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Raising human trafficking awareness in Hawaii: Sept. 18 Honokaa event aims to shed light on the crime

Updated: 
September 5, 2017 - 1:15am

HONOKAA — Human trafficking — both slave labor and the sex trade — is on the rise across the nation and Hawaii is not immune. By some measures, Hawaii is considered a hub for this heinous crime.

“It’s a sad subject and one that people don’t like to talk about. But it must be talked about to protect our children and grandchildren,” said Gail Rice, a Waimea resident who has planned a human trafficking symposium on Sept. 18 at Honokaa People’s Theatre to raise awareness on the Big Island.

“Human Trafficking, a Community Education and Fundraising Event” will begin at 5 p.m. with excerpts from the Golden Globe-nominated film, “Human Trafficking,” featuring Donald Sutherland and Mira Sorvino, heavy pupus by Color Catering and a silent auction. A donation of $10 per person is requested with all funds raised staying in Hawaii to educate residents and protect victims.

Sex trafficking, or more specifically the selling of underage children for sexual acts, can exist in many forms. Under federal law, anyone under 18 years of age induced into commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking regardless of whether the trafficker uses force, fraud or coercion.

According to Jessica Munoz, founder of an anti-trafficking organization in Hawaii called Ho’ola Na Pua, there is no particular profile for a child sex slave. Victims can be male or female and can be very young when recruited.

An estimated 300,000 children from the U.S. are sold each year and can be sold over and over again, Rice said. The walls of U.S. Post Offices, including those on Hawaii Island, are covered with missing child posters. There are incidents of snatch-and-grab abductions, but girls are also recruited from schools, beaches and malls or through a boyfriend or girlfriend relationship made on the internet. Some girls are runaways, while others come from stable supportive families.

Regardless of how it happens, victims fall prey to a sophisticated network of pimps and traffickers. Once trapped, victims are beaten, raped and forced to work as prostitutes under the threat their families will be killed if they try to run away.

Rice was introduced to the horrific details of human trafficking by her friend, M.L. Murray. As an airline stewardess based in Washington, D.C., Murray and her coworkers saw suspected child sex slaves being transported by plane on a daily basis.

“The airline employees could tell from the way the children were being treated that something wasn’t right but they didn’t know what to do about it,” Rice said. “They didn’t have any authority and they didn’t know who to call.”

The airline employees subsequently formed Airline Ambassadors in Arlington, Virginia in 1995 to fight sex trafficking. Murray was involved in that group, and after retiring she started her own organization called Anna’s Angel Alliance earlier this year in McLean, Virginia. This organization goes beyond airlines and airports to educate children in schools about sex trafficking.

Murray will be a guest speaker at the Sept. 18 event in addition to Dianne Bowen-Coleman and Kaleo Schneider, education advocates from Ho’ola Na Pua. The mission of the organization, which means “new life for our children,” is the renewal of trafficked girls through health, education, advocacy and reintegration. Ho’ola Na Pua does not rescue girls but works with children who have already been identified as victims or at high risk for victimization, according to their administrative assistant Kirsten Kellett.

“Our vision is to provide girls who are rescued or escape from the abuse of sex trafficking with a path to restoration and healing from their trauma, an increased sense of self-worth, and the confidence and ability to successfully reintegrate into their family and the community,” she said.

Ho’ola Na Pua is currently developing a residential treatment program called Pearl Haven on Oahu. It will be a resource for girls ages 11-18 from any island who are identified as victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Referrals come from a variety of sources such as child welfare, judiciary, law enforcement, moms, dads, aunts, uncles or foster parents.

Currently, Ho’ola Na Pua provides the Starfish mentoring program for children who have been victimized. Becoming a mentor is a big commitment. Volunteers are asked to devote two hours a week for a year, write reports and follow very specific instructions. They also must pass a background check and go through other vetting processes.

“It’s a friend for these children to have every single week,” Kellett said. “Every situation is different, every girl is different and no one ethnicity is prominent.”

Geographically, Hawaii sits in the middle of the Pacific between Asia and the mainland, making it a stopping point for prostitution and sex trafficking victims to be transported. The state is a melting pot of beautiful people from the Pacific, Asia and the mainland and that, unfortunately, creates a draw.

Until recently, Hawaii’s record dealing with child prostitution and the sex trafficking trade had been inadequate. In a national report grading individual states on their child sex trafficking laws, Shared Hope International gave Hawaii an “F” in 2012 and a “D” in 2014.

In July 2016, Hawaii finally passed legislation banning sex trafficking. When Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed Act 206 enacting it into law, Hawaii became the last state in the nation to explicitly ban sex trafficking. It makes sex trafficking a violent crime and a class A felony, expands the Department of the Attorney General’s Statewide Witness Program to include sex trafficking, provides victims access to criminal injury compensation, amends laws relating to civil liability for cases of coercion into prostitution and strengthens enforcement of laws and increase penalties against the sex trafficker.

Kris Coffield, executive director of IMUAlliance, which works to protect sex trafficking victims, called the bill’s passage into law “a historic day for Hawaii.”

“Now, from sea to sea, the United States can say it banned sexual slavery,” she said. “The most direct benefit for victims is that now, instead of being criminalized and put in a jail cell facing prosecution, they’ll be placed in a support services network and treated as victims of violent crimes instead of accomplices to their own exploitation.”

Info: For questions on the Honokaa event or to donate to the silent auction, contact Gail Rice at 936-7805 or gailierice@gamil.com. To report human trafficking contact 808HALT at 851-7010 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.

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