GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Human trafficking happens everywhere, including in perhaps unexpected Michigan communities. An FBI sting in 2013 arrested more human traffickers in Michigan than elsewhere nationwide. Further research showed that in West Michigan alone, up to 2,400 minors are available to be sold into forced sex or labor at any given moment.
Friday morning at the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, U.S. Senator Gary Peters spoke alongside leaders from Spectrum Health Care and the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force. Senator Peters co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that passed the U.S. Senate called the Trafficking Awareness Training for Health Care Act of 2015.
“In Michigan, because we’re a border state, we often more trafficking than other places around the country,” said Senator Peters.
Experts rank Michigan in the top five nationwide for the number of sex slavery and forced labor victims.
This bill would establish a pilot program to train health care professionals to identify human trafficking victims; something Dr. Matthew Denenberg, the chief medical director at Spectrum Health’s Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, said they already do, but it can be difficult.
“One of the biggest barriers that we have to finding victims of sex and human trafficking is they are afraid to speak up,” said Dr. Denenberg. “You know they've been abused for so long that they're victims both emotionally and physically."
If passed, the Department of Health and Human Services would administer grants to an accredited school of medicine that has experience studying and treating trafficking victims. That school would work with law enforcement, social workers, and other experts to develop the best practices identifying victims.
“We’ll look at best practices all across the country, get those best practices together, and develop a curriculum, because it’s my belief that every medical professional, physician, and nurse should get this training in nursing school or medical school,” said Senator Peters. “And it should be part of the curriculum because this is how we’re going to be able to identify it.”
Jane White is the director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force. White told FOX 17 News that professionals, and community members, need to learn to ask victims the right questions, because the signs of trafficking are out there.
“Slavery is really horrible kinds of things: it isn’t hard labor, it isn’t hard work, it’s the fact that somebody has control of my life,” said White.
Yet once victims are identified, White said more resources are needed to help them: things like pro-bono attorneys, more shelters, mentors, and drug addiction specialists.
“How does one become a victim from a survivor?” asked White. “And believe me, we have not the programs we should have to allow that to happen.”
This bill is waiting on a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is part of a larger group of bills working to end human trafficking. Other proposed legislation would prosecute online advertisers who try to sell minors for sex, then take illegal money from that and create a victims’ fund; all in hopes of creating systemic change.
If you, or anyone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center available 24/7 at: 1-888-373-7888.