Human trafficking: A 'hidden crime in plain slight'
"Human trafficking has lots of different faces," said Holy Family Sister Caritas Foster, who has spent the last decade raising awareness of the "hidden crime in plain sight."
"When you see young boys and girls being sold on the streets — we just have to look at International Boulevard — we know that is wrong."
The trafficking of laborers, she said, is harder to spot because often "it looks ordinary."
People can be trafficked by organized crime, street gangs — and their own family members.
January has been designated as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Awareness Month, and with the Super Bowl coming up in the Bay Area next month, the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking is spreading the word, not only about sex trafficking but labor trafficking.
The "No Traffic Ahead" campaign is training 10,000 Super Bowl volunteers to spot the signs of human trafficking.
"How do we have more eyes and ears?" Sister Caritas asked.
In the Diocese of Oakland, one of the major acts during the Jubilee Year of Mercy will be establishment, through Catholic Charities of the East Bay, of a safe house for young girls. Additionally, all 84 parishes will engage in education on the issues underlying human trafficking.
"Everyone needs to know it exists in our region, in our cities and in our neighborhoods," she said.
There could be a house with many people living in a garage; being picked up in a van, and dropped off at a restaurant. Or a van pulls into a church parking lot, and women get out and beg.
A case of domestic servitude was uncovered in Contra Costa County, she said, when parents at a school noticed a woman who was bringing children to school always wore the same clothes.
"Sometimes it can come up in casual conversation," said Sister Caritas. "Someone says she can't leave a job because she needs to pay off a debt."
If you encounter a suspected instance of human trafficking, the first rule, Sister Caritas said, "never put yourself or another person at risk. If it is trafficking, you don't know where the trafficker might be."
If "Something doesn't seem right," Sister Caritas suggests a phone call to the national hotline 888-3737-888. It's a call that can be made anonymously, and will be investigated and referred to law enforcement.
If it's a matter of life and death, she said, dial 911.
After rescuing people from trafficking conditions, Sister Caritas said, it is important to "make sure services are provided."
"If women are rescued, they can live in domestic violence shelters," she said. Services for men, she said, are more costly and scattered: They have to be put up in motels.
Worldwide estimates are 20 million people are trafficked, three-quarters adults, one-quarter children, with three-quarters involved in labor; one-quarter in sex-trafficking.
In California, the numbers tip more toward sex trafficking, she said. California is the largest receiving state for the trafficking of humans, Sister Caritas said.
But outsiders are not the only problem. "We traffic our own," Sister Caritas said.
Cases are hard to track, even through law enforcement. "The crime might not be charged as human trafficking, a district attorney might not think a jury will understand human trafficking, so it is charged as something else," she said.
Sister Caritas' involvement began about a decade ago, when she was finishing a sabbatical after completing a leadership term. Her community, inspired by a LCWR report in 2006, began a six-month educational process to determine how it would respond to the human trafficking.
The sisters were discerning whether a house they owned could be used as a safe house. It could not. "But we said if we can't do that we can be creative," Sister Caritas said.
In 2007, they decided what they would do was advocate, raise awareness, connect with those doing the work, giving grants to agencies that work with victims, and advocate for legislative change.
Among the local originations they have worked with are MISSSEY, an Oakland-based organization that provides services to young women who have been trafficked; Catholic Charities of the East Bay; Ruby's House, a domestic violence shelter in Hayward; Love Never Fails, an ministry on the streets in Oakland and educates through the schools; and Tri-Valley Haven in Livermore.
The Year of Mercy focus on human trafficking in the diocese, Sister Caritas said, is "really living up to Pope Francis' call for us."
"We are called as Catholics to really respond," she said.
Safe house could be game-changer in East Bay
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