Connecting the Global Epidemic of Human Trafficking to the Domestic Violence Epidemic

Last year, Americans were riveted by a terrifying story about an FBI sting in which four Arizona men were caught planning to participate in an auction for sex slaves. The targets were told they could bid on women from 18-26 years old of "Asian, Hispanic and Eastern European descent." Unbeknownst to their neighbors, each of these men built hidden, soundproof dungeons to imprison the women in their homes. One of the men even admitted to previously having sex slaves, who he gagged and placed in hoods while they were trapped in his dungeon. Their horrific crimes came as a shock to the community. Even more frightening, the FBI reported that 100 men answered its ad, although only four attended the sham auction.

Human trafficking -- which the Department of Homeland Security defines as "modern day slavery" -- is a worldwide epidemic. As Americans, we tend to think of human trafficking as a foreign problem; however, it is tragically woven into the fabric of American life, permeating cities, suburbs and rural areas. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, every year as many as 17,500 people are trafficked into the country, and an estimated 2-4 million people are trafficked domestically.

The opportunity for illicit profits drives the growth of human trafficking. The International Labor Organization estimated in 2014 that the human trafficking industry generates $150 billion a year, making it the second most lucrative enterprise of organized crime, exceeded only by drug trafficking. According to the United Nations, sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking (79 percent), followed by forced labor (18 percent). Some 20 percent of victims are children.

The reach of this criminal enterprise is daunting. As a leader in the field of domestic violence, I recognize that, like many of today's most intractable social problems, human trafficking is often a consequence of violence in the home. Homelessness caused by domestic violence puts women, men and children at risk of encountering predators who lure them into trafficking.

However, by making prevention a priority in every community, I am convinced we can root out human trafficking. We first need to acknowledge that the problem is ubiquitous, and exists even in communities that would otherwise be considered safe. Then we must learn to recognize the signs of human exploitation, paying special attention to the venues where traffickers ply their evil trade.

As the CEO of Sojourner Center in Phoenix, Arizona, I lead an organization that contributes to building awareness and preventing trafficking. We recently adopted the SAFE (Safeguarding All from Exploitation) Action Project, after it was incubated by the Sandra Day O'Connor Institute. SAFE's initial focus has been on the hospitality industry, often the unwilling business partner of human traffickers. According to Michele Sarkisian, a hospitality industry consultant writing for Cornell University's Center for Hospitality Research, "the sexual exploitation venue of choice is frequently hotels, and the infrastructure of the travel industry makes it easy to participate in and move exploited persons around to attract the most customers." Moreover, Sarkisian explains, "Exploiters often go to a location away from their home city or country to commit their crime."

Public education based on the "if you see something, say something" principle is vital to breaking up trafficking rings and rescuing victims. Under the SAFE Action Project, we provide web-based and in-person training to hotels and the hospitality industry at large. Our curriculum has been shared in 17 states. Recently, we trained 300 staff members at a high-end resort. Within a week of their training, these employees had made seven reports to the national Polaris Hotline.

You don't have to be in the hospitality industry to prevent human trafficking. Anyone can look at SAFE Action's toolkit and become familiar with the indicators of trafficking.

SAFE Action fills other critical gaps in services to women, men and children who have experienced trafficking. Victims can receive temporary housing, food and other amenities at our domestic violence shelter. We connect residents with crucial services like health care, legal support and transportation. Since the program began in January, Sojourner Center has provided shelter space for 32 women who had been victims of trafficking. Working in partnership with other social services agencies, we have helped these women stabilize their lives.

It is time for human trafficking to become part of the conversation around domestic violence and child abuse. These tragic situations make victims a target for predators. We must open our eyes and hearts to the reality that trauma caused by domestic violence can be life-long if it is not addressed. As a field, it is imperative to develop practices that transform lives that have been marred by trauma. Only then will we see an end to domestic violence in all its forms.

Dr. Maria Garay-Serratos is CEO of Sojourner Center in Phoenix, AZ. She knows we can end the cycles of domestic violence and create a world free from domestic violence. With this blog, Dr. Garay-Serratos will advance the conversation, spotlight new research and practices and share information that can transform lives.