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Panel discussion examines the scourge of human trafficking

Updated: 2014-01-12T04:16:55Z

By EDWARD M. EVELD

The Kansas City Star

The scourge of human trafficking locally and worldwide can be stemmed, but we need a lot of eyes on the growing problem, experts on the issue said Saturday.

The first requirement is awareness that human trafficking could be occurring in places many of us pass every day. Then a conscious effort to watch for signs and report them, they said.

About 80 people attended a panel discussion, Intercept Human Trafficking, presented Saturday by local members of United Methodist Women, a faith organization.

Members of St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City and the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood hosted the event at Resurrection’s downtown campus, 1522 McGee St.

Saturday was the observation of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

Panel participant Rachel Bachenberg, a nurse and member of the United Methodist Women’s national human trafficking team, said she was a patron of a shoe store in Overland Park near where authorities raided massage parlors in 2007 for prostitution.

She asked at the store if anyone had suspected what was happening nearby. The raids led to sex trafficking charges by federal prosecutors, who said Chinese women were brought to Johnson County to work as prostitutes.

“ ‘I knew something hinky was going on, but I didn’t know what,’ ” Bachenberg said she was told.

“At the local level we need to be aware,” she said, “and we need to have a victim-centered approach.”

Also on the panel were Laura Bauer, a Kansas City Star reporter and an author of the newspaper’s 2009 investigative series on human trafficking; retired FBI special agent Jeff Lanza; and Kristy Childs, founder of Veronica’s Voice, which provides outreach and a “safe center” for victims of sexual exploitation.

“In 20 years of reporting, it was my hardest assignment,” said Bauer, a veteran crime reporter, about the trafficking series. “One of those crimes hidden in plain sight.”

It quickly became clear that the trade in humans wasn’t only a coastal issue but that international trafficking had come to the Midwest, Bauer said.

Victims were threatened and tortured, she said. Fear kept them in the shadows. Fear haunted them if they tried to come forward.

“They lived every day in fear that their traffickers were going to come back and get them,” Bauer said.

Tens of millions are trafficked globally, coerced to work in the sex industry or as laborers in factories, in restaurants, on farms and as domestic workers. It’s a lucrative enterprise, with an estimated $32 billion in worldwide revenues.

Leaders around the world have called for action. Pope Francis highlighted the issue in December, calling human trafficking “a crime against humanity” that must be stopped.

Lanza noted that the issue arises every year in connection with the Super Bowl. New Jersey expects some 400,000 men to visit the state around game weekend. Some of them will seek out prostitutes, triggering the concern about human trafficking.

But, he said, traffickers don’t exploit only the sex trade. Think elder care, housekeeping and labor of all kinds, he said.

Be watchful, Lanza said. Here are a few signs of human trafficking highlighted by Lanza and others:

• Victims of human trafficking may live with their employer or close by. Very cramped spaces are often home to large numbers of occupants.

• Places of human trafficking may have barred windows and electronic surveillance, with locks that keep people in.

• Victims may seem to answer questions with what sounds like scripted or rehearsed answers, and they may be afraid to speak with anyone by themselves. Employers often keep their documents.

For information about human trafficking and how to report it, go to the FBI website, FBI.gov. Additional information is at HumanTrafficking.org.

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to eeveld@kcstar.com.

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