Working to Shed Light on Very Dark Practices
Activists Seek End to Human Trafficking in D.C.

By Vanessa Mizell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Amid cool winds and occasional light showers, hundreds of people circled the pebbly paths of Meridian Hill Park in Northwest Washington on Sept. 26 in a walk that organizers hoped would help stop human sex and labor trafficking in the District.

Entertainers, activists, policymakers and a human-trafficking survivor spoke to more than 600 people. The crowd often fell silent during narratives depicting some of the brutalities suffered by the victims.

"People are beginning to realize that immigrants, minorities and minors are being enslaved right here in the District," said Mark Lagon, executive director of Polaris Project, a Washington-based organization working with D.C. officials to end coercive labor and sex exploitation.

"Whether it's Latina women found in a brothel, Chinese women found in a massage parlor or African American teens, they're all human-trafficking victims," Lagon said.

Over the past decade, organizations have been joining forces to end what they are calling modern-day slavery in the District.

The D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force, which has been investigating human trafficking since 2004, said that in the first six months of this year, it identified more than 50 victims of trafficking in the District, about 15 of whom were minors. Most of the victims were found through reports from nonprofit groups or law enforcement operations.

Inspector Brian Bray, commanding officer of the D.C. police's Narcotics and Special Operations Division and a member of the task force, said the District is not considered a hub city for human trafficking but is more of a destination city.

"Trafficked persons are generally transported to D.C. from other areas like New York City and Baltimore," Bray said. New York and Miami are considered to be the main East Coast hub cities for human trafficking, and the most common form in the District is commercial sex trafficking, he said.

"This walk is really highlighting an issue that hits close to home," said Tina Frundt, 35, a sex trafficking survivor and founder of Courtney's House, a D.C.-based organization that assists victims.

The walk was organized by D.C. Stop Modern Slavery as a local expression of a national campaign spearheaded by Stop Child Trafficking Now. Frundt recently formed a team to do late-night street outreach work on weekends. She said that in the past 2 1/2 months, the Courtney's House crisis hotline has received 100 phone calls and identified 85 suspected traffickers.

Frundt and other activists are awaiting revisions to the District's Prohibition Against Human Trafficking Act of 2009 that, if passed, would make human trafficking a separate crime and increase penalties for offenders and support for victims.

"The current law is not as clean as it should be, because it wasn't written with human [sex] trafficking in mind," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), the author of the bill, which was introduced in January. Mendelson said that, for example, without human trafficking being considered a crime in itself, someone who is forcing a child or adult into commercial sex or labor acts might be charged with kidnapping or pimping and pandering, which carry a lesser punishment than would a human-trafficking violation.

EleSondra DeRomano, 43, another survivor of the sex trade, said she had traveled from Ohio to attend the walk. She said she had been exposed to sex and drug trafficking since birth. She said that her mother was a prostitute and her father was a pimp and that she was forced into sex trafficking at 11. After escaping the system 15 years ago, she, too, launched an organization that provides services for sex-trafficking victims.

She said that she thinks the D.C. bill would serve the city well but that more needs to be done. "We need as many bills as we can get, but along with prosecuting the pimps, we need to also be prosecuting the Johns," DeRomano said.

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