A run-down trailer park in Marion, Ohio was at the centre of a human trafficking investigation in late 2014. Six men were arrested in connection with a labour trafficking operation, in which minors were brought from Guatemala to the U.S. and forced to work on egg farms for six or seven days a week, twelve hours per day. Here are some of the details from the case:
- The victims’ tasks included debeaking and vaccinating chickens, cleaning chicken coops, and loading and unloading crates
- The victims were expected to hand over their paycheques to the traffickers
- The traffickers threatened the victims and their families with physical harm or even death if they were unwilling to cooperate
- The victims were housed in a set of dilapidated trailers, some of which had vermin and no heat or hot water
Before sunrise on December 17, 2014, federal agents and police officers raided the trailer park in Marion and rescued 40 undocumented Guatemalans from 16 trailers. Many of the victims were under the age of 18. As the court case progressed, it came to light that the traffickers had at first brought in adults to work on the farms but soon switched their focus to the recruitment of minors:
“Around March 2014, the defendants started recruiting minors, as they believed they would ‘be easier to bring successfully into the country, easier to control, and [be] harder workers.’ “
While every human trafficking case is shocking – especially when children are involved -perhaps the most troubling aspect of this case is how the victims ended up in the hands of their traffickers. Ohio Senator Rob Portman launched a six-month investigation into the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the government agency in charge of ensuring the safety of undocumented minors, and found that it fell woefully short of fulfilling its mandate. In fact, it was directly responsible for where the victims ended up:
“What makes the Marion cases even more alarming is that a U.S. government agency was responsible for delivering some of the victims into the hands of their abusers.”
Senator Rob Portman,
As quoted in New York Times
So what happened exactly? Let’s rewind to get some context.
A CENTRAL AMERICAN EXODUS
In recent years, thousands of children have been fleeing Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, making their way North to Mexico and attempting to cross the border to the U.S. In 2008, the number of unaccompanied children apprehended by border services was 8,000. Numbers have been rising since then, and in just two months in 2015 (October and November) that figure stood at 10,588.
Gang violence, lack of economic opportunity, and failure of government protection were cited as the reasons most children had decided to leave. Some had family members already living in the U.S. and others were leaving their entire families behind. This short documentary highlights some of the dangers and challenges of their journey:
THE TRAFFICKING STRATEGY
The Ohio trafficking ring targeted vulnerable families in Guatemala, promising to smuggle their kids to the U.S. where they would receive an education and other opportunities. The family had to cough up thousands of dollars (and sometimes even put their home ownership on the line), to pay the trafficker a fee to get their child across safely. What the family didn’t know is that the person were are paying was not a merely a smuggler, but a trafficker seeking to exploit their child.
If the child was caught by the border authorities, they’d be given an immigration hearing date (which would decide whether they could stay or be deported), and were handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services. The HHS was responsible for finding a sponsor who would take care of the child until their immigration hearing. For all intents and purposes, what sponsor would act as the child’s guardian.
At this point, one of the traffickers would show up and apply to sponsor the child, claiming they were a relative or friend of the family. Tragically, the HHS was found to have ignored safeguards and released several children into the care of traffickers.
Though mishaps happen in any government office, Senator Portman’s report highlighted that not only had the policies been ignored, but that some of the policies themselves were the problem. This resulted in a failing grade for the HHS to fulfill their mandate of protecting children.
FAILURE TO PROTECT
Here are some of the report highlights:
HHS failed to conduct adequate background checks on sponsors.
The process used by HHS to verify the minor’s relationship to the sponsor was not reliable, as it typically just required them to call the minor’s family on the phone to corroborate the story. Not realizing their child would be in danger of trafficking and fearful they might get deported otherwise, the family would often lie and verify the relationship. In some cases, the trafficker would threaten to strip the family of their home if they didn’t go along with the story.
Furthermore, prior to a policy change on January 25, 2016 (three days before the report was issued) background checks were authorized to be performed only on the sponsor himself—not on other adults that would live with the child or on those listed as alternative caregivers.
HHS didn’t perform adequate home studies, but often placed children with sponsors without ever meeting the sponsor in person or seeing their home.
The agency performed home studies in less than 4.3% of cases from 2013 through 2015. No home studies were conducted in the Marion cases. For home studies that were made, HHS cut the timeframe in which they had to be conducted from 30 to 10 business days. Often it takes more than one visit to notice warning signs, and this is difficult to complete within a 10 day window.
A home study provider told the Subcommittee that they “would be lucky to catch [a trafficking indicator] in a home study” under the new abbreviated process.
The HHS software was unable to pull up adequate information on sponsors.
The system was unable to detect whether a sponsor or group of related sponsors was seeking custody of multiple unrelated children (a sign of a potential trafficking situation). The Marion sponsors played this to their advantage, sponsoring several unrelated minors with no red flags coming up in the system.
HHS no longer considered the child their concern once they were handed over to a sponsor.
A harmful HHS policy permitted sponsors to refuse post-release services offered to the child. This means that case workers weren’t allowed to follow up on how the child was doing without the permission of the sponsor. If that sponsor was exploiting or abusing the child, they simply had to reject the case worker’s request for a follow-up.
HHS failed to find sponsors that would ensure the minor’s presence at their immigration hearing.
Over an 18 month period, 40% of the immigration hearings for unaccompanied minors resulted in an in absentia removal order, because the minor had not been present for the hearing. The fact that this percentage is so high means that responsible sponsors had not been selected.
You can get all the details of the report here.
THE GOOD NEWS
- Trillium Farms, where the victims were forced to work, had no idea their subcontractor had used trafficking victims as labour. They’ve since tightened up their employee verification process and senior staff has undergone human trafficking awareness training. Hopefully this means no one will ever be exploited on their egg farms again, but they will have to be diligent.
- A help line has been established so that minors can call in the event they need assistance. This number is given to them before they’re handed over to a sponsor.
- Background checks are now being performed on all other adults living in the sponsor’s home.
This is an example of how poor policies and sloppy procedure can result in the trafficking of children, urging the rest of us to ensure our systems do not fail the vulnerable.