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

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 11:08 a.m. MDT

With job descriptions ranging in scope from prostitute to waiter to maid, more than 150,000 people in the United States are living in slavery, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. (Shutterstock.com / photo illustration by Josh Ferrin) With job descriptions ranging in scope from prostitute to waiter to maid, more than 150,000 people in the United States are living in slavery, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. (Shutterstock.com / photo illustration by Josh Ferrin)

Editor's note: President Obama declared today as human trafficking awareness day, so we are republishing a story we originally published in December 2011 about modern-day slavery in the U.S.

ATLANTA — Maybe it was the defiant glint in her eye. Maybe it was the way she dragged her feet on the way to join the other underage girls in tube tops and 8-inch heels hawking their bodies in a bad part of Atlanta. Keisha Head wasn't sure. But somehow Sir Charles always knew when she was considering trying to escape.

"You better not be thinkin' 'bout leaving," the pimp would say. "You know what's gonna happen."

Sometimes, if he sensed Keisha needed reminding, the big man would shove the then-16-year-old into his Mercedes-Benz and drive her to the cemetery. There he'd strip off her clothes and leave her curled up next to a headstone, sobbing, to contemplate how nobody would notice if she — a runaway and a prostitute — went missing.

 (Sshutterstock.com, photo illustration by Josh Ferrin) (Sshutterstock.com, photo illustration by Josh Ferrin)

"I know grave diggers," he'd say when he came to collect her 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour later. "We could just throw you in a hole when they're burying someone else."

At the time, Keisha, now 31, was considered a delinquent. Now lawmakers are beginning to recognize she was a slave.

President Barack Obama declared Jan. 11 as Human Trafficking Awareness Day and all of January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

With job descriptions ranging in scope from prostitute to waiter to maid, more than 150,000 people in the United States are living in slavery, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Their stories are as different as their backgrounds. There's the boys choir from Zambia that was forced to sing seven concerts a day then locked in a trailer in Texas while their benefactors collected the cash. There's the case of 400 Thai agricultural workers who came to Seattle looking for salaried work picking apples and wound up shut in wooden shacks with no pay. Researchers estimate close to half of today's victims of human trafficking are people like Keisha who have been coerced into the sex industry.

Sex slaves are the most profitable slave in the modern world, according to Siddharth Kara, a fellow on human trafficking at Harvard University and author of "Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery." On average, a sex slave costs $5,000 in the United States and, before escaping or dying, generates profits exceeding $135,000. There is little risk for exploiters because, more often than not, it's girls like Keisha — and not the pimps who manipulate them — who wind up behind bars.

There are some state and federal laws in place to fight the practice, but prosecutions and convictions are rare.

According to an analysis of anti-slavery laws released last week by the anti-slavery organization Shared Hope International, more than half of states don't have legislation in place to make sure victims like Keisha aren't being punished instead of cared for. Even in places with strong anti-slavery laws, victims go unnoticed because law enforcement officials confuse the crime, which is officially called human trafficking, with smuggling immigrants across the border. Many still see people like Keisha as criminals instead of victims.

"We're only just starting to wake up and recognize this problem," said Alicia Wilson, policy counsel for Shared Hope International. "Awareness is low, law enforcement isn't where it should be and there are almost no services for victims."

Changing perceptions

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."

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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