story and photo by Ryan Saylor, special to The City Wire
BENTONVILLE – Legislators, community leaders and concerned citizens filled Peterson Auditorium at NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville on Thursday (June 28) for Arkansas’ first Legislative Summit on Human Trafficking. This was the third day of the conference, that began Tuesday in Little Rock.
The event, hosted by State Rep. Greg Leding (D – Fayetteville) and State Rep. David Meeks (R – Conway), was held as a way to raise awareness of the issue of human sex trafficking in the state of Arkansas.
According to statistics provided by the Polaris Project, in 2011, there were 69 suspected cases of human trafficking in Arkansas reported to National Human Trafficking Resource Hotline. Of the 69 calls, five were received from Washington County, two in Benton County and one in Sebastian County.
While the numbers may seem low, it does not mean that widespread human trafficking isn’t taking place.
“It is happening and that is why we are working to raise awareness,” Leding said. “This is not just a women’s issue, either. Men and children are trafficked and anyone, anywhere can be a victim.”
Elizabeth Scaife of Shared Hope International told The City Wire that her organization is involved with Arkansas’ efforts in order to raise the level of awareness in local communities and to help get public policy in line with the reality of what she referred to as the modern-day slave trade.
“Many states were lacking the laws necessary to prosecute traffickers,” Scaife said. “And most cases of human trafficking are not prosecuted at the federal level for various reasons. Without plugging the holes in policy, the traffickers and victims will easily fall back into human trafficking,” she added.
Scaife says Shared Hope International is directly involved in Arkansas’ efforts because they are one of the only organizations in the United States with expertise in domestic minor sex trafficking.
In 2011, the organization ranked all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their efforts to prevent and prosecute human trafficking. Arkansas received an “F”. No state received an “A”, which Scaife says highlights the need for improved legislation at the state level across the country.
“Since we released the report cards, over 200 bills have been introduced in this year’s legislative sessions,” Scaife said.
In Arkansas, legislators are reaching across the aisle to write and pass legislation to combat this growing problem. State Rep. David Meeks of Conway has teamed with Leding and State Sens. Missy Irvin (R – Mountain View) and Jason Rapert (R – Conway) to raise the issue and try to pass legislation.
“It is modern-day slavery,” Meeks told The City Wire in a telephone conversation on Wednesday. “If we ignore it, it won’t go away. It will keep getting bigger and bigger.”
Meeks says this isn’t just an international problem, either. While he says many individuals are kidnapped and brought to the U.S. each year, there is a growing risk to all Arkansans.
“Young, teenage American girls are being kidnapped or deceived and forced into this lifestyle. It is happening,” he said.
Meeks and other legislators are working with prosecutors across the state and the attorney general’s office to make a determination of where to make changes in current law.
One area where they are attempting to change in the the law is to allow asset forfeiture should someone be convicted of human trafficking.
“If someone is convicted of a drug-related felony, their assets can be seized by law enforcement,” Meeks said. “The law should also apply to those convicted of human trafficking.”
Organizers of the conference want all residents to know that regardless of the current laws, they should report all cases of suspected human trafficking.
Leding says that everyday citizens reporting suspected cases will help victims break free of their current situation and get the help they need.
“We are trying to make sure that victims know that they have a place to turn to and that they can get help so they don’t fall victim to human trafficking again,” Leding explained.
The conference highlighted two local organizations helping victims of human trafficking: P.A.T.H. (Partners Against Trafficking Humans) of Little Rock and RushHour[Traffic] of Conway. Both organizations focus on helping victims of human trafficking, while also working to raise awareness of the problem and find better prevention tactics.
The public is encouraged to report any suspicion of human trafficking to the dedicated hotline at (888) 3737-888.