Develop national strategy to combat human trafficking

A $20 bill could be the only thing standing between your loved one and a stranger who wants to traffic them. It was for my friend’s granddaughter. For several days, the 16-year-old had been having whispered, personal phone calls with a stranger.

One Saturday, while they were both at a yard-sale, the teen convinced her grandmother to give her $20 dollars, so she could go back home and go to the mall. Once at home, she removed all pictures of herself from her grandmother’s house, walked a block or two away and caught a taxi destined for a bus station. A stranger met her, provided her with a fake ID and purchased two tickets to Michigan.

A wrinkled $20 bill was all it took.

When people are threatened, forced or coerced for the purposes of labor or commercial sexual exploitation, it’s called human trafficking. It happens to millions of men, women and children throughout the world and in communities across the country. Recently, I participated in a convening at the University of Miami hosted by the Department of Public Health Sciences and organized in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Lovelight Foundation.

Our focus was on prevention and understanding human trafficking as a public-health priority. We asked the hard questions. How can we stop this from happening? What will it take to keep children safe? Who needs to be at the table? We heard the hard truth from survivors. And we made personal commitments to take action.

My friend took action, too. She left no stone unturned to find her granddaughter. She called every taxi company in the city until she found the one that picked the girl up. She requested that the police intervene, and when they seemed reluctant, she threatened to call a press conference. She got permission from the bus company to review video footage. They didn’t know how to work the machine, so she asked the police to teach her how.

The video helped her pinpoint the time of the transaction, and that was all the bus station needed to confirm the teen’s destination. The FBI met the receiving trafficker before the granddaughter arrived. She was returned home safely.

That’s what they call a preventive save. It took a gutsy, wise, well-connected grandmother, attentive law enforcement, cooperative commercial businesses, a few Good Samaritans and a strategy to save that teenager.

And the same is true for our nation. Preventing human trafficking will require a national strategy. We have broken communities. We have broken families. We have broken schools. And we send our children out into a world that is not ready to receive them. Our strategy must include identifying the issues that drive this social problem and engaging the key stakeholders, including survivors, perpetrators, police, educators, healthcare providers, bus drivers and store owners, who can help us to solve it.

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Make a personal commitment to learn more about this issue. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) funds a 24-hour hotline and resource center that provides a safe space to report tips, seek services, ask for help and receive training to combat human trafficking. Go to traffickingresourcecenter.org.

It is a time to stand with the survivors and those who love them and declare our commitment to building a world where our people and our children are not for sale.

Sharon L. Ricks is acting regional health administrator in the office of the assistant secretary for Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Region IV.