it up the next. If she failed, Sir Charles beat her. She never saw a penny.

"People always ask me, 'Why did you stay?' " Keisha said. "I didn't have a choice. Sir Charles was well-connected in the community. He knew all the runaway hideouts. I had nowhere to go."

Enforcing the law

People who might have helped Keisha jeered at her instead. They saw her, a teenager in a tight miniskirt, on the side of the road, and rolled down their windows and yelled at her to "Go home!"

Even the police overlooked her plight.

One day, after all the other girls had left with clients, a patrol car pulled up.

Looking her up and down, a half-smile on his lips, the officer inside observed, "What are you doing here? You belong down on Pastry Street. That's where all the pretty girls are."

Even for those on the front lines, human trafficking remains a foggy issue. While the vast majority of states have criminalized both labor and sex trafficking, less than half require law enforcement to complete training. In states with anti-trafficking statutes, 44 percent of law enforcement personnel and 50 percent of prosecutors don't know the legislation exists, according to a recent survey from the University of Chicago. Prosecutors who had heard of the laws indicated they were reluctant to use them because, "Sometimes it's easier to prosecute it as something else."

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