By Jay Bouchard
Recalling her years as a sex-trafficking victim in Chicago and Miami, Sam Wijeyakumar reflected that “if God had not been part of my healing process, I’d probably be dead.”
Wijeyakumar, now an activist working to end human trafficking, offered her sobering testimony as part of a “clarion call” in which local faith groups and federal officials are joining forces to rescue victims and better support survivors of sex and labor trafficking.
Over the past year, the Administration of Children and Families (ACF), a federal agency promoting the well-being of families in the United States, has brought together various faith-based groups in Chicago on several occasions to discuss ways to better combat human trafficking.
As recently as late January, more than 50 representatives from local churches and nonprofits met with ACF officials for a collaborative action planning session. ACF hosted a similar session to begin the conversation last March.
“Human trafficking is nothing but modern day slavery and an affront to basic human rights,” Angela Green, regional administrator of ACF, told the assembled group of activists at their last meeting on Jan. 29.
The coalition of faith-based groups includes representatives from the Salvation Army, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Rahab’s Daughters, the Chicago Dream Center, the Jewish Coalition against Sex Trafficking, and several others.
“As a faith community, we need to come together in unity,” said Kaitrin Valencia, executive director of the Chicago Dream Center, a Christian organization that serves trafficking victims.
These organizations have spent the past year identifying critical areas of need in the fight to end human trafficking.
Several organizations have expressed the need to train activists. In many cases, churches and families want to get involved, but don’t have the adequate training to help trafficking victims said Carolyn Davis, a representative from JC is The Way.
Educating men about sex-trafficking is also a point of concern for these groups.
“We need to ramp up our efforts to educate the men in our communities,” Valencia said.
Valencia explained that in many cases, men who frequent strip clubs and order dancers or prostitutes do not realize that the women involved are being trafficked. She explained that if men were more conscious of these realities, sex-trafficking would likely decrease. She stressed that this education must start as early as middle school.
Two other issues that faith-based organizations are addressing are housing for victims and more accurate, comprehensive data on trafficking victims.
Ruth Ayukesong, public service administrator with the Illinois Department of Human Services, noted that current data is not an accurate reflection and that trafficking is far more pervasive than reported.
Representatives at the January meeting noted that not all victims of trafficking are being stolen and sent across state or international borders and that some children who are living at home and attending school may still be sold for sex.
According to the Chicago Alliance against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), human trafficking is defined as the recruitment and transportation of persons within or across boundaries by force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of exploiting them economically.
CAASE reports that there are 12.3 million adults and children worldwide at any given time in forced labor of commercial sexual servitude.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, only 122 trafficking cases were reported in Illinois in 2015. But as Ayukesong noted, current statistics are unreliable.
For instance, the National Council for Jewish Women estimated that 16,000-25,000 women and children are trafficked each day in the Chicagoland area.
But while the true trafficking numbers in Chicago remain in question, faith-based organizations and the federal government are continuing their efforts to bring an end to a heinous modern form of slavery.