By Jennifer Mauro, Associate Editor

Public policy advocates and Catholic organization representatives from the Diocese of Trenton were among those who attended the New Jersey Interfaith Summit on Human Trafficking symposium March 2 in Cherry Hill.

The event, sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey and the state Office of the Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice Human Trafficking Task Force, provided an overview of human trafficking in the state, emphasizing the role of faith-based communities in recognizing and combatting human trafficking. Among those at the symposium were faith leaders, pastoral associates, social justice advocates and youth ministry leaders.

“I think people walked out feeling energized and looking for ways they can help fight human trafficking,” said James King, director of the Office of Social Concerns for the New Jersey Catholic Conference – the public policy arm of the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey. King serves as a co-chair for the Attorney General’s Office’s faith-based subcommittee.

One of the summit’s goals, he said, was to not only educate the faith communities and organizations and encourage action on the parish level, but to open lines of communication between secular and non-secular organizations and agencies.

“The Attorney General’s Office wants to know are there things they can do to help support these [anti-human trafficking] efforts in these communities,” he said. “Can these faith communities look at the information presented and take it back to their parishes and ask, ‘What can we do?’”

That was one question Marlene Lao-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Trenton, attended the symposium for, as well. Lao-Collins said the organization has programs in place for unaccompanied minors and foreign human trafficking but that she wanted to learn more about occurrences domestically and in-state.

“Catholic Charities has programs where we go out after the problem has been identified,” she said, “but our staff could be trained even more to see the signs ahead of time [in its clients], like in our food pantry, for example.”

“I don’t think people understand how pervasive human trafficking is,” she continued, adding that she hopes to share the information with ministries in her parish of St. Joseph, Trenton.

For example, she said the summit addressed the threat of human trafficking among young people via social media.

“One takeaway for me was how unscrupulous individuals communicate through social media and entice those who feel lonely. We don’t know who we are communicating with. As a faith community, we should always be watchful of those who isolate themselves,” she said, adding that priests could be watchful, too, of those suffering depression who may be vulnerable. “Those are red flags.”

According to the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking, of which Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton is a member, human trafficking involves “the use of force, fraud and/or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor.” Many brought into the United States do not speak English and thus cannot seek help, the organization reports. New Jersey is considered a prime location because of its proximity to national and international transportation and shipping lanes.

It is estimated that 600,000 to 800,000 people – women, men and children – are trafficked in America each year, according to the U.S. State Department. At least 100,000 juveniles (those younger than 18) are victims of domestic sex trafficking each year in the United States.

Victims can include those subjected to sex trafficking –prostitution, massage parlors, escort services and the like – or labor trafficking, those forced into servitude in industries such as sweatshops, nail salons, maids, nannies or restaurants.

Human trafficking victims may be a person one encounters every day, which is why the key to combatting human trafficking is recognizing the signs, advocates say. Victims may: be fearful; suffer depression; have bruises or show signs of abuse or of being controlled; be unable to leave their job; have no form of identification; not speak English or unable to speak on their behalf; have to ask permission to do simple tasks such as use the bathroom, or work or live in a dwelling where they can’t come and go as they please.

The Office of the Attorney General’s task force and Faith-based Sub-Committee have been working to hold county-based workshops on human trafficking and what the faith community can do to combat the practice. To date, seven counties in the state have hosted a workshop. King said the goal is to reach all 21.