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Isabelle SenechalJune 12, 2020

Listen to this story re-imagined with interviews, sound design and commentary from America’s editors on the "Church Meets World" podcast.

When Riana H. was 15 years old, she ran away from home. This was not a one-time incident for the willful teenager, who developed a habit of disappearing after her family moved from Austin, Tex., to California in 2010. Whenever Riana clashed with her mother over her restrictive house rules or curfew, she would take off for a few hours to hide out with her new friends.

It was not unusual, then, when Riana decided to run away one night after getting into another argument with her mother for missing curfew. This time, however, she reached out for help from the wrong person—an older man (we will call him J.) who had given her his phone number earlier that day. Though Riana was suspicious of J.’s interest in her, she felt she had run out of options: “It was cold and nighttime. I had nowhere else to go, so I ended up calling the number.”

J. offered to put Riana up in a hotel room for the night. On the way, he gave her a drug that made her feel lightheaded and woozy. Riana remembers the room being occupied by another teenage girl, who started taking pictures of her.

“It kind of felt like a dream. It was my first time doing drugs, so I was kind of out of it. I didn’t know what was going on,” Riana told me over the phone.

The next morning she woke up, disoriented, to J. knocking on her hotel room door. At first, he downplayed what had happened the previous night, refusing to answer any of Riana’s or the other girl’s questions about their current situation or their hazy memories of their encounters with J. It was not until a week and a half later that his intentions with the photographs were made clear: J. was a sex trafficker, and Riana was his next victim.

Human trafficking remains a vast yet largely hidden criminal industry that generated an estimated $32 billion annually in 2012; and sex trafficking, in particular, exploits roughly four million people around the world. Hearing people like Riana recount her own experiences as a sex-trafficking survivor in her sometimes shaky yet persistent voice can help many put a face to these numbers and ask hard questions: What will it take to end human trafficking? And how should people of faith respond to this injustice?

Inside a Hidden Crime

Human trafficking is a unique, 21st-century social issue, in part because labor trafficking, including commercial sex trafficking, was not internationally recognized as a distinct crime until Nov. 15, 2000, when the Palermo Protocol was drafted at the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. Before that, the legal definition of human trafficking was murky at best, with virtually no uniform consequences for those who exploited individuals for labor or sex acts. The Palermo Protocol sought to change that by constructing the first global, legally binding agreement, one that includes a universal definition of trafficking in persons and encourages cooperation among the signatory polities to investigate and prosecute trafficking cases.

On Oct. 28, 2000, a few weeks before that seminal U.N. convention, President Bill Clinton signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, marking the first law in the history of the United States to address human trafficking. Under the T.V.P.A., trafficking was established as a federal offense that warranted severe criminal penalties. Since 2003, five reauthorizations of T.V.P.A., along with the Palermo Protocol, have served as the legal definition of human trafficking used in the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, sex trafficking involves any commercial sex act that “is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such [an] act has not attained 18 years of age.” For adult victims, how a state interprets “force, fraud, or coercion” is key; it determines whether a case is viewed as prostitution (illegal but considered voluntary) or trafficking (illegal and considered involuntary). But for minors, this definition means that any solicited sex act constitutes sex trafficking (the term “child prostitute” is therefore grossly inaccurate; by definition only adults can be prostitutes).

Sex trafficking exploits roughly four million people around the world.

Because she was a minor, Riana’s case automatically qualified as sex trafficking. If she had been an adult, proving her status as a victim might have been harder, although her description of J.’s intimidation tactics and fraudulent behavior indicates fraud or coercion.

In the beginning, J. took Riana’s cellphone so that she could not contact her mother or law enforcement for help. He hovered constantly by her side and kept her compliant by forcing her to take more drugs. He would pretend to come across seemingly innocent jobs for her, only to reveal at the last moment that these “financial opportunities” actually involved sex acts. J. was deceptive and manipulative, and he used those skills to take advantage of Riana’s vulnerable position as a runaway teen.

