LISLE – Human trafficking is a problem in Chicago area communities, and more is being done every day to combat the business of selling people for sex, advocates say.
A forum hosted by Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Wheaton, on Thursday morning at Benedictine University laid out efforts within Chicago and the suburbs to prosecute human traffickers and inform police agencies what they can do fight them in their towns.
Police departments that still view the crime as simple prostitution or treat those who are being trafficked as criminals need to understand how complex the illegal business is, according to representatives from Cook County and nonprofit organizations aimed at helping survivors of human trafficking.
“It's an incredibly brutalized life, the mass rape of children for money,” said Jack Blakey, chief of special prosecutions at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
A perspective developed in Chicago works to change attitudes within law enforcement agencies, adopt an active approach to investigating human traffickers and bring in social services to aid adult and child victims.
Survivors of human trafficking are not treated as criminals, Blakey said. Law enforcement agencies go after human trafficking organizations like they would organized crime, by targeting those who manage the operation, while the sex workers are offered resources for rehabilitation and a fresh start.
The Salvation Army’s STOP-IT Initiative, the social services aspect of the Chicago approach to human trafficking investigation, uses federal funds to run a program that raises public awareness and provides counseling to survivors.
Law enforcement agencies aren’t the only ones targeting pimps and human traffickers.
“We're trying to go after the bad guys, too,” said Lynne Johnson, policy and advocacy director for Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.
The alliance’s End Demand Illinois campaign focuses on shifting law enforcement attention to sex traffickers and those who buy sex.
Human trafficking can be an extraordinarily profitable business for the pimps, who use fear, intimidation and violence against the sex workers, Johnson said.
A 2010 study of 25 Chicago-area pimps showed each controlled a “stable” of two to 30 women at any given time, making between $150,000 and $500,000 annually.
Legal steps have been taken to help those coerced or forced into sex work.
The 2010 Illinois Safe Children Act ends the practice of prosecuting minors who have been prostituted, allowing them to be treated as neglected and abused children.
Chicago Alliance is working with Illinois lawmakers on SB 3558, a bill that would create funding streams from fines against pimps, traffickers and those who pay for sex to a special fund with the Illinois Department of Human Services, Johnson said. Grants from that money would be made to develop specialized services for prostitutes and people who are trafficked.
In January, an Indiana prostitute was charged with the murder of a Brother Rice High School teacher in Orland Park. Investigators say the teacher solicited the woman through the website Backpage, which is commonly used by prostitutes and sex traffickers.
“Once people begin to learn what's happening, not just in countries far away, but also right here close to home, it jars them,” Roskam said.
Roskam is part of the Congressional Human Trafficking Task Force headed by U.S. Majority Leader Eric Cantor. He’s also cosponsoring legislation to make states take steps to prevent sex trafficking of youth in foster care and force them to treat children involved as victims, not criminals.