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Chicago Gets Another Task Force on Human Trafficking—Will This One Work?

The city has the third-highest volume of human trafficking in the country, and experts say this new group could be in the position to make a big impact.

Salvation Army volunteers post flyers as part of Salvation Army’s 2015 advertising campaign targeting victims of human trafficking, among other people in need of food or treatment.   Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

This month, Gov. Bruce Rauner added yet another human trafficking task force, this one dedicated to "address[ing] the growing problem of human trafficking across this State.”

With so many task forces already in place—the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force, the Chicago Regional Human Trafficking Task Force (CTTF), and the Illinois Task Force on Human Trafficking, to name a few—this new one may seem redundant. But Chicago experts are more optimistic, especially considering the challenge: Chicago ranks third in the country for the highest levels of human trafficking.

The group will look for new ways the state can fight human trafficking and track the effectiveness of proposed and current laws. They will also evaluate the need for treating victims of human trafficking as crime victims rather than criminals and develop methods to promote the rights and safety of victims.

Sen. Karen McConnaughay (R-St. Charles), chief sponsor of the bill, says what sets this task force apart is its statewide approach. While Chicago-area groups do great work, she adds, this task force will work to attack the human trafficking problem at all levels of local government across the state.

“There are studies that estimate as many as 25,000 victims of commercial exploitation exist in Illinois,” McConnaughay says. “The reality of human slavery is happening in our own backyard.”

One quirk of the legislation might be the task force’s saving grace: it won’t last long. The group must present its results to lawmakers before it is abolished on July 1 next year. "A task force should not be long term or permanent, contrary to what happens with most existing task forces for human trafficking,” says Charles Hounmenou, assistant professor at UIC’s Jane Addams College of Social Work and a consultant on human trafficking projects.

Hounmenou published the Human Trafficking in Illinois Fact Sheet in 2015, and its findings paint a grim picture of Chicago. The city sees the highest amounts of immigrants coming into the Midwest. Because of the many conventions that bring people to the city, O’Hare International Airport is considered a “highly used transit location by traffickers to transport victims and disperse them as needed to other cities and states.”

Within the metropolitan area, between 16,000 to 25,000 women and girls are involved in the commercial sex trade each year, according to Hounmenou’s fact sheet. A third of them got into the sex trade before the age of 15, and 62 percent by 18 years. Roughly 175,000 different johns buy sex every year, and experts estimate about 4,400 street prostitutes are active in Chicago each week.

One major issue is that current laws that address human trafficking aren’t implemented properly, Hounmenou says. For example, by law, victims of human trafficking can clear their criminal records of prostitution convictions if the crimes occurred while the individual was a trafficking victim, but Hounmenou says few victims ever do so, likely because they don’t know it’s possible.

Laura Ng, executive director of Traffick Free, says that to her knowledge, the Illinois Predatory Accountability Act, which allows victims of the sex trade to sue their abusers for damages, has never been used at all.

“A lot of people don’t realize that that’s a source of recourse as well,” Ng says.

Hounmenou and Ng also see training as a problem the task force could address. In Hounmenou’s experience, police officers aren’t sufficiently trained to work with victims. Ng adds that some city officials still struggle to understand that human trafficking can include sex trafficking as well as labor trafficking.

Teachers and hospital staff should also be trained to better recognize signs of abuse as well as how to work with victims, says Summar Ghias, coordinator of the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force. She says the task force should consider an ordinance mandating that all police officers, teachers, and medical professionals receive training.

One major problem the task force could face is the lack of diversity. According to the new law, the task force will comprise 14 people: six members from the House of Representatives, six from the Senate, one from CTTF (the Chicago-based task force) and the director of the Department of State Police, or his or her designee. Some human trafficking experts say that the mix is too heavy on legislators, without enough on-the-ground knowledge of the issues.

“Task forces are supposed to represent a lot of different angles,” Ng says.

Though the members have not been selected yet, McConnaughay says human trafficking groups around the state have already reached out to her and asked to testify and support the new task force.

“I think that it’ll be an important priority to bring together the individuals and individual organizations that are fighting that on the front line,” she says.

McConnaughay, who became chief sponsor of the bill after attending a community forum detailing the harsh realities of human trafficking, hopes they will work on laws targeting stricter business regulations to fight spa and massage parlors that are fronts for human trafficking as well as internet chatrooms and websites such as Backpage.com where minors are often victimized. Hounmenou sees the task force as a step in the right direction.

“What is new here is that now the state is actively involved in addressing the issue of human trafficking,” he says.

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