The state is setting in motion its plan to combat human trafficking, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette told an audience in Kalamazoo yesterday evening.
Earlier Thursday state lawmakers announced that they would seek changes in the way state law treats victims of sex trafficking so they’re not prosecuted for prostitution. Advocates also say they’re working hard to raise public awareness of an issue they say hides in plain sight.
About 45 people listened to Sara Morley Croix describe how human trafficking might touch their lives. She told the audience at the Kalamazoo Ladies Library Association that they had “likely come into contact with a trafficking victim without realizing it.”
“I had a woman tell me a story: she went to a nail salon, and she was in the nail salon getting her nails done and a man brought in five girls with him, to get those girls’ nails done. How uncommon is that? Who would have five girls that he would be bringing in, to get their nails done?”
Morley Croix founded the Kalamazoo Anti-Human-Trafficking Coalition. In the two years since, she says she’s tried to reach as many people as possible. She’s talked to police officers, victim service providers and health care workers. And soon the group will start a new initiative.
“We’re going to get in the schools,” she says.
"That has been one of our main focuses because these educators are seeing these students every day, and we need them to be our boots on the ground.”
While Morley Croix tries to educate people in the Kalamazoo area about human trafficking, state officials have been studying ways to attack the problem across Michigan.
A commission at the state Attorney General’s office released a report last year, laying out how Michigan could improve everything from data collection to its advocacy for victims of trafficking. In Kalamazoo last night, Attorney General Bill Schuette described what he calls the commission’s “grounding point.”
“Young women who are forced to have sex, are victims, not criminals. And what we’ve done is made proposals legislatively to toughen the penalties against the traffickers and the johns, by increasing it from a misdemeanor to a felony if you have sex with a young woman, and to enhance and toughen the forfeiture laws, to obtain the ill-gotten goods and assets and cash by these traffickers.”
That’s on top of the new legislation Michigan lawmakers – among them State Representative Margaret O’Brien of Portage – announced on Thursday.
It would define human trafficking as a form of kidnapping. The proposal would also create a permanent anti-trafficking commission. And it would offer legal protection for people forced into prostitution.
Allison Hammond is with the Junior League of Kalamazoo, which co-sponsored Thursday’s talk. She’s heard the facts about trafficking before, but she says the cruelty of it always strikes her anew. She’s worked with Morley Croix on the issue.
“We did a soap – the soap campaign, where they put the soaps in hotel rooms that have the hotline on them, and they did that during the Kalamazoo marathon. So I think that’s really encouraging," she says.
“I think the discouraging thing is that until we limit the demand, it’s going to be perpetuated and unfortunately people that do that Backpage website just keep getting craftier.”
Backpage is a site that’s been implicated in promoting sex trafficking. Morley Croix and other activists also say that reducing the demand for the sex trade is the most important – and most challenging - aspect of fighting human trafficking.
“I had a very wise conversation with a gentleman at the YMCA the other day,” she says, concerning his frequenting of strip clubs. “I think I got through to him. But it was a little bit confrontational – because I laid it out there. I don’t sugarcoat anything. This is not an industry to be sugarcoated – it’s disgusting and it needs to be kicked away.”
And that, Morley Croix says, involves changing the culture as well as prosecuting predators.
The Junior League plans to host Schuette and his presentation about human trafficking in cities around Michigan.