By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
TRENTON — The phrase “human trafficking” brings to mind images of third-world slavery and kidnappings in foreign seaports. Donna Fickeisen of the Trenton Area Soroptomist Club said those misconceptions are flawed, and potentially dangerous.
“People don’t understand,” Fiekeisen said. “They think this is only happening in other countries, but it happens right in our backyards.”
The Soroptomist Club — an international women’s organization that works to improve the lives of women and girls — will host a free informational seminar, “Protect Our Children From Predators,” beginning at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Trenton Theatre, 2447 W. Jefferson.
The session features panel speakers to include an update from the State of Michigan Internet Crimes Against Children, and is designed to help raise community awareness about human trafficking.
The problem, Fickeisen said, is more local than many believe. Among the speakers will be a victim of child slavery from Detroit, one of an increasing number. The event has been in the planning stages for about a year, and members of the Soroptimist Club had to first familiarize themselves with the issue.
“The first thing we did was to educate ourselves,” Fickeisen said. “We had speakers, including a young teenager from a very good family from Grosse Pointe who was a victim.”
The stories struck too close to home, whether from Grosse Pointe, rest stops on Interstate 75 or those that made national news. Fickeisen said she attended a conference earlier this year that featured a speech by the mother of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared during a high school trip to Aruba.
The international organization makes the issue a high priority, and discovered some state laws that left too many loopholes, a lack of awareness and — increasingly — parents unaware of their children’s Internet activities.
It’s not just “troubled” or at-risk teens who find themselves victims of human trafficking, either for labor or to disappear completely. Runaway children are vulnerable, Fickeisen said, but so are many others, girls and boys.
Local police agencies are aware of the increasing threats to children, said Trenton Police Chief James Nardone.
“It is a bigger issue than people are aware of,” Nardone said.
Local police are limited in what they can do, and Nardone said he referred Fickeisen to the Detroit offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is expected to have representation at the event.
Next week’s seminar is as much about awareness and education as it is membership recruitment and advocacy.
“Participants who come to the seminar will learn to recognize what signs to look for,” Fickeisen said. “They’ll learn how they can help, numbers for hotlines and what the state is doing.”
Fickeisen said the Soroptomists hope to continue providing advocacy and education and to establish Downriver partnerships with traveler’s aid groups, other Soroptomist chapters, the League of Women Voters and other agencies seeking legislative remedies.
Mostly, next week’s session is designed to shine light on a problem long kept in the dark.
“If they know nothing about human trafficking they will have their eyes opened,” Fickeisen said.
(James Mitchell can be reached at [email protected].)