February 27, 2014 is known as Shine a Light on Slavery Day (see http://www.enditmovement.com for more information). Many people are wearing red X’s on their hands and t-shirts and are displaying the red X as their profile pictures on social media sites. You may be one of those people.
But do you remember the day you came face-to-face with a trafficking victim?
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It was a day like any other for the 9-year-old girl and her 13-year-old brother. But their “day like any other” wasn’t like ours. They weren’t going to school or the park. They didn’t have sports practices to go to or dance classes. It didn’t involve meeting around the family table for dinner or visiting grandparents.
This “day like any other” began at their typical grocery store front post, holding an old cardboard tray that was once used to stack 6-packs of soda cans in the grocery store. Only these trays didn’t have soda cans on them–they held little trinkets made of yarn. Bookmarks, hair clips, ornaments and magnets made out of tatted yarn flowers. Sometimes they would hold crocheted pot-holders or various other handmade items. The job these two kids had was to sell each of those items to provide their father with money for the bills and for his drug habit.
These kids’ job typically started at 10am and ended at around 8-9pm each night. Some days the hours would vary, depending on the weather, if the store manager kicked them off the property, or if they were threatened with the police being called for solicitation. If they were lucky they would sell the items fast and get off early because there was nothing left to sell. Those days were few, though, because as they sold the trinkets their father sat in the car with the oldest sibling and made more. There was typically enough of a supply to work an 10-12 hour shift.
Some days the grocery store post was abandoned and they would walk door-to-door selling the items. The terms never changed–it was expected to sell all of the inventory, it just involved more time because walking door-to-door meant walking time plus knocking time. Grocery stores had more customers.
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Do you remember if you came face-to-face with one of these trafficked kids?
Maybe you didn’t. But maybe you did.
They traveled across the country, from California to Florida and back.
Some people would give the kids a quarter each to buy a can of soda from the vending machine that stood outside the door (that’s what a can of soda cost in the early 90s). They didn’t suspect trafficking–the idea of such wasn’t even commonplace then–but they cared enough to provide a drink. It was especially appreciated on days that were hot, days that had run consecutively with multiple other long days of selling, and as the day wore into night–the caffeine boost helped get through the final hours.
Some people invited them into their homes during door-to-door days. One elderly lady offered chocolate-chip cookies. It was a welcomed treat. They ate quickly and moved on, fearful they would get caught not working.
One time a man in Missouri saw the children standing outside a grocery store and started yelling at them, “You peddlers! I’m calling the police!” For fear of getting arrested they rushed to the Oldsmobile sitting in the back of the parking lot, informed their father of the threat, and sped away. They had to sell door-to-door that day.
One day the girl complained about having to go out again, knowing she risked getting punished for voicing such a complaint. “If you don’t go out and make enough money today our electricity will be shut off,” he reprimanded. “You don’t want us to be cold and not be able to cook food, do you?” Even in her young age her anger raged, knowing that if he worked a job the bills would be paid or that if all the money earned prior wasn’t spent on drugs the bill could have already been paid.
One day the boy was sent out alone to make some early morning money before the day begin. The kids were promised a trip to the thrift store to get “new” clothes that day. Knowing sales had been good that week and they were ahead the boy stopped to play a game of basketball with some neighborhood kids. When he didn’t get back early enough his father went out and found him. They didn’t go to the thrift store that day. Instead the boy was slapped for being disobedient and was required to sit on his bed all day, not allowed to get off of it even to use the restroom. He was not allowed to eat, either. His oldest sister who told him he probably wouldn’t get in trouble for playing for a few minutes suffered the same fate.
One time the girl and her brother stood outside a grocery store, one at each of the two entrances. A man pulled into the parking lot in what looked like–to the small girl–a monster truck and started walking toward the front. He was a large, muscular man in a tank top and shorts. She hesitated on whether or not to approach the big, scary looking man but knew she would get in trouble if she was caught letting people walk into the store without asking them if they would buy. He didn’t speak a word to her nor make eye contact. He must’ve known she was going to ask because as he walked by he dropped a hundred dollar bill into the box and kept going.
Excited, she rushed to the other store entrance to show her brother her good fortune. “He didn’t take anything,” her brother said. “Nobody will know you got this. Lets hide it. We can sneak into the store and buy something to eat or a drink.” “No,” the little girl pleaded. “If we get caught we’ll get in trouble! Please let’s just go tell him! Maybe he’ll give us the day off since we made as much as we could if we sold all of this.” “No, he won’t,” argued the brother. “Nobody will know. And we’ll get to eat! Please don’t tell him!” “We’ll get in trouble! We can’t. Please let’s just tell him!” “Okay, fine.”
They walked to the Oldsmobile at the end of the parking lot and showed their father the hundred dollar bill, excited to get to go home early and maybe even get extra food today. Typically they would get a $1 Whopper from Burger King and a cup of water, once for lunch and once for dinner. The girl was sure today they would get more.
“With this much luck you’ll make a lot more today. Get back out there,” was all their father said.
No day off, no extra food. Once she walked away the little girl cried. Partially at disappointment that there wouldn’t be a break or additional food, partially because her brother was right and she robbed him of his chance to receive the same relief.
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Did you ever see the trafficking victims in your city? Maybe not these ones but what about others? So often we think of trafficked victims as people in third world countries sold for sex. We don’t think of them as being in our towns and cities in the United States. We don’t often think of them as young kids. We don’t think of trafficking as labor as much as we do prostitution.
But slavery is slavery. It is forcing somebody to work (whether in a sexual manner or not) with a fear of retaliation if they don’t. A fear of being abused, starved or left without a place to live.
Depending on what circles you run with or where you live you might not notice trafficked victims. You might not see prostitutes. You might not see people forced to work for an income they don’t get to keep. But maybe you do. Maybe you just don’t notice it.
Today, on Shine the Light on Slavery Day, let’s decide to combat this evil. We can’t do it alone. It takes all of us working together to put an end to it. Teach others about the dangers of the sex industry and how it harms people. The industry is supply and demand. As long as people want the service the supply will be there–and unfortunately the supply is not always there because they want to be. Take notice of the kids and individuals you see working long hours. Ask what they’re raising money for and be inquisitive. Make sure it is a legitimate organization (Girl Scouts selling cookies = legit. Kids standing in front of stores and on street corners selling trinkets may not be).
If you suspect someone is being trafficked and is in danger call 9-1-1. If no imminent danger is present, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).
(Note: “Trafficking” is the term used in this article for all forms of modern-day slavery, whether sex trafficking, labor trafficking, forced labor, child begging, etc.)