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Saint Mary’s hosts panelists to increase awareness on local, national and global human trafficking

and | Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The President’s Committee on Sexual Violence and the Division for Mission at Saint Mary’s invited students to participate in a discussion panel Monday, to learn more about the “Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution,” or SOAP, project and the presence of human trafficking in the local community. SOAP, a “hands-on outreach to fight sex trafficking at large events and in communities,” was founded by advocate and survivor Theresa Flores. Those involved in the project travel the country increasing awareness on the prevalence of human trafficking in the U.S.

The panelists, Jennifer Riggs, Cathy Knauf and Sister Michael Mary Nolan, each brought a unique perspective to the discussion, speaking from years of experience combating the various aspects of human trafficking and sexual abuse.

Jennifer Riggs, the first panelist to present, has worked a registered nurse in the emergency department at Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in Mishawaka for almost ten years. For the past three and a half years, Riggs — a sexual assault nurse examiner — has worked primarily as a forensic nurse, caring for victims of physical and sexual assault of all ages.

Riggs said she first felt intimidated when she was asked to speak with experts on human trafficking and other human rights violations, but ultimately decided to share her experience and expertise.

“The more I thought about it, the more I remembered that tackling an issue like human trafficking really is a team effort, and takes many different perspectives and ideas and helping hands,” Riggs said. “And so I came to terms that what I have to say may have a place here, after all, so I’m going to focus on the role of the health provider. Mainly, I’m going to be providing the perspective of a nurse in identifying and caring for victims, specifically of sex trafficking.”

Sex trafficking has become a form of modern slavery, Riggs said.

“The legal definition simplified is ‘the use of force, fraud and coercion to obtain some type of sex act,’” she said. “And we’re talking about men, women and children of all ages, who are recruited, groomed and sold into this. You know, we sometimes think that slavery was abolished along with the 13th Amendment, but this falls under this that definition and it is considered modern day slavery.”

While human trafficking is most prevalent in California, Florida, Texas and New York, Riggs said it is also present in the Midwest, including Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. Specifically, Indiana has seen an increasing number of documented victims, a trend that spans several years back, she said.

“I don’t necessarily think that there are more women who are being trafficked, but I think because we’re talking about this the way that we are, we have more awareness, we’re better at recognizing victims, hopefully rescuing victims and that’s maybe the rise of the numbers that we’re seeing,” Riggs said.

Much of the current understanding of sex trafficking has been informed by survivors, Riggs said, who agree to share their stories in hopes of assisting those still being trafficked and prevent future cases. When speaking with these survivors, Riggs said she learned that based on survivor experiences, health services proved to be one of the top five access points to freedom.

“So health services being number three means that I, as a nurse, have a big opportunity to help in this capacity,” Riggs said. “Nearly 90% of survivors interviewed said that they had been to a health care professional while they were being trafficked. Almost everybody received a healthcare professional at some point … 63% said they had been to a hospital or an ER, and then others Planned Parenthood or maybe like a women’s care center here in town, or a women’s clinic, primary care doctors or some type of neighborhood clinic.”

Based on these numbers, Riggs said she believes professionals who are trained in identifying and assisting victims of human trafficking should be placed in these spaces.

“It doesn’t always have to be a nurse,” she said. “But this was actually a project that my department at Saint [Joseph] kind of took on this past year. So we send out nurses to these different areas to teach them what to look for. And then also to let them know that we exist so that if somebody presents to their clinic or office, that they know that they can send them to us for care.”

Cathy Knauf, the second panelist, is a member of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force and the founder of the Southwest Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.

“Back when we first started, nobody understood what the word human trafficking meant, and we’ve come a long way,” Knauf said. “You see it in TV and movies, but that’s not always an accurate portrayal.”

Knauf opened by first delineating the difference between the two types of human trafficking: labor and sex. In an interactive session, Knauf asked the audience members to stand if they had eaten chocolate or shrimp, worn cotton or played with a soccer ball within the past 24 hours. These actions indirectly contribute to human trafficking, she said.

“So just try and you know, expand your understanding of how large human trafficking is and how we involve ourselves in it,” Knauf said.

Knauf said even she struggles to comprehend the sheer size of the human trafficking market in America.

“This is a number I can’t really even get my own head around, but it’s a $150 billion industry,” she said. “So I’m sure you’ve heard of Starbucks, McDonald’s and Nike. You put their annual income, what they made in 2018 together and that’s not even half human trafficking.”

Young victims are often lured into human trafficking through social media accounts run by traffickers targeting the most vulnerable on the internet, Knauf said.

The final panelist, Sister Michael Mary Nolan, of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, is a social justice attorney in São Paulo, Brazil and graduated from Saint Mary’s in 1964. Nolan and others founded the Institute for Land, Labor and Citizenship in 1997, after discovering the unhealthy conditions of women’s prisons, with the goal of protecting human rights and eradicating gender inequality.

Nolan currently serves as the Institute’s president. Located near the international airport in Brazil, Nolan said she works in an area that is perfectly set up for the illegal drug trade.

While investigating the local women’s prison, Nolan stumbled upon women who had been arrested for smuggling drugs.

“At that point, we found 40 foreign women in jail that nobody knew were there,” Nolan said. “None of them spoke Portuguese, the majority of them spoke English and other languages. So in the last 20 years, we have attended about 1,200 foreign women. As we listened to the stories of these women, we felt that they were not really international drug traffickers. They were victims of human trafficking.”

Though separate forms of trafficking, drug and human trafficking are directly linked, Nolan said.

“Human trafficking, according to the United Nations, is the third largest illegal source of money in the world,” she said. “You have arms, you have drugs, and you have human trafficking. And the drug trafficking is directly tied in to the human trafficking.”

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About Maeve Filbin

Maeve is a senior studying political science and economics at Saint Mary's, as well as Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at Notre Dame. She serves as an Assistant Managing Editor of The Observer, and thinks everyone should support student journalism.

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