A few years back, I met a young woman named Sheila. As a teenager, she fled an abusive home and eventually met a man who promised to love and protect her. Instead, after pretending to be the savior she so desperately needed, he sold her. Literally.
Sheila was just 15 years old, being beaten, burned with irons, raped, and living in fear of the men who bought her, with no end in sight. After years of unspeakable abuse, she eventually broke free and found the support she needed with the help of a non-profit led by other survivors. When I met her, she had already earned her GED and was successfully advocating for a new anti-trafficking law that was passed in her home state of New York.
This is not a problem that is relegated overseas. It is a reality in communities throughout the United States, affecting our neighbors, our families, and many of the most vulnerable members of our society. Look beneath the surface in our communities and you will find young people living through nightmares — being targeted in our streets, hotels, malls, and increasingly, over the Internet.
Their exploiters come from all walks of life, too — and can only be stopped with a strong, coordinated effort by a broad range of engaged advocates. President Obama is committed to building the coalition we need to end these heinous crimes and to lift victims and survivors out of the darkness to begin living their lives safely, with dignity and hope for their future.
Yesterday’s National Convening on Trafficking and Child Welfare at the White House provided an important opportunity to strengthen partnerships between federal, state, and local stakeholders, as well as key advocates including actress Ashley Judd. Participants worked together in state teams to establish coordinated action plans for strengthening state and local infrastructure, and implementing the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which the President signed into law in 2014.
The Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also announced yesterday a brand new federal office to help lead the fight to end trafficking and provide appropriate support to survivors. The Office on Trafficking in Persons will help to coordinate work among different levels of government by establishing a national delivery system for victim services, ensuring anti-trafficking policy and programming is based on reliable data, and incorporating anti-trafficking efforts into existing prevention initiatives.
Over the course of the two-day event, state teams worked with expert collaborators from HHS to zero in on both proven and innovative strategies for serving survivors and at-risk youth with the types of support and empowerment they deserve. It requires integrated prevention efforts in our communities, nuanced training for caregivers and outreach professionals, and effective protocols for our schools, hospitals, law enforcement professionals, and courts to identify and assess trafficking cases and young people living at risk.
President Obama is committed to ending modern slavery in this country. And if we work together with our government partners, policymakers, advocates, care and service providers, and the courageous survivors among us, we can help more young people escape the horrors of human trafficking and achieve their dreams.