A Victim-Centric Approach to Fighting Sex Trafficking in Chicago

Categories: Medium

‘Golden unicorn’ approach makes a dent but exposes scale

February 2, 2018


Last May, federal authorities in Chicago broke open a sex-trafficking ring operating in plain sight. What they found was an operation involving hundreds of Thai women traveling from Bangkok to Chicago, since 2009, who ended up sex slaves. Many were forced to undergo cosmetic enhancements such as breast enlargement before they stepped on the plane. All owed tens of thousands of dollars for their travel and housing — financial shackles that would keep them ensnared in prostitution with little chance for freedom.

The international scope of the ring — women arriving in Chicago and then farmed out to other cities, like Dallas and Minneapolis — is not common in Cook County, the second-most populous county in the United States. Trafficking in the Chicagoland area mostly involves native-born women and is confined within the region. In Cook County and under Illinois law, any person under the age of 18 who is involved in the commercial sex trade is recognized as a trafficking victim.

What makes the Thai case even more unusual is how Tom Dart, the Cook County sheriff, approached the rescued prostitutes, all of whom federal authorities wanted to deport immediately.

“They’re victims,” Dart announced at the time. “We want to make sure the victims aren’t put in a worse place than they were in here.”

Dart’s victim-centric approach has made him a national figure in the fight against human trafficking. Starting when he took office 12 years ago, Dart has innovated ways to combat online trafficking and has taken the lead at shifting the focus from the women or young girls to the pimps and their buyers. It is a cultural shift that has been a long time coming in this fight that, for many, continues to be a struggle since it operates largely in the dark and relies on its most vulnerable party — the victims — to come forward.

“There are not many people like Tom Dart. He is golden unicorn. He is very ahead of the curve,” says Jennifer Greene, a former policy adviser at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Alongside Dart’s efforts, Cook County is one of the few counties in the United States that has established a task force requiring law enforcement agencies and federal and state prosecutor’s offices to work together with the intention of getting more cases to trial and getting more victims to safety.

“It’s a huge achievement,” says Summar Ghias, the human-trafficking task force coordinator for STOP-IT, a victim’s rights organization run by the Salvation Army. Between 2010 and the summer of 2017, the task force was responsible for the prosecutions of 100 traffickers at the state level and approximately 35 traffickers at the federal level.

Transporting Sex for Tourists

With Cook County second only to Los Angeles County in population density, it is ground zero for trafficking operations in the Midwest because of its elaborate transportation infrastructure. Not only is Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport the second busiest in the United States, but the city is also a major port and rail center. Besides tourism, Chicago’s healthy convention business means there is a revolving door of businesspeople scattered throughout downtown’s high-rise hotels. Last year, the city hosted 31 major international conventions; 36 are booked so far this year.

“Given how large the city is, there’s just a lot more opportunity to exploit there, unfortunately,” says Kristen Eng, a supervisor at Hoyleton Youth and Family Services, an Illinois-based agency that helps trafficking victims outside St. Louis.

The sex trade dominates trafficking in Cook County; activity is split between Chicago and its sprawling suburbs, which can span almost an hour’s drive in some directions, according to the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force. The volume of women and girls involved in daily prostitution is steep: between 16,000 and 24,000, according to the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). Who is doing the buying? A report released last year by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office says the majority are educated white men, middle age or older. About half are married, and the vast majority are employed.

That profile fits the average conventioneer or business tourist who’s in town for just a few days. Kaethe Morris Hoffer, executive director at CAASE, says that sex buyers in Chicago are mostly from the city’s “tourist population.”

“The research on men who buy sex [shows that they] aren’t doing it every week. The majority are purchasing one month or less,” she says.

Not long ago, they were shopping the streets. But gentrification of north-side neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Old Town and the accessibility of digital media have helped drive prostitution from busy thoroughfares like North Avenue to online. Dart says the anonymity of sites like Backpage, USASexGuide, and Craigslist makes them popular, but these sites have also made things worse by normalizing the sex trade to the general public.

“Before, when people thought of women on Mannheim Road [near O’Hare], they would say, ‘Oh, that’s horrible.’ But the fact that [prostitution] is now gravitating to the internet, people are now more likely to say, ‘Oh, whatever, it’s between two adults.’ The internet not only normalized it, but it has also given it social credibility,” Dart says.

Even as sex trafficking has expanded online, allowing small operators to flourish, brothels and strip clubs have not gone out of business. Last summer, Dart’s office shut down three Chicago-area brothels in consecutive raids — one on the city’s southwest side, a second on the northwest side and a third in unincorporated Maine Township. All three locations were heavily active, with one location servicing at least four customers per hour, according to reports.

Chicago Targets Massage Parlors

Massage parlors in particular continue to serve as the brick-and-mortar hot spots for the sex trade in Chicago. Last year, Chicago Alderman Matt O’Shea sponsored a city ordinance that increased fines fivefold, to $5,000, for massage parlor owners if prostitution was discovered at their business. To help the trafficked women, the ordinance allows employees to avoid conviction if the crime was committed “under duress or was coerced.”

Ghias says tailoring local measures with provisions like that “are important because they are embedding a level of protection” for women.

