Here in New England, we think of human trafficking as a scourge that occurs elsewhere – in dark pockets overseas, in places like Thailand and Nigeria, where almost 200 young women were abducted from a school and used as sex slaves.
Robin Currie of Worcester is trying to change that misperception, and she’s taking to the streets Oct. 15 to raise awareness of a modern-day form of slavery that operates in our own backyard.
“In New England, people are slow to acknowledge it,” said Currie, who heads the Central Massachusetts Coalition to End Human Trafficking. “I’ve been trying to raise awareness for years and I run into people all the time who say, ‘It’s not true.’ It’s happening everywhere and people are in denial about it. But it doesn’t take much research to learn it’s a big problem here.”
Actually, all you have to do is read the newspaper. This summer in Worcester, three people were arraigned in Central District Court on charges of trafficking of persons for sexual servitude, after a police probe into allegations that drug-addicted women were forced into prostitution by members of the Kilby Street gang. Police said they were told that the gang members had several heroin-dependent women placing ads on Craigslist and Backpage to set up “dates” with men at hotels in Worcester and surrounding towns, with the money going to the gang members, while the women would receive a small amount of drugs.
The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as a “modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain,” and the statistics are grim. It is estimated more than 20 million people globally are victims of human trafficking and slavery. Sixty-eight percent of these people are trapped in forced labor, 26 percent are children and 55 percent are women and girls. In 2015, an estimated one of five endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims.
“A large number of kids who are trafficked here are runaways and foster kids,” Currie said. “Their foster parents don’t report them missing so they can still collect money. People don’t want to know about it because it’s so disturbing. My goal is to make sure that enough people and politicians catch on.”
Because a common perception is that human trafficking is a problem only outside of the United States – not in our backyard – Currie will embark this month on a 500-mile “Walk Free” trek of the streets and backyards of New England to raise awareness and funds to fight this atrocity. She’ll begin her walk in Portland, Maine, and end in Worcester. She plans to wall through 21 cities in New England and average about 30 miles a day.
Her own journey began seven years ago, at a concert, when she saw a 30-second video about human trafficking.
“That was it for me,” said the 51-year-old mother of four. “I couldn’t forget it. Three of my kids are girls and it really bothered me. It was such a horrible thing to imagine it was happened to these girls. It really hit me as a mother. Once you learn about it, you can’t unlearn it.”
After years of trying to educate people, she said, “I got this crazy idea that I’d go on this walk and carry the message and get in people’s faces. Well, I’m not confrontational by nature, but I’m very consumed with this.” Asked if she was nervous about such a large endeavor, she said, “I’m very focused. But I’m kind of a wreck. But I’m strong and healthy and dedicated.”
In 2014, the abduction of 200 female school children in Nigeria by Boko Haram extremists made headlines and provoked global outrage. But activists such as Currie say human trafficking is a crime that knows no borders, even though it rarely occurs as publicly as the travesty in Nigeria.
“What happened there is no different than what happens here, one girl at a time, two girls at a time,” Currie said. “It’s a horrible thing to think about – but we have to think about it.”
For more information on Walk Free, visit Facebook at www.facebook.com/CMCEHT/ To donate, visit the Facebook page and click the donate button on the cover photo, or send all checks, payable to The Currie Charitable Fund, to 292 Lincoln St., Worcester, MA 01605.