“He took that vulnerability and tried to act like he cared, [like he was] your boyfriend or whatever he was supposed to be to you,” Riana explained. “It’s not always about kidnap[ping]. [Traffickers] feed on your emotions, make you trust them, and then end up being about something else.”

On one occasion, early in her entrapment, Riana tried to escape J. by leaving with one of J.’s colleagues, who had promised to help her get out of the trafficking ring. Unfortunately, this man turned out to be an even more violent, aggressive trafficker than J.; during a car ride that was supposed to be Riana’s ticket to freedom, the man menaced her by keeping a gun trained on another girl, who had a black eye, in the front seat. The man dropped Riana off at a hotel “in the middle of nowhere” and warned her that he would not let her go unless she made a certain amount of money for him.

The man dropped Riana off at a hotel “in the middle of nowhere” and warned her that he would not let her go unless she made a certain amount of money for him.

Realizing that this was potentially a more dangerous situation than the time she had spent with her first trafficker, Riana ended up calling J. and pleading with him to take her back. Initially, J. claimed that he did not want to pick her up because he believed she had made money for another pimp—according to Riana, traffickers will stop associating with girls who sell for other pimps—but Riana managed to convince him otherwise. After that incident, Riana started seeing J. as more of a protector than an abuser.

“At the time I was, I would say, brainwashed. I went from thinking he was a bad person to thinking he was, I guess, protecting me or a good person,” Riana said.

Riana was trafficked for six months before the F.B.I. got involved with her case. After J.’s arrest, she was bounced from foster parent to foster parent before landing at Courage House, a therapeutic group home for girls rescued from sex trafficking that, at the time, was operating out of Northern California. (Full disclosure: My second cousin is the executive director for Courage House Tanzania.) It was at Courage House that Riana learned she was three months pregnant.

“[My doctor] told me I was pregnant and...I busted out laughing. I didn’t think I could get pregnant after basically everything I’ve been through,” she said.

I just feel that everybody should be aware [that this kind of thing is] going on.

Riana stayed at Courage House until about the sixth month of her pregnancy, at which point she returned to her parents’ house to have her baby. Now a member of the military in her mid-20s, Riana is advocating for other human trafficking victims.

“It’s easier for me to tell people the whole story and details [about my experience] because when people look at me, they don’t see my trauma or anything that I went through,” she said. “Then when I do explain to [people] that it’s not about what females wear or the fact that they’re out in public by themselves…and they get all hostile, I explain my situation and they’re just shocked.... I just feel that everybody should be aware [that this kind of thing is] going on.”

Church Teaching on Trafficking

Awareness of human trafficking has steadily increased around the world since the early 2000s, thanks in large part to activists and courageous survivors like Riana. Among those advocating justice for human trafficking victims, religious groups have been particularly vocal.

For decades, faith-based nongovernmental organizations and religious institutions have made significant contributions to the anti-trafficking movement, often employing their faith-based reasoning and the knowledge they have gleaned as service care providers, teachers and missionaries in marginalized communities to educate others about modern slavery, as well as to provide services for victims and inform policy change. The Catholic Church is no exception.

In a letter addressed to Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran for a conference on the human rights dimension of human trafficking in 2002, St. John Paul II called trafficking in persons “a shocking offense against human dignity and a grave violation of fundamental human rights,” invoking the Second Vatican Council document “Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the Modern World,” which describes slavery as “a supreme dishonor to the Creator.” Further, the pope echoed a global consensus that “promoting effective juridical instruments to halt this iniquitous trade, to punish those who profit from it, and to assist the reintegration of victims” should be top priorities in the fight against human trafficking.

Pope Francis, too, has made human trafficking a principal focus in his vision for the church.

