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Human trafficking seen as threat within nation’s borders, conference attendees told

LOS ANGELES (BP)–Faith-based organizations are helping lead the effort to combat a social evil in which people are sold into slavery multiple times, 200-plus participants at a recent conference on human trafficking were told.

Southern Baptists are on the front lines of pushing for public policy to abolish the horrendous crimes, said Laura Lederer, senior adviser on trafficking in the U.S. State Department’s Office for Democracy and Global Affairs, at the first-of-its-kind conference in Los Angeles. The Preventing Abuse Conference on Human Trafficking and Child Abduction was convened to “educate, motivate and activate” society and pastors in the Los Angeles area.

Lederer, the featured speaker who is considered an expert on the topic, said faith-based and nonprofit organizations are “at the grass-root level of this issue,” which President Bush has described as one of the worst offenses against human dignity.

“Baptists are at the forefront of legislation in D.C.,” Lederer told Baptist Press. “They have been strategic in policy-making.”

An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 women, children and men are impacted every year by human trafficking, which is defined as modern-day slavery, according to the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Trafficking victims are trapped in forced labor and sexual exploitation, and millions of people are enslaved in their own countries.

“It is a profit-driven enterprise,” said Kumar Kibble, an immigration and customs enforcement officer with the Department of Homeland Security, at the conference. “It’s most lucrative because people are a commodity that can be sold over and over again. It’s an industry in the shadows, so the numbers are hard to estimate.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking this type of activity occurs only in third world countries, Kibble warned.

“This summer we arrested a ring where 100 girls from Korea were being held in forced prostitution in San Francisco,” Kibble said at the conference. “Over 1,500 trafficking victims in Los Angeles and 400 in Orange County have been rescued in the past two years. It is evil what these people are doing, and we in law enforcement can’t do it all. We need your help. We’re all in this together.”

Johnny Gosch was a victim in 1982 at age 11 when he was abducted by kidnappers in Des Moines, Iowa, while on his newspaper route.

“He was sold to an organized pedophilia ring where rich pedophiles hire people to kidnap children and then purchase them to molest,” said Noreen Gosch, Johnny’s mother, who told the story at the conference. Johnny visited his mother many years later in the middle of the night. He told her he had escaped from his captors and was living undercover for fear of being killed, she said.

“We can’t stick our head in the sand and say this is too ugly,” Gosch said. “Evil can only be allowed if good men and women do nothing. We can prevent another family from going through this.”

Gosch and others have worked to introduce legislation to stop this type of trafficking across the country.

As seen in the recent Lifetime Television mini-series based on real trafficking scenarios and starring Mira Sorvino, women are often promised waitress jobs or modeling jobs with high pay and then are forced to work in brothels or strip clubs or as nannies or maids.

“It was the number one-rated cable movie of the year,” said Arturo Interian, Lifetime’s vice president of original movies who helped research the script. “It was a hit because it raised awareness. We received so many e-mails from people saying they had no idea this was happening in the world.”

Southern Baptists have been in the trenches working on stopping human trafficking since the late 1990s.

“Right now our efforts are focused on public policy, such as the End Demand Act [S. 937, H.R. 2012] that focuses on prostitution’s demand,” said Barrett Duke, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s vice president for public policy and research, from his Washington, D.C., office. “Our focus is on the pimps and johns, because the need for the demand needs to be addressed.”

In addition to working with others to aggressively prosecute these criminals, Duke has plans to work with the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Office to develop ways Southern Baptist pastors can be more aware of the issue.

“We are currently identifying pastors in key areas that we can visit with to show how to recognize victims and develop a system to get them out of slavery,” Duke said. “In most of our churches, somebody knows or has come in contact with a victim and doesn’t even know it. We want to raise awareness.”

The key areas to raise awareness are densely populated cities such as Houston, Phoenix and Sacramento, said Duke, who sits on the National Coalition for Religious Freedom and Human Rights.

Tony Cardenas, a Los Angeles city councilman who made a motion to form a task force on human trafficking and prostitution, is hoping his city will be an example for other cities across America. Los Angeles County is training 30,000 employees to be aware of signs of human trafficking and what to do about it.

“We need to tell our politicians this is something they can’t ignore,” Cardenas said. “If we are a nation of compassion and righteousness, then we need to be ready and know how to identify the victims.”

Tony Nassif is hoping the conference will foster an awareness that will lead to action.

“We have a whole strategy to awaken the world,” said Nassif, author and founder of Cedars Cultural and Educational Foundation, which sponsored the event. “As active members of society, we have a responsibility.”

Other speakers at the Nov. 9 conference included actor Fred Travelena; Julie Heifitz, a member of the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Woman; Rohida Khan, director of the African Community Resource Center; Anne Bissell, founder of Sex Industry Survivors; Carol Seiler of the Salvation Army; Shirley Goins, director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; Dina Romero of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office, and Steve Wagner of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

For more information on how to identify victims of human trafficking or how to help, call a nationwide hotline at 1-888-3737-888 or visit www.cedarsfoundation.com or www.bsccoalition.org.

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  • Kelli Cottrell