By David Cruz
For more than a year now, the state attorney general’s office has been hosting public forums on their efforts to stop human trafficking. Today’s was the most recent and best attended with more than 300 in attendance — an audience of students, elected officials, public safety and health care officials. Assistant Attorney General Stacy Thompson said the turnout was reassuring.
“This is not something that is occurring in Taiwan or Vietnam or overseas,” she said. “This is occurring right here, homegrown, in our backyards, and so if each of the entities that we have here tells somebody else or decides to host or co-sponsor an event in their community, we can continue to raise awareness.”
With the Super Bowl scheduled to be held at MetLife Stadium in just months, public safety officials are gearing up for an influx of prostitutes and other exploited workers, mostly teens and mostly female.
“Imagine your daughter is 12 years old. She meets a teenaged boy online; agrees to meet him at a local mall,” said Meika Roberson, the assistant chief medical officer with co-sponsor Carepoint Health Foundation during a moving presentation. “When she arrives at the mall, she discovers he’s a 25-year-old man. This man kidnaps her; takes her across state lines and controls her with violence. Over the next year, she’s physically and sexually abused and forced to sell her body on the street.”
The demand is high and the supply seemingly endless. Websites like Craigslist and Backpage.com can serve as virtual open-air markets for exploited girls — and boys — who can’t find a way out of their circumstances and end up in sexual servitude, their innocence bought and sold online. Despite efforts by lawmakers in New Jersey to stop sites that deal in teenagers, the courts have upheld their rights, most recently failing to shut down Backpage.com.
“You know, we may not be getting the cooperation we need from online sexual services but I certainly feel like we have the support of our hotel, tourism and hospitality industry,” said Thompson.
Barbara Amaya knows the life all too well. A tough home life led her to the streets and ultimately into a life of sexual servitude, where she was turned out repeatedly and got hooked on heroin. Today, she’s a survivor, a writer and a motivational speaker, sharing her story with the audience.
“The misconception is oh they’re just there because they want to be,” she said. “Look a little closer. Maybe the girl you think is 22 and doing this on her own is actually 13 and being trafficked.”
The next phase of this campaign is a see something, say something program aimed at middle and high school students with special presentations set for classrooms around the state in the final two weeks before the Super Bowl.