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Human trafficking is a global scourge, often referred to as modern-day slavery, and it has a significant presence in the U.S.

While I was aware of the significant global presence of trafficking, the information shared in a recent bipartisan U.S. Senate hearing shocked me.

“Experts tell us that there were as many as 27 million victims of human trafficking [in 2014], including 4.5 million trapped in sexual exploitation,” noted Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), chair of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, in his opening remarks.

“In the U.S., about eight of every 10 suspected incidents of human trafficking involve sex trafficking,” he said. “The Department of Justice has reported that more than half of sex trafficking victims are minors, and the problem appears to be getting worse.”

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) “reported an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking” in the last five years, most of which “is directly correlated to the increased use of the Internet to sell children for sex,” Portman added.

Backpage.com is a leading avenue through which sex traffickers exploited children, he explained. “The public record indicates that Backpage sits at the center of this online black market for sex trafficking … [the site] is linked to 71 percent of all suspected sex trafficking reports [NCMEC] receives.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the ranking member on the subcommittee, added that Shared Hope International has noted that “service providers working with sex trafficking victims have reported that between 80 and 100 percent of their clients had been bought and sold on Backpage.com.”

Testifying before the subcommittee was NCMEC general counsel senior vice president Yiota Souras.

She echoed and affirmed the senators’ concern about Backpage.com, noting that this is a primary means through which thousands of U.S. children are sold for sex each year – children as young as 11, with an average age of 15.

“Many of these children,” Souras shared, “are moved constantly from city to city, sold for sex up to 10 times a day and tattooed by their traffickers – literally branded for life.”

Souras also highlighted how technology had fundamentally changed the trafficking industry, making the ability to buy children for sex significantly easier.

“Since 1998, [NCMEC has] received over 45,000 reports related to suspect child sex trafficking; a majority of these reports involve ads posted on Backpage.” Because of this, she explained, their staff searches Backpage.com first when a missing child is suspected of being trafficked, calling the site “the primary marketplace online for these ads.”

Watching the Senate hearing was a sobering, troubling experience.

The Bible continually urges the pursuit of justice, often defined as defending the oppressed, orphaned and widowed – a shorthand reference to anyone lacking sufficient means to stand up for their own rights (see Exodus 22:22, Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 82:3 and James 1:27, for example).

This consistent imperative demands that people of faith pursue justice in every facet of society, and the exploitation of children is an area where action is needed.

So how can local congregations respond? Here are five suggestions:

1. Educate yourself about human trafficking.

Watch a CSPAN recording of the Senate hearing I’ve referenced.

Read relevant articles in EthicsDaily.com’s archives, containing more than 30 articles on trafficking.

Access resources from leading anti-human trafficking organizations, such as Polaris and NCMEC, and review the U.S. State Department’s annual “Trafficking in Persons” report.

Look at “report cards” on how your state is doing with regard to anti-trafficking initiatives and legislation, such as a 2015 report published by Shared Hope International.

2. Observe “Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month” each January.

Use this time to call attention to the issue and to educate your congregation about the global challenge.

This might involve a training session in which participants learn the “red flags” that might indicate trafficking is happening and take a survey to learn their “slavery footprint.”

3. Don’t “reinvent the wheel.”

Make contact with an anti-trafficking organization in your state to learn what is already being done and to seek guidance on specific ways that your church can help.

HumanTrafficking.org provides a list of organizations, organized by state, working to end trafficking.

The Polaris Project has a searchable database of organizations that “provide access to critical emergency, transitional and long-term social services for victims and survivors of human trafficking.”

4. Explore ecumenical initiatives.

Collaborating with the Roman Catholic Church or diocese in your area on this issue, drawing on resources available through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is one possibility.

5. Consider establishing a committee (or giving responsibility to an existing committee) within your congregation to focus on ways to help end trafficking.

In a January 2013 editorial, Robert Parham, EthicsDaily.com’s executive editor, urged readers to prioritize anti-trafficking initiatives year-round.

We’ve published more than 20 articles related to trafficking since then, demonstrating EthicsDaily.com’s commitment to a continued focus on this issue.

I hope that our readers (and their congregations) not only find these news stories and columns to be helpful resources, but also that they will commit with us to continue seeking ways to end this sinful practice.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.

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