Conference will seek ways to fight human trafficking

By Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

At age 15, Christine McDonald ran away from her rural Oklahoma family and was lured into enslavement by a stranger who promised her food, shelter and a job.

She quickly learned that her new life with him was not what she had expected. At first, he took her to strip clubs in Oklahoma City to sell roses. He bought her glittery dresses and high heels. Then he “sold” her for $2,500 to a man who raped her. She spiraled downward for nearly two decades, working as a street-corner prostitute. 

McDonald became a victim of homelessness, sex trafficking, violence and crack addiction. She was in and out of prison.

She will tell her full story, including how she overcame that life, at the National Council of Jewish Women’s comprehensive Human Trafficking Conference on Thursday, Oct. 1. Other participants will include law enforcement, criminology professors, clergy, legislators, social workers and others fighting to stop human trafficking.

The conference, from 8 a.m. to 5 p. m. at the Sheet Metal Workers union hall, 2319 Chouteau Avenue near Jefferson Avenue, is open to people of all faiths.

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McDonald, now a mother in suburban St. Louis, is now drug-free, an author and an advocate. She helps other women through her website, christinesvision.org, and her work at Restoration House, a residential shelter for victims in Kansas City.

She believes that bringing sex trafficking out into the light is necessary to stop it.

“Speaking about it is a way to change it,” McDonald said last week.

She also hopes her story will help break down barriers that society has placed on sex trafficking victims trying to put their lives back together. For her, it took a lot of hard work and a compassionate community’s help.

The conference keynote address will be given by Lauren Hersh, a former prosecutor who handled domestic and sexual violence and trafficking cases, and an international leader in the battle against human trafficking and gender violence. She is co-chair of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition and director of anti-trafficking policy and advocacy for Sanctuary for Families in New York. 

Conference organizers say increasing awareness of the problem is important in St. Louis, which has become a hub of intensive sex trafficking. The U.S. Department of Justice has identified St. Louis as one of the top 20 human-trafficking jurisdictions in the country. The confluence of the interstates makes it easy to transport victims, and large-scale conventions and sporting activities draw potential customers to St. Louis hotels.

The conference also will deal with labor trafficking — the use of fraud or coercion to force and hold a person in involuntary servitude in agricultural, domestic, factory or other work. It also includes illegal child labor and often is characterized by inhumane working conditions.

“People are starting to become aware about why we should care about this,” said Darien Arnstein, president of NCJW-St. Louis Section, the host sponsor. “Almost every week, you read something about trafficking. It can be about manicurists in New York or workers on fishing boats in Thailand. A few weeks ago, a couple was arrested for sex trafficking in the St. Louis area.”

In July, an East St. Louis man was indicted on four charges of child sex trafficking.

One goal of the conference is come up with next-step actions that can be taken to combat human trafficking. 

“We’re trying to raise awareness and educate the community to look for gaps in service,” Arnstein said. “The workshops will focus on resources we have in the community, resources we need, legislation we have and legislation we need. We have a whole list of legislative action that could be taken.’

NCJW is involved in large part because of tikkun olam, the duty of Jews to repair the world and help the less fortunate, Arnstein said.

“Social justice — helping make the world a better place — is involved in everything NCJW does,” she said.

Another incentive is the Jewish historical experience with slavery, including during the Holocaust.

“Because we were slaves in Egypt, human trafficking resonates with us,” Arnstein said. 

During the Passover season, the NCJW-St. Louis section distributed information to congregations for seders “to raise community awareness about trafficking and why we should care,” she said.

Marlene Hammerman, a social worker and past president of the St. Louis section, said addressing sex trafficking is a national priority for NCJW. The national program is called EXODUS and is based on the premise that exploitation of women and children in sex trafficking is “modern-day slavery.”

Hammerman serves on NCJW’s national and local anti-sex trafficking advisory boards.

NCJW’s fight against trafficking “goes back to our beginnings as an organization when immigrant Jews were coming on boats to Ellis Island,” she said. “NCJW members would go down to the docks to greet them and protect the women getting off the boat from exploitation, preventing young Jewish women from being lured into the white slave trade.”

According to NCJW, sex trafficking today exploits about 1.2 million children a year.

“It’s child abuse,” Hammerman said.

Human trafficking is “a lucrative business, generating $9.5 billion a year in the United States and $32 billion worldwide,” Hammerman said. “The United Nations says 27 million people in the world live in slavery.”

Three shelters in St. Louis address the needs of victims, but only 25 beds are allocated among the three, Hammerman said.

The conference will include a breakfast from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. at which Hersh will give her keynote address, followed by morning and afternoon workshops. The day will end with the action plan, followed by a reception from 3:45 p.m. to 5 p.m.

At lunch, Kimberly Ritter, known for her child protection efforts in the tourism industry, will speak. She works for Maplewood-based Nix Conference & Meeting Management as a senior account manager for large events and is a leader of her company’s social responsibility trafficking initiative.

In her work, Ritter has uncovered sex trafficking at some St. Louis hotels. She’s also developmental director for Exchange Initiative, which is developing a smartphone app to help combat human trafficking.

Eight workshops are available on two tracks, one for the public and one for professionals in the field. Topics range from “How I survived being trafficked at age eight” to “Labor trafficking: Not in my neighborhood, is it?”

Other speakers and panelists include: 

Amanda Colegrove, Coalition Against Trafficking and Exploitation; Chelsea Watson, Parkway School District; Deidra Thomas-Murray, St. Louis Public Schools; Cindy Malott, YWCA; and Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh, Temple Emanuel.

Also, professor Kristin Carbone, University of Missouri-St. Louis; Tricia Roland Hamilton, Magdalene House; Jennifer Lynch, FBI; Dedee Lhamon, Covering House; and State Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-Creve Coeur. 

Also, State Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield; State Rep. Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis; Amanda Moll, International Institute; Andrea Nichols, Washington University; and Mark Dalton, Carpenters’ District Council of Greater St. Louis.