Wednesday, June 26, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Human trafficking

I’ve never given much thought to human trafficking. To me it was a plot for TV shows like Law and Order but little more. Then Gus, my grandson, signed up for a 5-K race on June 8 to raise money for Rush Hour Traffic, an organization that has been working for about two years to bring awareness about the problem and new laws to fight it. 

Gus finished eighth out of about 500 runners, in a race that included Little Rock’s Big Dam Bridge and was uphill for half the way and downhill for the balance. He was pleased with his accomplishment and amused by the name of the bridge as would be expected from a 14-year-old boy. And I got bragging rights as well as a reason to write about what I have learned is a growing problem across the country, even in Arkansas.

Estimates of human trafficking which includes sex trafficking victims in the United States are as high as 300,000. But the extent of the problem isn’t really known. How could it be when the victims are young, often from other countries or runaways and enslaved?

But it is large enough that organizations are forming to help the victims and the state legislature just passed laws with stiffer penalties for those who force others into prostitution and also for those who patronize the victims.

And speaking of bragging rights, U.S. Attorney Christopher Thyer just recently successfully prosecuted the first federal case of sex trafficking in Arkansas’ Eastern District.

A federal jury found Lamon Roy, 22, of Little Rock guilty of one count of sex trafficking by use of force, fraud, or coercion, which is how it’s usually done, my Internet research has shown. Roy hasn’t been sentenced, but he’s facing at least 15 years in prison.

“Today’s guilty verdict is the first conviction resulting from the work of our Denied Innocence Task Force, a partnership between my office and the Little Rock, North Little Rock, Benton, Bryant, and Conway Police Departments, the Saline County Sheriff’s Office, Arkansas State Police, Homeland Security Investigations and the United States Marshal’s Service,”  FBI Special Agent in Charge Randall C. Coleman said in a press release about the conviction. “Working together, we will continue to aggressively investigate those who participate in sex trafficking.”

I like the name of the task force — Denied Innocence. It explains in two words why the rest of us should care.

Emily Boedeker started Rush Hour Traffic in April 2011. The organization works with law enforcement and legislators. And it tries to get help for victims, Boedeker said. Most of the victims she has encountered are from Central and South America and have been forced into prostitution. But others are used as domestics or field workers and might be sent out as prostitutes during the evening.

The plight of the victims has gotten the attention of the country’s truck drivers who apparently see the problem more than anyone else. Through a series of sting operations, the FBI has identified truck stops and rest areas as places where women and children who have been forced into prostitution are frequently found. Truckers look for some telltale signs like women who don’t speak and are ushered in and out of vehicles.

Loral Parr of Little Rock, the director of the 5-K that piqued my interest, said she heard about human trafficking in church and felt compelled to do something about it. 

“They feel like they’re helpless and they are,” Parr said. “As a state, as a community, we have to help them.”

She wasn’t really a runner, she said, but she knew God expected her to help. She has now held two One Step 5-K races. After expenses from the last one, she was able to give Rush Hour Traffic, $4,000.

She told me she was trying to raise money and awareness. Seems to me, she did both.

— Joan McCoy