Pope Francis, too, has made human trafficking a principal focus in his vision for the church. In 2015, he dedicated his annual message for the World Day of Peace to human trafficking, which he proclaimed is a “crime against humanity,” and called for “a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.” Two years later, Francis charged the Migrant and Refugees Section of the Vatican with developing pastoral guidelines for the issue. From April 9 to 11, 2019, the Vatican hosted an international conference called Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking in Sacrofano, Rome, where 18 groups determined 42 action items for the church to complete in its efforts against the trafficking of persons. These pastoral proposals included taking a more proactive role in raising public awareness, involving survivors in policymaking and programs on human trafficking, encouraging local dioceses and parishes to offer temporary shelter and specialized assistance to victims, and enlisting the help of Catholic universities to research human trafficking.

“The Pastoral Orientations on [Human Trafficking] are deeply grounded in the Church’s reflection and teaching and in its longstanding practical experience responding to the needs of men, women, boys and girls caught up in human trafficking,” Flaminia Vola, the office’s regional coordinator for Western Europe and head of the team’s anti-trafficking efforts, said in an email. “Expertise and awareness about the phenomenon [have] changed over time, but the reference values for its evaluation remained unchanged.”

Shining Hope in the Darkness

Human trafficking is a dark and complex subject, but the situation is not without hope. Although much work remains to be done to effectively address and completely dismantle the economic, social, legal and political systems that enable trafficking of persons, progress has been made by civil society, nonprofits and public and private sectors.

Groups like Catholic Relief Services and Polaris have worked to raise awareness and develop holistic, survivor-oriented programming.

Groups like Catholic Relief Services and Polaris have worked to raise awareness and develop holistic, survivor-oriented programming. The National Human Trafficking Hotline has helped with 56,504 cases of human trafficking in the United States—some involving multiple victims—since 2007. States have expanded statutes on human trafficking (with varying degrees of success) to connect victims with resources and help law enforcement handle trafficking incidents. And in January 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to expand his domestic policy office to include a new position that will focus solely on combating human trafficking.

One anti-trafficking project that has successfully combined private and public sectors, secular and faith-driven organizations, and advanced innovative research on the issue is the Human Trafficking Initiative at Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Omaha, Neb. (and my alma mater). Co-directed by Crysta Price, founder and chief executive officer of HTI labs, and Terry Clark, a professor of political science and international relations, HTI uses data science to collect, analyze and evaluate the scope of human trafficking in a given region and recommend corresponding policy solutions.

“We are focused on providing research analysis broadly to the entire [anti-]trafficking effort in our state, and we provide support outside of our state as well,” Mr. Clark said in a phone interview.

HTI uses data science to collect, analyze and evaluate the scope of human trafficking in a given region and recommend corresponding policy solutions.

The project began in 2013 when Mr. Clark—along with two of his colleagues, John N. Mordeson, a professor of mathematics, and Mark Wierman, an associate professor of computer science—opened an experimental research laboratory that used cutting-edge information technologies to produce data on various social issues. Ms. Price, then an undergraduate studying international relations and economics, joined the research lab soon after, where she quickly assumed responsibility for a project that focused on international trafficking flows.

Ms. Price tracked women and children moving between countries with high sex-trafficking rates—for example, between Thailand and Laos or Russia and Ukraine. After close to a year of research, she realized that the same methodology could more accurately measure the prevalance of sex trafficking in the United States—data that for the longest time seemed out of reach, given the secretive nature of human trafficking. The team secured grant funding from the Sherwood Foundation and Women’s Fund of Omaha, and HTI Labs was born.

How does Creighton’s HTI team find data on a crime as secretive as sex trafficking? One piece of it comes from online advertising.

“While trafficking is a hidden crime, it still has to advertise in some way to an underground market of sex buyers, who aren’t necessarily your classic criminal [archetype],” Ms. Price explained. “Advertising to those sex buyers is always going to be the way that we capture information about the people being sold.”

