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Fight the scourge of sex trafficking

"Melissa," one of the girls we've encountered in street outreach in Baltimore, is originally from Baltimore County. As a child, she loved fairies and wanted to be a dancer. After her parents' divorce, she experimented with drugs, which opened her up to a world of darkness she could not have imagined. Vulnerable and looking for her own identity, she was soon approached by a "boyfriend" who promised to care for her, but he was actually a trafficker who fueled her habit and sold her for sex up and down the I-95 corridor, profiting from the abuse of her body by those who would pay the price. Years later, once he had "used her up," he left her for dead on the streets of Baltimore City. Today she "survives" on drugs and selling the only thing of value that she has.

Human trafficking is the second largest and the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, generating $32 billion to $44 billion every year. According to the 2010 State Department annual Trafficking in Persons Report, there are 12.3 million adults and children in forced labor, bonded labor and forced prostitution around the world. It is also a major problem in the United States, including right here in Maryland, where the issue was brought into focus last month by the raid on a house in Overlea that authorities say was a front for a sex-trafficking ring.

Human trafficking and slavery have been found in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It is an insidious crime in which victims are subject to repeated physical and sexual abuse and are often traumatized for years as they try to recover and regain their lives.

Several federal agencies are now committing resources to fight trafficking worldwide and here at home, including the departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security, Labor and Health and Human Services, and the FBI. However, the U.S. spends a mere .003 percent of the federal budget on combating human trafficking. One year worth of funding to combat trafficking is the same as three weeks of funding in the "War on Drugs." If the U.S. is to effectively combat this crime, it's crucial that Congress not cut the small amount of funds already available.

The people of our state can make a difference in this fight. We commend Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin for his support in this area; it is crucial that he and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, as well as our representatives in the House, use their influence. We urge the committee to provide the highest possible funding levels for anti-trafficking and anti-slavery programs across the federal government.

At present, there are no residential care facilities in this state that serve trafficked victims. Two are currently being established, but they are doing so largely on private funding and community support. Should the federal government cut even this small appropriation, we are unlikely to see more facilities emerge to serve the growing population of victims.

Over the last decade, we have made significant strides in identifying human trafficking victims, prosecuting traffickers, and creating partnerships at home and around the globe to combat this heinous crime. Congress needs to act now to ensure that we build on these gains, not let them expire.

We must not block additional progress because we fear what it will cost either in monetary or political capital. We must instead ask ourselves what it would cost not to continue the significant strides we have made in the last decade as we have amended the law that not only governs our U.S. approach, but also sets the standard for all other countries.

We must also remember that our response must be one that protects public safety and protects the most vulnerable members of our society. We urge Senators Mikulski and Cardin and our representatives to do whatever they can to ensure slavery can truly be an evil of the past.

Beth Happick (baltimorewov@gmail.com) is developing a Baltimore chapter of Women of Vision, a ministry of the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision. Jeanne Allert (jlallert@gmail.com) is executive director of The Samaritan Women, a Baltimore-based Christian ministry, and chair of the Maryland Coalition, an anti-trafficking initiative.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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