The massage business is also susceptible to labor trafficking because it often involves women who are new immigrants to Chicago. A more notorious example is from 2012, when Alex Campbell, the owner of a massage parlor in Mount Prospect, a northwest Chicago suburb, was sentenced to life in prison after federal authorities discovered that he was not only trafficking women at his business for sex, but that for almost two years, he was also coercing the women — one from Ukraine and one from Belarus — to work without pay and with limited food. His trial showed that Campbell lured the women from their native countries with the promise of a job and legal status, but once they arrived, he confiscated their passports and visas. Campbell forced them to work through extortion and humiliation. All received tattoos with his moniker and were threatened with violence in an attempt to establish the women as his property. Campbell threatened one woman by saying he would send a sexually explicit video to her parents in Belarus if she threatened to leave.

O’Shea, the alderman on the city’s southwest wide, said he was not aware of Chicago’s trafficking crisis until advocates approached him after he became involved in domestic violence issues. He confesses that a year ago he would not have been able to hold a conversation about trafficking because he knew so little about it. That has changed.

“It’s mind-boggling when you hear these horrible stories and then find out it is happening in Cook County and the city of Chicago,” O’Shea says.

Since trafficking is largely invisible to the public eye, law enforcement relies heavily on tips that will lead them to the pimps, which is why O’Shea says more outreach is needed to keep the public vigilant.

“But the biggest thing we need is to educate more elected officials on this,” he says. “Frankly, even in the city council. We need to become a more active partner. 

Helping Women Leave the Life

Tom Dart would agree. The former state prosecutor in Cook County took office in 2006 and discovered that the thinking among local law enforcement officials “was quite backwards” when it came to human trafficking in their area.

“Part of it was indifference, part of it was ignorance,” Dart says.

He found that law enforcement had grown numb to sex-trade stings and had clung to the traditional approach of rounding up prostitutes and sending them behind bars. In early conversations with agency partners, Dart saw that most people in law enforcement thought of sex trafficking as something they would see in the movies: women kidnapped from faraway countries and imprisoned to work as sex slaves.

“Those are the minority of cases,” he says.

In Cook County, sex trafficking often involves women who originated from within the county. He decided that in order for his office to make a dent in the problem, trafficking had to be a priority and had to be approached completely differently than in the past. It led to a much more comprehensive approach, rather than “one size fits all.”

Dart has directed his team to scan online sex ads for clues of trafficking and to reach out to potential victims to see if they are willing to communicate.

He has helped lead the successful push for sites like Backpage to remove its “adult” section, the home for prostitution ads, but the advertisers have simply moved to other areas of the site.

Dart admits “it’s the luck of the draw” when his office successfully exposes trafficking and says they would get better results if online operators hired data analysts to help root out traffickers.

“To me, real cooperation is getting smart people in a room creating algorithms to indicate when someone may be underage,” he says. “It won’t be foolproof, but it will be a hell of a lot better than what we have.”

Dart’s office now mainly targets sex buyers, not prostitutes, which is the opposite approach of most jurisdictions around the United States. Men receive citations, their cars are confiscated, and they are forced to enter a program where they learn the truths about trafficking.

“We make it a point to make it really uncomfortable for them,” Dart says.

The number of buyers cited in Cook County have increased a whopping 524 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to Dart’s office. Since 2007, his office has made 74 arrests for trafficking or promoting prostitution.

The prostitutes are the ones least likely to get arrested. Instead, the women are taken into protective custody, where social service advocates will attempt to help them enter a program to keep them off the street.

Dart says he supports making prostitution a felony because it would help detain the women for as much as a week, which increases the chances they might agree to a program.

“A lot of them are so damaged by what has happened to them that we can’t get them, within the short period of time we have them, to turn their lives around,” he says.

Fighting the Roots of Trafficking

Cook County is one of just a few jurisdictions in the United States to have a special task force designed to fight human trafficking. The Illinois Trafficking of Persons and Involuntary Servitude Act made recruiting children under the age of 18 a criminal offense. It was enacted in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2010, when the task force was created, that prosecutions related to trafficking started to rise.

That’s because, according to Summar Ghias, state and federal prosecutors weren’t collaborating, which created turf wars and ultimately slowed cases. Now prosecutors from both offices, plus other agencies, meet regularly to prioritize which cases are better for which court. The task force also operates different committees that deal with other issues related to sex trafficking, like labor trafficking.

Dart is less convinced.

“It has not impacted anything we’ve done,” he says, regarding the task force.

He says that both state and federal prosecutors in Cook County don’t have enough resources to make trafficking the priority it should be, mostly because they are under the tremendous weight of cases involving Chicago gun violence and drug trafficking, which are considered more urgent. Dart cites federal prosecutors in Minneapolis taking the lead on the case involving the Thailand sex trafficking because his office “didn’t get as much of a buy-in from prosecutors” in Chicago.

Although not as prevalent as sex trafficking, labor trafficking in restaurants, nail salons, and other storefront operations is also active. The Chicago Housing Authority is in the midst of a three-year federal pilot program — the first of its kind in the United States — that provides 60 subsidized housing vouchers for trafficking victims. The Heartland Alliance, which makes referrals to the program, says the demand for cheap labor is emboldening labor traffickers.

Chicago is experiencing an extraordinary affordable-housing crisis due to rampant gentrification and escalating real estate values. Half the city’s renters can’t afford their housing, according to a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation study released in 2016.

Meghan Mahoney, director of Freedom from Trafficking, a Heartland Alliance program, agrees that fighting trafficking is necessary but says that increased attention is also needed to fight root causes in Cook County, such as the difficulty of finding affordable housing or earning a fair wage.

“There are a lot of vulnerable people who, when they come to this country, their vulnerability increases because they don’t have an understanding of their rights,” Mahoney says.

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