09/09/2013

AFT to help protect students from child trafficking

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Most Americans, if they think about it at all, might think exploitation of children is something that happens on the other side of the world. Unfortunately, thousands of vulnerable schoolchildren here in the United States are being lured into forced labor or prostitution by criminals promising them money and fame, then marketing these children through the anonymity of the Internet.

The U.S. Justice Department estimates that as many as 300,000 children in the United States are at risk of being trafficked. The average age of these children, mostly girls, is 12 or 13 years old at recruitment or abduction. An FBI sting across dozens of cities in July recovered more than 100 sexually exploited children; most were 13 to 17, though some were as young as 9.

Over the summer, local AFT leaders met to discuss ways the union can help mitigate child trafficking in the United States. AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson briefed the leaders on plans to help end this scourge through a national information campaign, local partnerships, and federal and state efforts to derail trafficking.

Initial steps have been taken by AFT affiliates in several states, including New York, Ohio and Texas, and the national union is identifying three pilot sites this fall where teams will be trained to test anti-trafficking materials in advance of a national project launch next summer.

Teachers have a significant role to play in spotting child trafficking. However, paraprofessionals and school-related personnel are in just about the best position to spot signs of child trafficking in and around schools, from suspicious activity along school bus routes to recruiting on school grounds, during after-school activities and in the neighborhood. With tools and training, school employees may find themselves among the nation's first responders.

Nearly a third of all calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) come from Texas, says Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. Until recently, she had no clue that Houston is the largest point of entry in the country, due to a seaport and a network of freeways from east to west and from Mexico to Canada.

A moment of revelation came during a talk by law enforcement officers to the local labor council, Fallon says: "I will never forget the FBI agent who said that in any given month, there are 20,000 kids coming through or housed in Houston. The trade unionists know it's a problem—they see young men out on the labor sites. I knew there was a problem but had no idea the scope of it. Our students are living next door to these places the FBI busted."

The Houston federation hopes to lace together a Texas-based nonprofit, Children at Risk, with the union and the Houston schools so they can fight child trafficking together. Many captive children never even come to school—they may be dropouts or runaways, later taken into custody and charged with prostitution, Fallon says, "as if they didn't have enough to deal with."

Teresa Fedor, a teacher and AFT member for 18 years who is now a state representative in Ohio, became aware of child trafficking eight years ago when the FBI found dozens of children from Toledo being used as prostitutes at a truck stop in Harrisburg, Pa. Because her state, too, has an extensive highway system, plus proximity to Canada, she learned that Toledo is considered an "origin city" for child sex slaves in an industry estimated to generate $10 billion per year in the United States and $36 billion worldwide.

"Being a former teacher and knowing the neighborhoods in Toledo," Fedor says, "I know those are the neighborhoods where students struggle the most—high poverty, high unemployment."

Fedor has become a champion of anti-trafficking legislation in Ohio, sponsoring several bills that have become law through collaboration among local law enforcement, the FBI and nonprofit groups like Shared Hope and the Polaris Project.

These state laws focus on practical solutions. They coordinate with federal laws, make trafficking a felony and protect children. For example, kids caught in prostitution rings are no longer jailed but instead given a court-appointed guardian and provided with social services that help them find homes and treat severe health concerns like HIV and post-traumatic stress. The lawmaker's next bill is called the End Demand Act, which would deal with the market for children by imposing harsher penalties for solicitation of minors and strengthening victims' recourse.

In August, the AFT and the Jamaica Teachers' Association announced a joint anti-trafficking project to address the issue in both countries. The pilot project—drawing from materials being developed—will raise awareness among students about the dangers of trafficking for forced labor or sexual exploitation, will provide educators with resources to help identify children at risk, and will harness community resources to protect children and advocate on behalf of survivors.

For now, Fedor and Fallon are encouraging AFT members to watch for warning signs of trafficking in students, such as vacant, sleepy or neglectful behavior. Other signs include the presence of cash or gangs.

All school employees can become first responders. "We spend more time with kids than any other person in their life except their parents," Fedor says. "I'm very encouraged by the AFT's commitment to this." [Annette Licitrap>