A Graphic Story Of Human Trafficking

Thomas Estler and Sacred Mountain
Thomas Estler and Sacred Mountain

I met Thomas Estler several years ago in New York City where Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives was developing a human trafficking prevention education program in coordination with Mayor Bloomberg’s office. Thomas had just created an innovative comic book called Abolitionista! which told the story of a young woman escaping slavery. I’m always interested in learning about different ways to communicate the issue of human exploitation to children as a means of helping them protect themselves. Abolitionista! was done in the Japanese style, manga, which is very popular especially with girls.

Now, Thomas is putting his talents to work with COERCION, a new comic book which is designed specifically to support A-6823—a proposed New York Assembly Bill that would help reduce the vulnerability of children to the crime of human trafficking.

Robert: Thomas, first of all, I appreciate the work you do to bring this issue to light. Tell me why A-6823 is such an important bill for people who really care about protecting children from sex traffickers.

Thomas: New York State has some of the weakest human trafficking laws in the country when it comes to protecting children. In human trafficking cases involving minors, New York law requires that prosecutors prove “coercion”— to verify that the child was forced or manipulated into the trafficking situation. In practical terms this means that a child victim must testify against her or his trafficker in court. Not only is it unhealthy for a child to re-live the trauma of sexual violence in a public forum, the child also has to come face-to-face with the monster who exploited her or him. As you can imagine, this is a terrifying experience, and children are rarely able to withstand the shame, fear and pressure of testifying. What normally happens is that the case falls apart or the traffickers plead down to a lesser charge with no jail time. The trafficker is immediately released back onto the street where that person resumes exploiting children. If you’re wondering how traffickers exploit children, here’s an example: they schedule a series of 8 to 10 rapes per child each night for the purpose of enriching themselves. New York’s proposed child sex trafficking bill, Assembly Bill A-6823, would put sex trafficking on the same level as rape and it would make it easier to place traffickers behind bars by dropping the coercion requirement.

New York is one of only 3 states that requires the proof of coercion in child sex trafficking cases. This new bill would elevate New York law to the level of child protection granted by Federal human trafficking law as well as the laws in 47 other states.

Robert: How did you get involved with supporting the bill?

Thomas: Dorchen Leidholdt, one of the leading advocates of the bill, had been impressed by my anti-trafficking comic book series, ABOLITIONISTA! Dorchen is the head of the legal department at Sanctuary for Families and has been fighting human trafficking for 40 years. She told me what it was like for child victims and why Assembly Bill A-6823 is so important. Then she asked me to write a comic book that would explain the issue of coercion to New York State lawmakers and help persuade them that we need a trafficking law to protect children. One of the things that I learned from working on this project is that there are about 100,000 bills submitted every year in New York State and legislators usually don’t read bills crossing their desks. Dorchen’s idea was that a short comic book might grab their attention enough for them to pick it up and read it.

She was right. She invited me to a day of lobbying at our state capital in Albany and the comic book really set the bill apart. We met with legislators and their staffs and many of them had already seen and read the comic book and they were eager to get more copies.

Thomas Estler, Abolitionist
Thomas Estler, Abolitionist

Robert: Wow. I know a couple of bills that could use some help... So, take me through the story of COERCION.

Thomas: Flora Haynes, a 16-year-old survivor of human trafficking, is waiting outside a courtroom, getting ready to testify against her trafficker. As Flora remembers the abuse that she endured at the hands of King, her trafficker, she feels herself re-experiencing the cigarette burns, her mouth being taped shut, and the subtle threats that King made against her daughter. The power of these memories is so debilitating that Flora loses her voice and she fears that she won’t be able to go through with her testimony. Then she remembers what’s at stake: the safety of her daughter, Mia. As she steps to the witness stand ready to testify against her trafficker, her eyes meet King’s and Flora sees that King has a locket that belongs to Mia. Flora is frightened of what King might do to her daughter if she testifies against him. She freezes up and is unable to go through with the testimony. The judge dismisses the case and her trafficker goes free.

The complete 8-page COERCION comic book can be read at www.abolitionista.org.

Robert: That’s very good. Are you planning any follow-ups to COERCION?

Thomas: COERCION was so successful that Dorchen Leidholdt asked me to write a second comic book called, SEDUCTION. It’s about an at-risk youth who is manipulated by a trafficker with the promise of food, shelter and love. Manipulating a child to fall in love is one of the methods that traffickers employ to control and exploit children.

Robert: We’ll look forward to the release of that as well. Have you seen any progress in getting the bill passed?

Thomas: I think that some of our lawmakers now see that existing New York State anti-trafficking laws do not give prosecutors the appropriate tools to build a case against child sex traffickers. But there are many other Assembly members who are concerned with issues like prison over-crowding who would vote against a bill that has mandatory sentences for sex traffickers. Traffickers have a real chance of winning if this bill fails in the New York Assembly.

Robert: How can all of us support New York Assembly Bill A-6823?

Thomas: The only chance that this bill has of being passed is if residents of New York contact their Assembly person and demand that they co-sponsor and vote for New York State Assembly Bill A-6823. New York residents can find and message their Assembly person by clicking here.

Non-residents of New York can re-post the link to this article on all their social media platforms.

Robert: I appreciate you sharing news about the bill and talking about your work, Thomas. Thank you.

Follow me on Twitter @RobertJBenz

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