Sister works with others to stop human trafficking

Daughter of Charity Sister JT Dwyer works with others in the Austin area to stop human trafficking. She helps people understand and recognize the signs of this devastating crime. (Photo by Enedelia J. Obregón)

By Enedelia J. Obregón

Senior Correspondent

Daughters of Charity Sister JT Dwyer sometimes goes to bars, but she’s not there for happy hour. She’s there with others fighting human trafficking, putting up posters in bathrooms with the number of the national hotline that people being trafficked can call for help.

"Restrooms or bathroom stalls are about the only place where they can go by themselves," said Sister JT, as she is known. "We work in teams." They also distribute coasters inscribed with trafficking information to raise awareness of the issue.

She does this in her spare time. When the Texas legislature is in session, most of her time is taken up as advocacy and outreach consultant on health care issues –– such as Medicaid expansion –– for the Seton Healthcare Family.

As defined under U.S. federal law, victims of human trafficking include children involved in the sex trade, adults over age 18 who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts and anyone forced into different forms of "labor or services," such as domestic workers held in a home or farm workers forced to labor against their will.

Human trafficking contains the elements of force, fraud or coercion that are used to control people. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that in the U.S. alone, between 14,500 and 17,500 individuals are being trafficked each year and about 800,000 globally.

Sister JT said that human trafficking is a very profitable business. While hard facts are difficult to come by, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes estimates it is a $32 billion a year business, just behind illegal drug and arms sales. Some groups estimate it might be more lucrative than guns or drugs.

"If you sell drugs or guns you get paid once," Sister JT said, but a person can be sold many times.

Laurie Cook Heffron, a licensed social worker in the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, met Sister JT through ALLIES Against Slavery, a group fighting human trafficking. Heffron said it’s difficult to get statistics because victims and survivors rarely cry out for help.

"There is emotional coercion that keeps them silent," Heffron said. "There may be threats to their family or their own lives."

Youth are at great risk, as are immigrants, who are often threatened with documentation status. They are also vulnerable to sexual assault by the people trafficking them.

Sister JT, who celebrated 50 years as a sister in 2011, didn’t know the term "human trafficking" until 2006. The International General Assembly of the Daughters of Charity elected to take a stand against human trafficking. Their involvement follows the Daughters’ charism to work on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. The people being trafficked are very vulnerable.

Human trafficking isn’t just about the illicit sex trade. According to the Polaris Project, human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in that people profit from the control and exploitation of others.

Sister JT, who is moderator for the Ladies of Charity, a lay group founded by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac along with the Daughters of Charity, said a member of the Ladies realized she had a case of human trafficking within her West Austin neighborhood.

The lady and her husband rescued a domestic worker who had not been paid in many years. They saw the worker only when taking out the trash.

When you see this type of thing, "call the hotline (1-888-373-7888) or the police department. Don’t handle it yourself," Sister JT advised.

What happened to this Austin domestic worker is not uncommon. Last year, a Kentucky cardiologist and his ex-wife pleaded guilty to recruiting a Bolivian woman to work as their domestic servant. They held her unlawfully for 15 years, withholding her passport and threatening her with deportation. They falsely promised her that her wages were being put in a bank account.

Women and girls are predominately the victims in human trafficking, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The most common form of human trafficking –– 79 percent –– is sexual exploitation and 18 percent is forced labor. About 20 percent of those exploited are children, although in Africa the percentage is much higher.

Sister JT said it is exhausting and frustrating when faced with the enormity of human trafficking.

"But I never want to walk away," she said. "I can’t. These are our brothers and sisters in the Lord."

She wants others to recognize that this kind of exploitation is happening here and wants to educate the community to recognize signs of human trafficking.

"Many victims have had encounters with a health care provider," she said. "It behooves us –– the ER staff, social workers, chaplains –– to be schooled in recognizing the signs."

Heffron said Sister JT helped open the doors to emergency room staff to receive training about indicators of human trafficking.

To meet the needs of survivors, a program is in the works at a local CommUnity Care Clinic. These clinics in Travis County are designed for those who have difficulty accessing health care services.

One reason human trafficking remains hidden is that people often don’t recognize it when they see it. Some warning signs: Does a neighbor’s maid come only come out at night to take the trash? Does she refuse to talk? Are there multiple cars coming and going from a neighbor’s house all hours of the day and night? Does that teenage girl standing with that guy at the street corner look uncomfortable?

"At times, people don’t know what to do," Sister JT said.

When those victims get rescued, however, they need help. Sister JT works with ALLIES Against Slavery, an arm of the Central Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking, as well as Restore a Voice and Refugee Services of Austin, since many victims are smuggled into this country and therefore undocumented.

Strengthening legislation that criminalizes human trafficking is also necessary, she said. At the moment, several bills in the Texas Legislature have been proposed that would shift criminalization of prostitution of minors and focus on rehabilitation. SB 92 by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and HB 91 by State Rep. Senfronia Thompson have been referred to the committee on Senate Jurisprudence and committee on House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence.

"Right now if police go into a brothel they arrest the women and the pimps often get off," she said. "However, federal legislation says that minors cannot give consent for sexual acts."

Decriminalizing prostitution for minors would make the youngsters eligible for rehabilitation services and send them to juvenile court rather than criminal court so they can finish rehabilitation, she said.

Sister JT said that children are at great risk for sexual exploitation, especially with the explosion of social media.

"Children need to understand they shouldn’t put everything out about themselves on social media," she said. "People who are up to no good monitor those sites. It could happen to your daughter."

The topic is repulsive and overwhelming and does not have a quick solution, Sister JT said. Many people might wonder whether their efforts make a difference. So why does she continue her work?

The answer is embodied in a reflection Sister JT did for a group in which everyone attending had a small tea candle and a match. After the lights were turned off, the room was dark. She had one person light his candle and then another person lit hers, until everyone held lit candles. And the room was no longer dark.

"You need to work with others," Sister JT said. "That’s the answer to human trafficking. Everyone can do something. One person can make a difference working with others."

For warning signs on human trafficking visit www.humantrafficking.org/combat_trafficking.

To get help

for someone you suspect is being held against their will, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center toll-free hotline at 1-888-373-7888. The hotline is staffed at all times. In Austin, call the human trafficking unit at (512) 974-4786. The Polaris Project, which maintains the hotline and has kits for groups wanting to learn how to help stop human trafficking, is available at www.polarisproject.org.

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