“Clearly, human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children are on our highest priority list,” Borough President Melinda Katz said. “We are worried and want to do everything possible that our brothers and sisters in the state and in federal government are ready to combat this trafficking.”
The roundtable was hosted by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in conjunction with Katz. They exposed the stories of survivors and entertained a discussion on how we treat survivors of human trafficking. The goal of the discussion was to come up with strategies that ensure the survivors are not re-victimized.
Gillibrand addressed how human trafficking is addressed on the federal level, including safe harboring laws, job training for recovery and reintegration, and providing more resources and funds to law enforcement to fight trafficking at its source.
She said there are additional ideas to target homeless youths as an early intervention strategy.
“Most women and girls who are trafficked are highly vulnerable,” Gillibrand said.
Queens in recent years has been at the forefront of retraining its judicial staff in handling the nuance and sensitivity of the issue, which was highlighted by Judge Judy Harris Kluger, who served as a criminal court judge in the city for years before eventually becoming the executive director of Sanctuary for Families.
Kluger said that years ago victims of human trafficking were treated differently in a courtroom.
“Nobody thought anything about when the court officer would say 'the prostitutes are coming in,'” Kluger said. “No one called the other offenders 'the robbers are coming in.'”
Kluger said certain judges in Queens were pioneers in changing the attitude that women and men arrested for prostitution were victims of human trafficking, and deserved something other than incarceration.
Throughout the state, ten other courts followed the Queens model and provided a proverbial “off-ramp” for people in prostitution to get the support they needed instead of being placed behind bars. Since the court started in 2013, 5,000 people arrested for prostitution have benefited from the services
Four survivors shared their stories and recounted the horrors of human trafficking. One woman told of how she worked for a bank in her home country, but after the country faced economic struggles she immigrated to the United States and paid a company to place her in a job.
Eventually she was forced into prostitution and despite escaping twice to law enforcement, she found little help.
Another woman identified her trafficker as a man she dated after meeting him in her second year of college. She came from a good home and was a straight-A student, but her trafficker used emotional manipulation to abuse her.
“Someone doesn't necessarily batter you to abuse you,” she said.
The third victim who spoke shared her story of coming to the United States from Kenya at a young age. In her story, too, it was a man she trusted and loved that eventually forced her into sex work. She met him when she was 14, and he began to prostitute her at 18.
“When you love someone, you do whatever you do to make someone happy,” she said.
Eventually, he sold her to another man who trafficked her before she was able to get out.
Now living with foster parents, the final woman who spoke, now 19, recalled the time when she was 12 and lived in a squatter house in Jamaica and going to the bathroom in cups, while her captor lived in a house right across the street, which she learned years later.
“I was born, raised and trafficked right here in Queens,” she said.