By Gina Christian
(OSV News) — While teaching in a Louisiana public elementary school several years ago, Janice Henry was haunted by one particular student.
“The child was so tired that she kept falling asleep. She was unable to keep herself awake in class,” Henry, a retired educator and member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of Peter Claver, told OSV News.
When Henry visited the school’s cafeteria, her unease deepened.
“She’d kind of get herself together by lunchtime, and then I would overhear her conversations,” Henry said. “She would talk about staying at a hotel and being able to swim in the pool.”
The experienced teacher said she also was alarmed by changes in the girl’s appearance: professionally braided hair, designer nails, “coming to class having a little lip gloss on.”
“I had seen the child all through the years,” said Henry. “She had not been able to afford those things previously. It just didn’t feel right in my spirit.”
Henry shared her concerns with school administrators, but “they just kind of brushed it off,” she said. “I guess they thought I was being overly (cautious), or seeing things.”
But “God just wouldn’t let me leave it alone,” said Henry, who suspected the girl was being trafficked for sex.
Henry consulted a relative working for the Department of Homeland Security, who was able to look into the case and confirm Henry’s worst fears: The student had been recruited by an older girl into a dance troupe that was a front for the sexual exploitation of minors.
“I don’t believe the (girl’s) parents knew at all” about the trafficking, Henry told OSV News. “They were working a lot, and just out of the loop.”
Henry said she and fellow Claver Knights and Ladies now seek to counter human trafficking — also known as modern slavery — and have been educating others to “see it, know it and report it.” The Knights and Ladies organized a Jan. 11 webinar on trafficking, and have asked members to wear blue and use the hashtag #endhumantrafficking on social media to generate awareness for that day.
Every Jan. 11, the U.S. observes National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, established in 2007 by the U.S. Senate following the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. In 2010, President Barack Obama designated January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.
According to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, 49.6 million people lived in modern slavery in 2021, with 27.6 million in forced labor (6.3 million of which were in forced commercial sexual exploitation) and 22 million in forced marriage.
Women and children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, with 4.9 million in forced commercial sexual exploitation and 6 million in forced labor in other sectors.
Migrants and refugees, especially unaccompanied children, also are at risk for trafficking, said Todd Scribner, assistant director of education and outreach in the Migration and Refugee Services office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Those fleeing persecution, conflict and natural disasters often encounter “gangs, cartels and others who want to take advantage of them and make them into objects,” Scribner told OSV News.
The wounds inflicted by human trafficking can be felt long after victims have been rescued, said survivor Ann Marie Jones, now a residential coordinator at Dawn’s Place, a Philadelphia-area care center for victims and co-author of “A Shield Against the Monster: Protecting Children from Human Trafficking.”
“I’ve been out of that life for 14 years, and I’m still healing from it,” said Jones. “I still get triggers and flashbacks. Healing is a lifelong process.”
Raising awareness is an essential first step in eradicating human trafficking, since the problem is too often overlooked, said victim advocates.
“In my area, people didn’t think any such thing existed,” said Henry, who noted the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary formed a committee in 2018 to address the issue. Since then, committee members have offered presentations highlighting the signs of trafficking and resources for victims.
Scribner said Pope Francis has been “a leader in fighting human trafficking and calling people out on it, and we look to him as a role model.”
In 2003, the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services office convened the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking, which focuses on four approaches to combating the problem: prevention, protection of potential victims, prosecution of traffickers, and partnership among agencies and outreaches.
The USCCB’s Amistad Movement — named for the 19th-century slave ship whose captives revolted for freedom — educates immigrants in at-risk communities on the dangers of trafficking.
Women religious also have been on the forefront of “getting this issue on the radar of the church, on both the local and national levels,” said Scribner.
U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, founded in 2013, now includes more than 110 congregations of women religious, as well as over 70 U.S.-based groups and individual supporters — and that growth is in response to a global rise in trafficking.
Sister of St. Joseph Meaghan Patterson, a social worker and executive director of Dawn’s Place, pointed to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888, TTY 711, Text 233733 or “BeFree”) as a vital resource.
Operated by the Washington-based nonprofit Polaris, the hotline received more than 10,500 reports involving over 16,650 individuals victims in 2020 — numbers that represented “likely only a fraction of the actual problem,” according to the organization’s website.
Prayer also is crucial, said Scribner, since “human trafficking is demonic, and contrary to the will of God and his intention for the world. It is a spiritual battle as well.”
In that fight, St. Josephine Bakhita — a once enslaved Sudanese woman who won her freedom and became a Canossian Sister – has become “a central figure,” said Scribner.
He regards National Human Trafficking Awareness month as “a preparation for her feast day on Feb. 8 — a time of learning, discerning and contemplating the problem of human trafficking. We can turn to her in prayer and ask for her help.”
Gina Christian is national reporter for OSV News.