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How we're failing to stop, or even see, modern slavery in Michigan

Oct 23, 2014

Credit flickr/the_justified_sinner

There were four children, brought to the U.S. under falsified records. They came to live with a man in Ypsilanti. He said he brought them to the U.S. to give them an education, and improve their lives. The children said the man beat them regularly. He beat them with whatever he could get his hands on: a broomstick, a toilet plunger, an ice scraper, even a phone charger. They were beaten and deprived of sleep whenever they failed to do their "chores."

The Detroit Free Press carried the story of how federal prosecutors tried to get the man put in prison on charges of "forced labor" – basically, modern slavery. And of how his conviction on that charge was overturned. Forcing a child to do "chores," and even beating them when they failed to do so, isn't enslavement, the federal appeals court decided. It's just plain child abuse. 

Today, the man, Jean-Claude Toviave, was charged with child abuse, this time in state court, rather than federal court. 

The four children may yet see justice served against the man who allegedly brought them to the U.S. to a life of torture and abuse. But the case highlights the flaws in a justice system still struggling to keep up with the heinous and often hidden crimes associated with human trafficking. 

This week, the Urban Institute, working with researchers at Northeastern University, released a report on forced labor in the U.S. Many of us believe slavery is no longer an issue in our country. This report shows otherwise. 

Researchers interviewed 122 victims of forced labor, in four different regions of the country. Their findings are offered up in a heartwrenching narrative. But the facts alone are disturbing enough:

  • 82% of victims interviewed in the study said they had been threatened with violence. 
  • 80% were paid less than minimum wage.
  • 61% were subjected to illegal pay deductions for things like food and shelter.
  • In many cases, victims were hidden in plain sight, working in jobs that required interaction with the public.
  • 64% of victims had children. 

The study also dispels many assumptions we have about human trafficking. Seventy-one percent of victims in the study were originally brought to the U.S. with valid work visas, meaning their immigration was not done illegally. Also, 71% arrived in the country by airplane. 

No one really knows how many people are subjected to forced labor in the United States, but the Urban Institute estimates a number in the thousands. And that's just one slice of the victimization that can happen in human trafficking. The crime most often talked about (and which tends to victimize younger people) involves sexual exploitation. 

Information is even harder to get at the local level. In 2013, the Michigan Commission on Human Trafficking issued a report to the governor and state legislators. The report acknowledges a "severe lack of quality Michigan-specific human trafficking data." The number of victims of trafficking in Michigan could be in the hundreds, or thousands, according to the report. 

The University of Michigan Law School's Human Trafficking Clinic keeps a database of court cases involving charges of human trafficking. But these only represent the cases that make it to court.

The battle against human trafficking in Michigan is still a battle for awareness. Many people don't even realize this is a problem where we live. But, as the Urban Institute report shows, victims are not really invisible. We see them every day. The case against Jean-Claude Toviave started after teachers at the children's school noticed signs of abuse. 

Michigan still has a long way to go to address the very real problem of human trafficking in our state. The legal case against traffickers – as in the Toviave situation – can sometimes be confusing. Providing services to victims who don't speak English and have few, if any, social connections in this country is a major, unmet challenge. 

But the first step to put a stop to human trafficking is just to do what those teachers did: Notice the problem that's right in front of our eyes.