Kalamazoo group targets human trafficking
Federal officials say more than 100,000 women and children fall victim to human traffickers in the U.S. each year. They’re often forced into prostitution or other sex work, or other jobs, against their will. A Kalamazoo woman hopes to make a dent in that modern form of slavery, at least in southwest Michigan.
Sara Morley LaCroix is a real estate agent by day. But last March she founded the Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition. Morley LaCroix says she started the project after meeting three survivors of human trafficking, including Theresa, who became a victim of traffickers at her high school in Birmingham at the age of 16. Another was Melinda of Muskegon who was exploited by her mother from the age of five until she was in high school.
Because Michigan is a border state, Morley LaCroix says a lot of traffic in human being passes through, gathering more victims on the way. In 2011 a man was arrested for transporting underage girls to Chicago where they were to be forced into having sex in hotels. The trial in that case is pending.
Morley says she was impressed when one of the eight people who attended the Coalition’s first meeting was Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller.
One of the coalition’s missions is to raise public awareness of human trafficking. But Morley LaCroix says another important goal is training Kalamazoo-area law enforcement and health care personnel to recognize signs that someone is a victim. The group is already working with nursing students at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and is discussing a program with Bronson Methodist Hospital. Morley LaCroix says the coalition will also begin working soon with police officers.
The group also wants state lawmakers to change laws it says hurt trafficking victims. It is lobbying the legislature on the issue with help from the Junior League of Kalamazoo. Morley LaCroix says teenage girls in Michigan forced into sex work are prosecuted as adults. She says the state should lower its age of minority to the federal standard of 18. The coalition also wants legislation that would wipe the criminal records of victims clean for arrests caused by their forced work. Morley LaCroix says that would help them move on with their lives. She says victims should also be able to hold traffickers accountable and seek financial compensation. Ironically, Morley LaCroix says victims who are not U.S. citizens have more legal protection than those who are citizens.
Marks left by physical and sexual abuse can be signs that someone might be a victim of human trafficking. Morley LaCroix says some traffickers force victims to get tattoos to show who “owns” them.
There’s a national human trafficking hotline where people can report suspected cases, ask questions, or get help: (888) 373-7888. It’s run by the Polaris Project. There’s also the Manasseh Shelter in Grand Rapids for trafficking survivors
Morley LaCroix will give a presentation about human trafficking Monday, February 11th, to the Rotary Club of Kalamazoo. It starts at noon at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Kalamazoo.