January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month. Simultaneously, the Jewish community’s Torah reading cycle is focused upon the stories in Exodus, describing the plight of the Children of Israel in Ancient Egypt, where they served as slaves for hundreds of years. The impact of this bondage continues to define us, awakening in us the impulse to advocate for others who are not free.
An estimated 24.9 million individuals were trafficked worldwide in 2016, with hundreds of thousands of cases in the United States and thousands right here in Kentucky. The two most common forms of human trafficking are sex exploitation and labor trafficking.
Traffickers often victimize children, who are particularly vulnerable. Many trafficked adults were brought into the life as children.
Trafficked individuals, regardless of their age, live among us. Many are forced into addiction to keep them shackled in an oppressive industry. We may see victims of human trafficking every day, though their plight remains largely invisible, making escape even more difficult.
The Polaris Project estimates that 13 is the average age of victims, but our work in Kentucky shows the youngest documented victim was two months old.
Within 48 hours of running away from home, it is estimated, a child will be approached for trafficking. Once they are lured into a traffickers’ web, they are frequently sent across state lines.
Events such as the Super Bowl or the Derby are peak trafficking moments. The internet has found new ways of hiding this activity, and perpetrators have developed a special code language to identify where under-aged victims can be “acquired.”
Sadly, we don’t have to look to the internet, or the parking lots of cheap motels. The problem of human trafficking is right in front of us. Many nail salons and massage parlors and cheap buffets rely upon indentured servitude, rotating their “staff” so that they can’t get too attached and ask for help.
While changes in immigration laws have driven victims deeper into the shadows, data suggests that many of them are American-born citizens who have become trapped due to circumstances. In Kentucky alone, 35 percent of victims of human trafficking are foreign nationals.
Human trafficking is far more prevalent than we care to admit. We are in denial of its existence and blame the mechanisms by which we inadvertently perpetuate this injustice. It is easier to believe that people are choosing a certain lifestyle than to look at larger forces that entrap them.
That need not be the case. As health care providers, we can identify and respond to these victims. In fact, several studies show that 50-87 percent of trafficked individuals report having been seen in a health care setting during their captivity.
The University of Louisville is doing leading research in this area, but accurate data about current statistics is hard to obtain. This is a hidden population, and much of what we know is from victims who escaped.
One year ago, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center reportedly received 21,947 calls from victims. It helped 1,600 survivors – a 24-percent increase from the previous year. Yet the numbers of those who are enslaved continues to grow faster than those who are rescued.
The more people realize the pervasiveness of this tragic reality, the more victims are being identified. Certainly, this is true in our hospitals, where increased education and training has led to providers recognizing risks and feeling better equipped to intervene.
Catholic Charities, which provides support and training on this issue locally, has seen an increase in children who are being trafficked by their parents or caretakers to pay debts related to drug use. Children get “rented” for commercial sexual exploitation or labor.
As the heroin and opioid crisis reaches epidemic proportions, more people are forced into this “business” and the age of victims is gets younger.
Women and Jews have a special responsibility to combat trafficking. We were liberated from bondage in ancient Egypt with a mandate: to fight against slavery and injustice.
Survivors need justice, resources, mentoring and kindness, as well as a society that no longer demonizes them.
KentuckyOne Health, a health care leader in this area, partners with local organizations to provide education, treatment and resources for victims of human trafficking. Organizations such as Catholic Charities bring healing and hope to all those affected. These are just some ways we preserve and uphold our Jewish heritage and values. We serve on the local and state task forces against human trafficking and have joined other organizations to advocate for policy changes and resources at the state and federal levels.
Across the state, we are speaking and sponsoring training sessions for nurses and other health care providers. This includes using evidence-based screening tools to identify lethality risk of victims and organizing interventions for victims that includes medical services, referrals to resources and shelters.
But the problem is far bigger than we can solve alone. The most important thing that each of us can do is raise awareness.
We pray that we will be able to serve as instruments of healing for all those affected, and that our work to raise awareness will help to reduce the stigma and barriers to rescue.
(Rabbi Nadia Siritsky is vice president of mission at Kentucky One Health.)