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

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

There's always a little lag between the time new laws are passed and prosecutions start piling up, said Kathleen Kim, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who studies human trafficking. For example, the Federal Human Trafficking Prevention Act of 2000 revamped the definition of human trafficking to include a variety of coercion tactics, including psychological manipulation. But most of the cases filed since have continued to reflect the older laws, which required prosecutors to provide proof of bodily harm. Federal, state and local law enforcement officials need to get up to speed on the broad definition of coercion, she said.

"They're using 10 different control tactics and we're only catching them for one," she said.

A big part of the problem is a simple lack of awareness, said Bradley Myles, executive director of Polaris Project, one of the nation's largest anti-slavery organizations.

"It's a hidden crime," Myles said. "Traffickers do their best not to be detected. If we're not looking, it's very possible we won't see."

Law enforcement, prosecutors and service providers get hung up trying to define human trafficking, according to the University of Chicago survey. Many incorrectly confuse human trafficking with smuggling or believe only immigrants are affected.

"We're not talking about people paying for an illegal ride over the border," Myles said. "We're talking about people being held against their will and being forced to work."

Keisha, who is now a spokeswoman for the Georgia anti-trafficking organization A Future. Not a Past., describes the work she did for Sir Charles as "being raped repeatedly."

"If you don't want to do it," she said, "it's rape."

One night, a client pulled a gun on her, raped her and stole her money. She emerged so bruised and battered she could barely walk. When she returned to Sir Charles, he sent her straight to the street to earn back the cash she'd lost.

That was the day she realized — no matter what Sir Charles threatened — things couldn't get worse. That was the day she found the courage to escape.

It took years and a stint in prison to assemble any kind of self-esteem. But in the end, Keisha realized she was more than just the abuse she'd suffered.

"I am a powerful woman with a voice," she said.

Now she spends her days testifying before legislators, advocating for tougher laws and higher penalties. She's living proof of the reality of modern-day slavery. Proof is tattooed across her shoulders in curling, black script: "Sir Charles."

Email: estuart@desnews.com

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