Human trafficking issues come to forefront as Super Bowl nears

Daily Record

Ingrid Johnson is the mother of a human-trafficking survivor who is participating in efforts to prevent human trafficking from occurring here.

With three weeks to kickoff at Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium, the voices of those who warn against human trafficking — the modern sex-slave trade — are growing in number and volume.

Everyone from bishops to teenagers are using their platforms to remind New Jerseyans that traffickers are found wherever tens of thousands of tourists assemble.

Perhaps nothing drives home the point more directly, though, than “Not On Our Turf,” a public service video campaign created by Jefferson Township High School students. The teens are all members of Project Stay Gold, a 2-year-old anti-human trafficking organization they founded with the help of Danny Papa, their history teacher.

In one of the videos, posted at, three teens stand on an empty football field. Taking turns, each speaks part of a message that is collectively delivered in little more than a minute.

“Every year at the Super Bowl, advertisers will pay big bucks to show their different products,” begins sophomore Dakhila Mina.

“A 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl costs, on average, $3.8 million,” add freshman Jenn Krakowski and junior Mark Dominguez.

“Every year at the Super Bowl,” they continue, “men, women and children are brought in by traffickers, modern-day slave owners, and sold for sex. The average price of a slave in today’s market is $90.”

In the next three weeks, the general public can take in that message in many ways.

On Jan. 22, they can attend a panel presentation called “Human Trafficking …Why Should I Care?” in Livingston. On Jan. 15, they can take in “A Day in the Life,” an Englewood performance of survivor stories written and performed by teens. They also can immerse themselves in a variety of websites, all designed to educate them about the problem and how to help.

Kate Stoppiello, 17, and Nate Hirschman, 16, both members of Project Stay Gold in Jefferson, say their age works with them when they talk about human trafficking at other high schools and at colleges to raise awareness.
“Sometimes students listen more to other students because there’s more of a connection,” Stoppiello said.

According to Hirschman, even adults listen up when they speak.

“They don’t normally get information from us,” he said, adding that adolescents have a particularly interesting perspective on this topic. “I feel a parallel between me educating myself and others at the same that, around the world, kids my age are actually part of this horrible crime.”

Last week, the students were inviting news organizations to air their public-service videos even as the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders issued a proclamation to support the efforts of the Whippany-based New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

On Friday, the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey released a statement calling human trafficking a crime against the basic dignity and rights of a human being and encouraging individuals and communities to work toward eliminating its causes.

“Traffickers lure poor and vulnerable men, women and children with false promises of good jobs, education, and money,” the statement reads. “No sector or industry is immune from human trafficking. Victims have been identified in agricultural fields, restaurants, construction sites, factories, hotels, spas, and even private residences.”

At least 12.3 million people a year — including more than 1 million children — are trafficked in what has become a $32 billion global industry, according to Catholic Relief Services. People are trafficked in 161 countries, including the United States and even New Jersey.

Yet, it added, only one person is convicted for every 800 trafficking cases worldwide.

Ingrid Johnson of Newark can attest to that. Ten years ago, the Atlantic Health System nurse manager, with the help of law enforcement and subpoenaed phone records, rescued her daughter from 11 grueling months of imposed prostitution in New York City. In the end, Johnson didn’t prosecute because to do so was too complicated.

“We had crossed state lines,” she said. “We were in New York and, as a nurse, I knew that if I prosecuted I’d be further traumatizing my daughter. I opted to just come home and begin to piece together our lives.”

Johnson is sharing her story as a panelist on Jan. 22 at “Human Trafficking … Why Should I Care?”

A decade ago, she said, her daughter was a habitual runaway who somehow wound up drugged and taken to New York. At one point, the teen imperiled her life by calling her mother briefly on a cellphone from a gas station restroom. The message was brief: “Mommy, I miss you. Mommy, I love you.”

After months in court to obtain records on the cellphone her daughter had used, Johnson called every number associated with that phone line. One day, she hit gold and spoke to her daughter again. That time, they arranged to meet, though the meeting almost didn’t happen.

Today, Johnson still speaks publicly about the story to inform people of what could and does happen to teens, even those from loving homes.

“Before my daughter got in trouble, I never heard of human trafficking,” said Johnson, who said her experiences challenged her long-held stereotypes about street life. “It shouldn’t be assumed that people on the streets have chosen to be there.”

The New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking, made up of 90 diverse organizations and facilitated by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, is the catalyst behind more than 30 local awareness raising programs statewide.

“We believe eradicating modern-day slavery is a moral imperative,” Gorelick said, “and that we can make a strong contribution to this effort at the local level.”

According to Facilitator Melanie Gorelick, the coalition is working with hotel managers to train staff and set protocols to help sex slaves who may be taken there.

The coalition now needs volunteers for SOAP UP NJ, which entails putting soap bars in wrappers that feature the human-trafficking hotline and placing those bars in hotel rooms. Since victims don’t get away from their owners, she explained, they may not usually have an opportunity to see such a phone number and understand help is available.

Along with Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, the coalition also is presenting the Jan. 15 New Jersey debut of “A Day in the Life,” a live performance of survivor stories at Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood.

The one-act play, commissioned by Equality Now, is written and performed by 13- to 17-year-old girls in Arts Effect NYC, a program that trains teens in the arts while providing them a platform to artistically explore the issues that affect their lives.

“It’s four monologues that explore four different perspectives on youth domestic trafficking,” said Katie Cappiello, co-founder of Arts Effect and co-director of the play. “The goal was to show how the commercial sex trade works, and we’re taking it further by exploring how the whole ‘pimp and ho’ culture affects all different types of girls.”

So-called pimp-and-ho high school parties are “scarily common,” according to Meg McInerney, also a co-founder and co-director.

“Boys play out what they think pimps are, and the girls dress in a ho manner,” she said. “It’s glorifying this pimp-and-ho culture and making it into something that is ‘fun and entertaining.’ ”

Though Super Bowl XLVIII is heightening awareness now, efforts against human trafficking will keep going after the game ends.

At Jefferson Township High School, according to Papa, the history teacher, Project Stay Gold will continue to lobby the state Department of Education to make human trafficking education available in every school in New Jersey. In the end, he said, education is both awareness and prevention because a student who knows what to look for is much less likely to fall prey.