By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published July 15, 2004
Covenant House, the agency devoted to serving homeless and runaway youths, through a grant received in February from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is operating a new hotline for victims of human trafficking.
The contract for the program, initiated under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2002 and managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, was signed Feb. 18 and provides $270,000 for the first year.
Richard Hirsch, communications officer for Covenant House, the nation’s largest privately funded child welfare agency, said the agency based in New York received the award after the government invited several agencies with experience operating hot lines to submit proposals. Gilbert Ortiz, who directed a state-supported drug program for the Diocese of Brooklyn before becoming director of Covenant House’s “nineline” program five years ago, is managing the new hotline.
Sister Patricia Cruise, president of Covenant House, said during a visit this spring to Atlanta’s branch of Covenant House, which opened in 2000, that the national hotline has been running since April but needs some time to catch on. “We are thrilled to provide this much needed service,” she said. “It is outrageous that so many women and children are brought, sold or trafficked into this country for purposes of sexual exploitation and domestic slavery.”
Covenant House serves youth roughly ages 16-21 in crisis, and in Atlanta Covenant House is beginning to get involved in supporting victims of human trafficking. Before coming to CH, many youth have been involved in the commercial sex industry.
“We need to get these kids away from predators, away from people who are taking advantage of them and give them their life back, put these people in jail,” said the Sister of Charity. “The money involved with this is more than the drug money coming in. So there are some heavy hitters and we need to be able to stand up straight and look them in the eye and say ‘no more.’”
CH reports that each year as many as 700,000 people around the world, primarily women and children, are bought, sold, transported and held for the purpose of forced commercial sex or involuntary labor. That includes the United States, where thousands of non-citizens struggle behind closed doors against their will as prostitutes, factory workers, domestic servants and migrant agricultural laborers. Traffickers may threaten physical harm to the victim or to a loved one left behind in their country of origin. And they’re exposed to health risks like HIV/AIDS.
The Covenant House Latin American program, known as Casa Alianza, has worked for years with this population both in rescuing victims and stopping the perpetrators.
“I think CH has known (about this) for a long time, especially down in Central America and in Mexico where there are many young people that are trafficked out of the country (and) babies that are sold,” said Sister Cruise. “There are a lot of kids who are living in Honduras that end up in Canada, and are being prostituted. And they’re doing it for survival, food, money, clothing, shelter. (They think) ‘I can go off with this guy and he’ll give me 20 bucks and I can eat for the next two days.’”
In Nicaragua last fall to open a new shelter, Sister Cruise saw “so many kids living in the street that were just 10, 11 and 12 years old . . . selling themselves for food and to get off the ground that night just for safety,” she said. “We opened a CH down there with 90 beds in it, and it was full the first night.”
The Office of Refugee Resettlement also recently initiated a public awareness Rescue & Restore campaign to broaden the current scope of outreach to increase the number of identified trafficking victims and to help them receive benefits and services. Atlanta, Philadelphia and Phoenix are the three pilot cities in which the campaign was first launched this spring, in which local coalitions are being formed. The first phase focuses on outreach to those who most likely encounter persons being trafficked on a daily basis but may not recognize them as victims.
The trafficking hot line will offer confidentiality and counselors will not contact police or other law enforcement officials except at the caller’s request.
But since victims themselves will often be unable or afraid to call, many of the initial callers will likely be intermediaries who know about instances of trafficking and want to see what resources for rescue are available, Ortiz said.
Sister Cruise is glad to see current media focus on this social evil and is optimistic about the contribution her agency can make towards fighting it. “We will do everything in our power to provide (victims) with the resources necessary to gain their freedom.”
Tracy Early of Catholic News Service also contributed to this report.