Editorial published May 22, 2016 in the Frederick News Post

http://www.fredericknewspost.com/opinion/editorial/an-unseen-yet-devastating-cost/article_e188d12f-2ddb-5cc6-beff-d324e9a1ac35.html

Human trafficking and the misery of its victims have gone unseen and unnoticed too long. This is not some distant problem for other states. Human trafficking is here, in Maryland, perhaps even a problem for Frederick County, given that two major highways intersect here, and are a convenient avenue east to two major cities, and, via I-95, to New York and Philadelphia.

But the very inhuman practice of trading in human lives will receive more of the attention it deserves with the formation of the Support, Advocacy, Freedom and Empowerment, or SAFE, Center at the University of Maryland.

According to a Medill News Service story in the May 13 edition ofThe Frederick News-Post, “Organizers say SAFE is the nation’s first university-based center of its kind. Staff and students from university faculties, including the schools of law, social work, medicine and nursing, will work with community organizations and human trafficking task forces.”

Human trafficking, in which victims are coerced into sex or other labor, has become as much of a scourge as heroin, and has experienced similar growth. In 2014, the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force identified almost 400 survivors of human trafficking in Maryland, nearly double the number in 2013. U.S. citizens made up close to 98 percent of identified sex trafficking victims in 2014, according to the Medill article. In the same period, 578 people died of heroin overdoses.

The two are not unrelated, relying on smuggling routes and a criminal network to transport the “product” from place to place. But whereas heroin has been increasingly in the spotlight, human trafficking hasn’t received the same attention.

“It’s happening here in our own backyard,” said Susan Esserman, the center’s founder and director, and partner at Steptoe & Johnson, leading the firm’s pro bono work with trafficking victims. “It happens here in the United States much more than people realize, and it takes a community to rebuild the survivors’ lives.”

The ramifications of this victimization can mean ruined lives, difficulty securing legal rights and unemployment, as well as the associated psychological and physical trauma. As you can see from the attached fact box, this is a multibillion-dollar industry, the second-highest-grossing criminal enterprise in the U.S.

How to enforce against this practice is another editorial for another time. For now, suffice to say we welcome and are supportive of the SAFE Center, which will address a need most people in Maryland are unaware exists. According to the task force, the average age of a person who is targeted and commercially sexually exploited is between 12 and 14 years old. That’s a horrifying statistic. These are kids, stolen from whatever family they have, often hundreds of miles from their home country, and subjected to unspeakable horrors. It’s comforting to know they’ll have advocates in Maryland.