“And that’s what really distinguishes sex trafficking from other forms [of trafficking], because those other forms…don’t really have to go out on the open web to reach a broad market,” added Mr. Clark.

How does Creighton’s HTI team find data on a crime as secretive as sex trafficking? One piece of it comes from online advertising.

Initially, most of the advertising data that HTI Labs processed came from Backpage.com, a classified advertising website that was the largest domestic online marketplace for commerical sex until the F.B.I. seized the site in 2018 to remove prostitution and child sex-trafficking ads. While shutting down Backpage did mitigate the website’s monopoly on sex solicitation, the controversial shutdown has been criticized by activists for scattering sex trafficking to other corners of the internet and thus making it more difficult to gather evidence for trafficking investigations.

“The shutdown of Backpage complicated the ability for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute trafficking,” said Ms. Price. “There were a lot of ongoing investigations where evidence relied on the data that only Backpage had.”

Backpage’s shutdown also complicated the research done by HTI Labs. “Now, instead of one website in the continental United States, located in the United States, we have half a dozen to a dozen abroad. Instead of using just one format, we have to try to collapse things across all these different formats,” Mr. Clark said. It’s a lot of data to process; HTI Labs continually adjusts its algorithm to capture as much of it as they can.

In order to corroborate the data they pull from online advertisements, HTI Labs works with the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force, law enforcement, local shelters and women-centric nonprofits like Women’s Fund of Omaha to compare the information that each organization has collected on the different dimensions of human trafficking. “It’s that feedback loop that allows us to train our algorithms and to feel confident in the assumptions that we’re making,” Ms. Price said.

Through their research, HTI Labs was able to estimate that 900 individuals were sold for sex in the state of Nebraska per month in 2017.

Through their research, HTI Labs was able to estimate that 900 individuals were sold for sex in the state of Nebraska per month in 2017.

“The work of HTI Labs…has been integral in allowing us to work collaboratively to impact systemic issues like sex trafficking,” Meghan Malik, the trafficking project manager for Women’s Fund of Omaha, shared in an email. “Their work provided Nebraska with the first empircial data on the commercial sex market in our state, which has helped the Women’s Fund inform policy change and identify solutions to support survivors in our community.”

One such policy change that Women’s Fund of Omaha successfully advocated for (using data and research analysis generated by HTI Labs) was LB-1132, a state law that allows trafficking victims to annul convictions and expunge criminal records they may have accumulated while they were being trafficked. Under LB-1132, adult survivors of sex trafficking can build new lives for themselves without worrying about the impact that the crimes their traffickers forced them to commit might have on a job interview or housing application. The Nebraska Legislature unanimously passed LB-1132 in April 2018.

Ms. Price explained that her drive to do this work is fueled by not only the opportunity to conduct research in an understudied area, but also to work on a social justice issue that disproportionately affects women. “The dynamics of the exploitation that’s happening here, it’s really kind of every woman’s story,” she said. “It can be a little bit depressing at times, but you know, at the end of the day, it feels good to work on something that hits home for so many women.”

“Without my faith, I don’t think I’d be involved in this at all,” Mr. Clark said. He added: “[When we see injustice], do we just throw our hands up in the air and give up? Or do we partner with God…putting our hands to the plow where we’ve been called to?”

Sex and labor trafficking may not be eliminated in our lifetime, but we can still do our part to stop the scourge. Here are a few practical steps you can take:

First, continue educating yourself on human trafficking. The more informed you are, the better you can work to raise awareness and dispel public misconceptions or myths about human trafficking. Listen to victims and survivors like Riana, who are the experts on the issue. Read the Vatican’s Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking and work to implement their recommendations at your home parish, church or local community.

Consider contributing financially to anti-trafficking nonprofits and projects like HTI Labs (look for "HTI Labs Charitable Fund" under "Other Funds"). Academic research, prevention and rehabilitation for survivors can be costly, so your donations go a long way in making important work against human trafficking possible.

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