Ahead of Super Bowl, a push to raise awareness about human trafficking

There are disputes about whether sex trafficking spikes in advance of events such as the Super Bowl. Nevertheless a New Jersey coalition, as well as others, are taking anti-trafficking steps.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie looks on as Cindy McCain, of Arizona, wife of Senator John McCain addresses a gathering at the Super Bowl security post Wednesday, in East Rutherford, N.J. Cindy McCain and Christie talked about the effects of human trafficking and police organizations plans to combat it during Super Bowl week.

New York’s attorney general announced charges Thursday against 18 people for allegedly peddling “party packs” of cocaine and prostitutes – often aimed at wealthy out-of-town visitors, including people coming to the area for Sunday’s Super Bowl in East Rutherford, N.J.

It was the culmination of an 11-month investigation, and the attorney general’s office says it’s still looking into whether human trafficking was involved.

Advocates for preventing sex trafficking and labor trafficking say the lead-up to major sports events around the world is a ripe time for educating people about these often-hidden crimes.

There are disputes about whether sex trafficking spikes in advance of events such as the Super Bowl, and some prominent anti-trafficking organizations say it would be difficult to document such a trend. Nevertheless, a coordinated effort is often launched to boost the training of hotel and transportation workers as well as law enforcement officers – and to reach out with messages to potential customers and victims of the sex trade.

“A big push around any big sporting event gives us an opportunity ... and raises awareness that will carry over,” says Carol Smolenski, executive director of the nonprofit End Child Prostitution and Trafficking-USA. “It’s important for [sex trade] customers to understand that sexually exploited children are mixed in with the adults.”

The New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking has taken a number of steps leading up to this year’s Super Bowl. It trained more than 200 volunteers to engage hotel managers in anti-trafficking efforts, for instance. Some of them took along bars of soap bearing the National Human Trafficking hot line number (888-373-7888) – part of a project called S.O.A.P.: Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution.

In Indiana, similar outreach took place in advance of the 2012 Super Bowl. A report from the Indiana attorney general noted that the KlaasKids Foundation tracked Backpage.com female escort ads and found that four weeks before the Super Bowl, there were 17 ads, and the number rose steadily each week, culminating in 118 ads on Feb. 2 and 129 on Feb. 3. Many of the ads appeared to involve underage girls.

The report also counted 68 commercial sex arrests related to the Super Bowl and the identification of two human trafficking victims. Two other potential cases of trafficking were still being investigated at the time of the report.

“Two doesn’t sound like very much, but they’re tremendously important,” says Abigail Kuzma, the director of consumer protection in the attorney general’s office. “It’s very easy to hide this crime.”

The two girls identified called the hot line that they found on some of the outreach materials distributed before the Super Bowl, Ms. Kuzma says. Moreover, because there was so much publicity about stepped-up law enforcement, “there was literally chat on the Internet where traffickers were saying, ‘I’m not coming to Indianapolis; it’s too dangerous,’ ” she says.

Indiana has identified about 100 victims since its task force on human trafficking started up in 2005, but most of those cases have come in recent years, Kuzma says. Right after the Super Bowl, about one tip a week came in related to trafficking in the state, and now it averages about two a month, so all the outreach at the time “made a tangible difference,” she says.

In Washington earlier this week, Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey used his position as chairman of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee to hold a hearing titled “Lessons Learned From Super Bowl Preparations: Preventing International Human Trafficking at Major Sporting Events.”

Witnesses represented groups ranging from the Department of Homeland Security to the airline industry, and all spoke of ongoing efforts to prevent human trafficking. Some described how the preparations for major events like the Olympics can lead to labor exploitation.

However, Representative Smith may have inadvertently played into the hands of skeptics who believe the sex trafficking problem is overstated – especially when linked to the Super Bowl. In his statement he said, “The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that more than 10,000 exploited women and girls were trafficked to Miami for the Super Bowl in 2010.”

It’s an oft-quoted statistic. But when the Monitor contacted the national center, a media spokesperson said the group had been misquoted. “No one knows with certainty the exact number of children exploited through sex trafficking in the United States or during events like the Super Bowl,” said Staca Shehan, who supervises the center’s Child Sex Trafficking Team, in a follow-up email to the Monitor. “The dynamics of power, manipulation, dominance and control involved in the crime of child sex trafficking make it very difficult for a child to disclose the abuse, violence or torture they have been forced to endure.”

Whatever the number of crimes, many visitors in New York and New Jersey for the Super Bowl this weekend will see public service ads spotlighting the trafficking issue. The media company Clear Channel Outdoor teamed up with the Polaris Project, a major anti-trafficking group, to post ads in strategic locations such as Times Square and the I-95 corridor in New Jersey.

“This form of modern slavery occurs at large sporting events, in suburban brothels, and in farms and factories across America. We want people to understand that sex and labor trafficking is a huge problem across the country that demands our attention and resources – 365 days a year,” said Polaris Project’s CEO Bradley Myles in a statement.

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