The issue of human trafficking in northern Illinois is gaining interest among activist groups. They say Rockford ranks second in the state for cases of sexual exploitation. On this week’s Friday Forum, WNIJ’s Jessie Schlacks takes a closer look at this “underground business.”
The industry can be so discrete that people don’t even realize they’re being trafficked.
“One day at the pool they saw me there and my vulnerability,” recalls Katariina Rosenblatt. “They recruited me into what I call ‘false friendship.’ That was the beginning of the grooming process.”
At age 13, Rosenblatt was approached by a young girl named Mary while staying at a hotel in Miami. It came at a rough time in her life when her mom left an abusive marriage. Mary connected Rosenblatt with a pimp.
“And there began a relationship where I thought he was like a father figure, and he would eventually sell me to a 65-year-old sex tourist for $550,” Rosenblatt said.
Rosenblatt says she followed her instincts: “My mom had always told me, ‘Say no to drugs.’ Basically, that was all I had to go on and a quick prayer for God to help me.”
She refused to take drugs being pushed to her by recruiters and, Rosenblatt says, this upset people.
“She and some other girls tried to convince me that I owed Mary, and that this was my fault,” she said, “and so they took me around the corner to a waiting car and they kidnapped me. There, they lured me and drugged me, and left me for dead on the side of the road.”
Rosenblatt survived the incident but, like many other victims, she was lured back over the next couple years.
“It wasn’t until I was 15 years old and looked at myself in the mirror in this drug dealer’s house of the third trafficker that I realized what I had become for these men,” she said. “They were putting me into prostitution.”
Rosenblatt says reflecting on the direction her life was going sent her into a spiral of depression. “And I became very suicidal … and that’s when I tried to kill myself.”
But she did find hope near the age of 17 through something her mother told her: “I don’t know everything that’s happened to you, but I’m here for you and I love you. And God loves you.”
Rosenblatt said those words encouraged her to keep going and make a better life for herself. She continued fighting obstacles -- like an abusive marriage and teen pregnancy -- but she persevered in her dream to become an attorney.
Rosenblatt earned her law degree and later obtained a doctorate in conflict resolution. She will begin studying for a doctorate in law in California next year. While she is well versed in international laws, she says this degree will complete her toolkit.
“Now I’ll have everything I need to help create laws to forge paths for people who are still suffering with this issue today,” she said.
Rosenblatt launched a non-profit organization called “There Is Hope For Me,” which aims to help survivors get out of the sex-trafficking industry. She has co-written a book, Stolen, which chronicles her time as a trafficking victim. Rosenblatt also shares her story across the country and abroad.
One measure she is pushing is the Safe Harbor Act, which protects juveniles who get involved in human trafficking from criminal prosecution. It’s law in Florida and some other states -- but not Illinois. Rosenblatt says it ought to be federally mandated.
“And so we need to get more on the state books,” she said, “so that kids no longer are being arrested, and re-victimized, and re-locked up, because they’re already under the control of a pimp.”
Rockford Police Lieut. Eric Bruno oversees the department’s SCOPE team – or Specialized Community-Oriented Police Enforcement -- which works undercover to tackle issues like sex trafficking in the area.
He says he can’t pinpoint why the city tops the list of sexual exploitation crimes.
“While we recognize that it’s a terrible crime and it needs to be addressed, the reality is that there are only so many hours in the day and so many officers that can work on it,” Bruno said, adding that SCOPE is efficient in its work.
Bruno says the entire department has been overhauling how it treats sex trafficking for years. It came after examining what is perception versus reality.
“Many of these women didn’t want to be prostituting themselves or selling themselves,” he said. “There was usually an underlying reason why they were doing it. They were either forced into it because they had a boyfriend, pimp, or somebody who was making them do it – or they themselves had a multitude of issues – either alcoholism, mental health issues, drug abuse…”
Bruno says the terms human trafficking and prostitution are synonymous. Victims and pimps, however, fall on different parts of the totem pole.
“It’s a criminal operation,” he said. “They’re at the low end; they’re the ones being used, and somebody is benefiting from the fruits of their labor.”
Bruno says another realization is how much of the trafficking takes place online, whether it’s Snapchat or a craigslist ad.
“Rather than being out in the street and trying to generate customers or generate business,” he said, “now you can do it from a hotel room, or wherever.”
The lure of the internet is one reason Rosenblatt calls on families to keep a watchful eye on their children.
“And as parents, you really need to know who your child’s friends are, and what’s going on in their social media,” she said, “so that they’re not being recruited for false modeling, false friendship, and false boyfriends.”
Rosenblatt stresses the importance of education. She says knowledge is power for young people who are unfamiliar with the underground industry.
“What is human trafficking? What is sex trafficking? What does it look like today in America? Does slavery still exist?” she asked. “If I would have had something, that would have prevented me from being trafficked the second time, and the third time, and then the fourth modeling scam.”
Rosenblatt will speak at a seminar on human trafficking from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, at Giovanni's Restaurant. Also speaking will be Jennifer Cacciapaglia, a former assistant city attorney and the leader of the Rockford Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, who prepared a report on domestic abuse and human trafficking in Rockford for Mayor Tom McNamara.
Rosenblatt’s daughter isn’t too far from her mother’s reach. Diana Juliao is wrapping up her undergraduate degree in psychology. But she also is heavily involved in the non-profit group. Juliao says her activism stemmed from her mother’s story – and realizing the prevalence of human trafficking.
She’s primed to dispel common misconceptions.
“It’s not just other males tracking males,” she said. “I dealt with a survivor whose trafficker was a woman, and he was recruited by his girlfriend.”
Juliao also says there isn’t one profile for a recruiter. “It could be your friend's mom. It could be anybody that you see looking for money.”
She urges people to be careful about who they talk to on the internet.
“You want to think the best and you want to be trusting,” she said, “so, these kids who are vulnerable and naïve, they don’t think twice about the red flags.”
But, despite the warning signs, Juliao says situations that drive people into the industry are more complex.
“They run to something because they want to fill a void of something that’s not there,” she explained. “So, by creating whatever it is that they’re needing, like creating that right there at home, they don’t have any reason to run.”
And Lieutenant Bruno says trafficking victims aren’t condemned to criminal charges and jail time. He says it’s assessed on an individual basis. But Bruno says the solution is not to just people behind bars.
“We may just sit and talk with them for a little while and try to gather some intelligence information from them,” he said. “You know: Why are they here? Who are they working for? Would they be willing to cooperate? Do they want to get out of the life?”
He says he’s working on a plan to have a court -- similar to a drug court -- designated for human trafficking.
“You hear about drug court, where low-level drug offenders go to court rather than go to jail,” Bruno said. “In exchange for jail, they have to go through some treatment program. And if they graduate, then the case is dismissed.”
But – regardless of circumstances – Bruno says law enforcement is on the victim’s side.
“Reach out to seek assistance, because it’s there now,” he said. “It may not have been there 10 years ago, but it’s there now.”