As I sat with victims, survivors and parent survivors of trafficking victims over the years, I realized that if New York City doesn’t get in front of the problem, we will become the problem. In New York City, the average age of trafficked youth is 11 to 15, which makes our middle- school-aged population the most vulnerable. Law enforcement experts point out that our children have become instant victims through all forms of social media and the internet, including the dark web.

Speaking to a parent advocate, I learned that a 12-year-old child was recruited by her 12-year-old classmate in the Bronx, who, in turn, introduced the child to her trafficker, her mother. Another parent advocate has to deal with the ongoing trauma caused by pimps and serial rapists who have exploited and abused her mentally challenged daughter, who was trafficked in Harlem. Or, the survivor-leader whose trauma led her to attempt suicide.

We find trafficking victims in commercial-front and residential brothels, hotels, motels and massage parlors, where immigrants fear deportation. Human trafficking is indeed in our own backyard. How do we effectively help these victims and their families in our city?

In the winter of 2017, I asked the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs to host a meeting to bring together leading human trafficking service providers and survivors to meet with leading city agencies—the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, the Administration for Children’s Services, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the New York City Police Department—to discuss the current conditions of trafficking in NYC and the urgent need for a well-coordinated, multidisciplinary response to this crisis. The obvious solution was the formation of a Mayor’s Office to Combat Human Trafficking. This proposal was agreed to by 25 leading organizations in New York City.

At the meeting, one of the leading service providers said that in her 20-plus years in service focusing on domestic violence and now human trafficking, there was no question in her mind that New York City needed a dedicated office to combat human trafficking. Law enforcement agencies indicated an increase in reporting of trafficking victims. Currently, there is a paucity of accurate data in New York City about the number of trafficked victims, their gender identity, their ages, their locales and the like. That is mainly because there is no intentional concentration on human trafficking that will facilitate desperately needed research and advocacy. Our city’s inadequate response, along with the increasing number of identified victims, highlights the need for a dedicated office to combat human trafficking. Or, alternatively, the provision of sufficient resources under an existing city agency or office.

The first Office to Combat Human Trafficking working group meeting was held May 22, 2017, and from there TrafficK-Free NYC was born. Over the past year, TrafficK-Free NYC members have met monthly to develop a more accurate understanding of the scope of the problem by sharing information and best practices. We took a hard look at identifying challenges, and we all agreed—service providers, survivors and city agencies—that there exists:

No citywide centralized leadership to address survivors’ needs, no interagency coordination and no collaboration on a daily basis

Fragmented, duplicative and incomplete data about the problem in New York City

Inadequate shelter and housing options

A lack of prevention and intervention resources and education in the Department of Education and city schools

Few educational and employment resources for survivors

A lack of public education and awareness

As we deliberated, we identified the three top priorities NYC must embrace to effectively combat human trafficking and assist victims:

  1. Identify and develop emergency, transitional and permanent housing for youth and adults, inclusive of shelter for victims/survivors with mental health and substance abuse needs

  2. Identify and develop prevention and intervention education in NYC schools

  3. Provide educational opportunities for survivors

It became clear to the group that these priorities cannot be achieved without a dedicated office or dedicated resources within an existing city agency or office.

The Mayor’s Office to Combat Human Trafficking would oversee the citywide delivery of human trafficking (labor and sex trafficking) services, would develop policies and programs and would work with diverse communities to increase awareness of human trafficking. The OCHT would work alongside city agencies, community-based and advocacy organizations, local leaders, faith leaders, the NYPD and service providers to expand access to services citywide for victims and their children to receive the help that they need.

Human trafficking in all of its manifestations—sex and labor, international and domestic— devastates the lives of individuals and destroys families and communities. There are an estimated 27 million victims of international human trafficking, 17,500 of whom are trafficked into the United States per year (U.S. State Department). Further, estimates suggest that each year at least 100,000 American children become victims of sex trafficking (National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking).

The FBI has identified New York City as a major artery of human trafficking, and legal and social service providers throughout the city assist a growing number of victims. From 2000 to 2010, service providers in the New York City metropolitan area alone reported working with almost 12,000 human trafficking survivors (Lifeway Network). Although trafficking is usually hidden and underground (making accurate counts of the human casualties impossible), its perpetrators are often highly organized and surprisingly visible in the communities in which they flourish unchecked. They reap enormous profits—globally an estimated $150 billion each year—two-thirds of which come from commercial sexual exploitation (International Labor Organization).

Although New York City has developed renowned strategies to combat terrorism and drug and gun trafficking, much more is needed to address and curtail the 21st century trafficking in human beings that flourishes in our own communities. Human trafficking has surpassed the illegal sale of arms, and it is projected to surpass the illegal sale of drugs in the next few years. Drugs are used once and they are gone. Victims of child trafficking can be used and abused over and over. Human trafficking is on the rise and is in all 50 states (U.S. Government).

It is high time that our city prioritizes the related crime of human trafficking, which combines key elements of organized crime, domestic violence and sexual assault. It is then and only then we will be able to effectively address human trafficking in all its forms in New York City.

TrafficK-Free NYC is the first citywide group of its kind in New York City, where service providers, advocates, faith leaders and survivors come together for the sole purpose of addressing trafficking.

Dr. Que English is CEO and founder of Not on My Watch Inc. and convener of TrafficK-Free NYC.