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Press Room

Giving A Voice To The Voiceless: “Pillars Of Hope” Presidential Initiative To Tackle Human Trafficking

Chris Johnson, Policy Director , Washington Attorney General’s Office and Judy McKee, NAGTRI Program Manager

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna launched his NAAG presidential initiative at a June 23 kick-off meeting at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, Ill., one day after his induction as NAAG president. Focused on human trafficking, the initiative, called “Pillars of Hope,” has four main objectives to help stem this fast-growing crime: Gather more data that will track state arrests and prosecutions; raise awareness to reduce the demand; promote strong state statutes and forceful state prosecutions; and mobilize communities to increase care for victims.

North Carolina Attorney General and NAAG Immediate Past President Roy Cooper convened the meeting by commenting that the presence of a number of Attorneys General in the audience emphasized the importance of the initiative. In attendance were Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Maine Attorney General William Schneider, Oregon Attorney General John Kroger, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, West Virginia Attorney General Darryl McGraw, and Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. Approximately 70 other state and federal officials, victim advocates, and stakeholders from across the country were also present.

Making the Case: NAAG Commitment and Overview

Attorney General McKenna began his remarks by recounting two stories from Washington regarding children who had become entrapped in sex trafficking. He reminded audience members of the statistics: that human trafficking is a $32 billion global industry and is the fastest growing and second largest criminal activity in the world, tied with arms and drug dealing. The 2010 State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report estimated that 12.3 million adults and children are trafficked across international borders.[1]

According to UNICEF, included in that number are as many as 2 million children subjected to prostitution in the global commercial sex trade. It is estimated that 76 percent of transactions for sex with underage girls start on the Internet. He lauded the work of the Polaris Project, commenting that it is a model example of the collaboration and strategic partnerships that he has in mind as NAAG members leverage their unique “convening” powers for this initiative.

“Traffickers use modern slavery to victimize the voiceless – including millions of children – and don’t respect state, national or international borders,” McKenna said. “State attorneys general are in a unique position to rally public support for combating traffickers, while using our legal expertise to help protect the vulnerable. That’s what this initiative is about.”

Ken Thompson, senior vice-president of Lexis-Nexis, a corporation active in fighting human trafficking, moderated the panel discussion that followed Attorney General McKenna’s introductory remarks.

Holding Traffickers Accountable

In her presentation, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley noted that her state did not yet have human trafficking legislation although she was hopeful that the state Senate would soon pass a proposed bill and send it to the governor for his signature. Attorney General Coakley’s office studied several model bills in crafting the bill proposed to the legislature and determined that there were essential elements that had to be included to ensure that victims are protected and traffickers are held to account. There had to be a strong criminal aspect, appropriate definitions of labor and sex trafficking, enhanced penalties for traffickers of minor prostitutes, and strong data collection. She also noted that a separate bill has been introduced that would include a safe harbor provision for minors involved in prostitution. This bill would ensure that minors be treated as victims, not defendants, and be eligible for services from the state. Attorney General Coakley also emphasized the need for training of state law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges so that there is increased awareness of the signs of trafficking and an understanding of the complexities involved in prosecution.

Federal and State Partnerships

Alice Hill, senior counselor to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano, commented on the importance of collaboration and cooperation between and among all jurisdictions in stopping the crime of human trafficking. Noting DHS Secretary Napolitano’s initiative to coalesce DHS resources to tackle this issue, Ms. Hill also emphasized the challenges, particularly in providing appropriate services for the victims of trafficking. Successful prosecution of traffickers requires the active participation of empowered victims to speak out about their abuse and trauma. Ms. Hill also noted the need for more training for first responders and pointed out that web-based training for law enforcement is available through the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Although there is difficulty in gathering solid statistics on the extent of human trafficking, Ms. Hill did note that one statistic showed that the cities requesting the most Continued Presence status for international victims of trafficking last year were Honolulu, New York City, Tampa, Miami, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, Houston, and Chicago.

Mobilizing Communities to Care for Victims

Mary Anderson, senior advisor in the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, spoke on behalf of Attorney General Lisa Madigan. She noted that Chicago is a national hub for human trafficking and that the average age of a child entering into forced prostitution is 12. She detailed the work that Attorney General Madigan and other Attorneys General had done in successfully convincing Craigslist to remove adult sexual services from its web site. She also noted the work of Cook County District Attorney Anita Alvarez in assembling a task force of federal, state, and local law enforcement, prosecutors, and service providers to work collaboratively to identify victims and prosecute traffickers.

Illinois was also the first state in the union to pass legislation which requires law enforcement, when finding a child under 18 involved in prostitution, to notify Children and Family Services, which must, within 24 hours, initiate an abuse investigation. Attorney General Madigan successfully lobbied for the passage of a bill in the Illinois legislature that requires DNA testing of every sexual assault rape kit. Further, Illinois has worked to double the number of nurses trained in handling sexual assault victims and has partnered with the Illinois Hospital Association to incorporate training for medical personnel in identifying and treating victims of human trafficking.

Demand Deterrence and Public Awareness

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller spoke passionately about the need to change the culture that makes it acceptable for men to purchase sex and to comment openly about it in bars, locker rooms, and other male-dominated spaces. Others have made the case that dignifying the word “pimp” by using it in a laudatory instead of a pejorative sense creates a culture of acceptance for the purchase and sale of human beings. Decreasing the demand for sex trafficking is essential in helping to end this crime, a crime where the victims are often under-aged children from our own communities. Attorney General Zoeller noted research has shown that men who patronize prostitutes are men from all income groups, all races, and all professions.

Part of the Pillars of Hope campaign is for elected officials to take a pledge of zero tolerance for sex trafficking, a pledge that Attorney General Zoeller is encouraging all of the state Attorneys General to sign. Although not all Attorneys General have jurisdiction to actually prosecute traffickers under their state laws, all Attorneys General can use their convening authority to draw attention to the issue, help to strengthen state laws by increasing penalties for both the traffickers and the customers of trafficking, and encourage collaborative models in victim protection and prosecution of the criminals involved. Finally, he noted that men must step up and take a leadership role in promoting zero tolerance.

Testimony from a Survivor

Shamere McKenzie, a young trafficking survivor, was the final program speaker. She emphasized the need for empowering the victims of trafficking to be survivors so they can speak out and raise public awareness and understanding. Her powerful testimony illustrated the requirement that those who join together to tackle human trafficking must emphasize a victim-centered approach so that those who have suffered so much are not further victimized by the legal and judicial system.

Leadership Council

Attorney General McKenna has established a leadership council to help him fulfill the tasks he has identified for his one-year initiative. The council consists of Attorneys General Coakley, Madigan, and Zoeller and California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Maine Attorney General William Schneider, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, Oregon Attorney General John Kroger, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. They will assist in fleshing out the four pillars of the initiative. Lexis-Nexis, along with the Polaris Project and Microsoft, will serve as initiative partners.

Visit the NAAG web page for more detailed information regarding the Pillars of Hope campaign


[1] The 2011 TIP Report, issued after the June 23 event, estimates that 27 million people were victims worldwide of human trafficking.

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Shamere McKenzie, a human trafficking survivor, tells her story during the June 23 launch event.