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Telling his tale: Rob Morris speaks about his life with Justice For Children International.

Haunted by Slavery

Child sex trafficking is a multibillion dollar business, and Rob Morris wants to shut it down

 

The little girl stared back at him through the dirty window. She was wearing the same red dress as the other girls wore. Numbers pinned to their chests. Crowded into a room, on display like animals in a zoo. But there was something different about No. 146.

“She was the only one not watching the children’s cartoons on the crackling television set,” said Rob Morris. “My guess is that she was new to the brothel, cause there was still some fight in her. She was staring out at us. There was this fight. A determination.”

Kids should always have a sparkle in their eyes, he said. They should have life in their eyes. The eyes of these girls, none of them older than 16, were glazed over. No light whatsoever.

“They had shut down emotionally for protection,” Morris said. “They were just robotic.”

Morris, who lives in New Haven, Conn., and will be speaking in Troy on Sunday, had heard only a little bit about child-sex trafficking, that children were being sold like slaves into the sex industry. He had connected with the International Justice Center, an organization made up of criminal investigators and lawyers that investigates brothels suspected of selling children for sex. IJC had spent weeks investigating that particular brothel in Thailand.

“They go in undercover,” Morris said. “They pose as customers. They have surveillance equipment, all of that on. Sometimes the investigation takes a long time. They might have to go to a brothel four or five times before they will find that there are children there.” Brothel owners are sometimes reluctant to bring children out right away. “You will say, ‘I want somebody young,’ and they will say that they don’t have anybody young. But you go back again and you go back again, and as soon as they see you are a regular, they take you into a room.”

Which was where Morris found himself that night, pretending to be the very thing he is “utterly repulsed by.” Standing in the dismal back room of a Thai brothel, shoulder to shoulder with men whom he could only assume were predators, Morris snapped.

“And that was it for me, man, I was done. I was like this is insanity,” he recalled, five years later. “What do you do with that? I am not a violent person. But I was thinking, ‘How do I take some of these people out now?’ or ‘Should I smash through this glass now and get some of these kids out?’ ”

Leaving those girls in that room for another night, knowing what was about to happen to them, was the hardest thing Morris ever had to do, he said, but it also firmed his resolve. Along with friends, he founded Justice For Children International, dedicating himself to the daunting task of combating child slavery.

The trafficking of human beings used to be the third most lucrative illicit business in the world, the first being drugs and the second being the sale of illegal weapons, Morris said. But last year, the trafficking of humans surpassed the sale of illegal weapons. Recent figures estimate that there are nearly 27 million slaves alive today on the planet. Estimates place the profits of this slavery anywhere from $12 to $32 billion, he said, but because of the nature of this business, so much of it done in the shadows, solid statistics are impossible to find.

Morris started working with organizations doing rescues. Along the way, he noticed that he was hearing the same stories: rescue organizations saying that they could do more rescues if there were places to put the children; operators of safe homes pleading that their resources are too strained, the workers undertrained. So JFCI began to focus on fund-raising.

“We have great grassroots workers who have the heart and desire to help these kids, but lack the education,” he said. “You can imagine the amount of trauma counseling needed for a kid who’s been raped eight, 10, 15 times a night for two or three, you can imagine the years, and is just turning 8 or 9 years of age. That is beyond anything I can imagine. How do you equip caregivers to deal with that?”

Just meeting the basic necessities—food, clean water, shelter, medicine—can prove a constant struggle, Morris said, but it is the indulgences—a Casio keyboard, coloring books—that the children also desperately need. And providing for the full gamut of resources is what JFCI focuses on.

The reality of child-sex trafficking is not something that many people would choose to face on a day-to-day basis. It has taken its toll on Morris, who said he hasn’t slept well in years. But it is the support of strangers that keeps him going. It is connecting to people, and seeing their outrage that inspires him, he said. That, and the fact that when he closes his eyes at night, he can still see the face of No. 146.

“Most of the time we don’t care about something until it affects us,” Morris said. “If we knew there was a brothel across the street from here, and we knew there were kids being raped right now, what would we do about it? We’d be busting down the door to get those kids out. And the reality is right here in the United States, it is an issue.”

“It happens here, but most people don’t know. Unless you are looking for it, it would be hard to find,” he said. Recently, in Bridgeport, Conn., a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old were rescued from out of the back of a strip joint. “Right here, in the U.S., the estimate is that somewhere between fourteen to seventeen thousand women and children are trafficked into the country every year, according to the U.S. State Department.”

JFCI’s work has begun to draw national praise. The Gentlemen Fund, sponsored by GQ magazine, honored Morris. MySpace.com selected JFCI as one of three finalists for its Impact Award in the Social Justice category. If JFCI wins, it will be awarded $10,000 and a week of promotion on MySpace’s homepage.

He will be in the Capital Region during Abolition Week, a benefit organized by Terra Nova Church and other local organizations, to help raise money for JFCI. Morris will be speaking at Revolution Hall Sunday (Sept. 23) at 11 AM and will be at the two screenings of the film Amazing Grace that afternoon at the Arts Center of the Capital Region, at 265 River St. in Troy.

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net


What a Week

On the Gay Marriage Front

New York State Supreme Court Judge Thomas McNamara tossed out a lawsuit, filed by conservative group Alliance Defense Fund against the New York state retirement system, that would have ended the system’s practice of extending pension benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages performed in jurisdictions that have legalized the unions. Gay-rights advocates hailed McNamara’s decision as one bringing same-sex marriage one step closer to legalization in New York, while Alliance Defense Fund spokesman Brian Raum said the judge’s decision would be appealed.

Universal Health Care: Take Two

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has proposed a plan for universal health care that many say improves upon her failed proposal from 1993-94. Similar to proposals by fellow Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards, the plan would build on the current system without establishing a controlling bureaucracy, and would be partially funded by eliminating President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. While Republican opponents have blasted Clinton for proposing a “European” health-insurance program, it appears that the plan has enough changes in it to carry some weight this time around.

Kicked Out of War

The Iraqi Minister of the Interior revoked American private military contractor Blackwater U.S.A.’s operating license Monday, following an incident in which 20 Iraqi civilians were killed after a diplomatic convoy escorted by Blackwater came under fire. Blackwater is one of several so-called “mercenary” firms contracted by the U.S. government that provide an estimated 126,000 soldiers to the war effort, including about 30,000 security personnel, according to The New York Times. Private American security companies in Iraq have poor reputations, due to alleged reckless behavior and lack of accountability.

We Don’t Like Your Kind

Iowa Democratic party leaders excluded presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich from two presidential events this week. U.S. Rep Kucinich (D-Ohio) has openly criticized the Iowa party leaders for “preselecting the candidates voters will be allowed to hear” and “rigging the game.” Kucinich was not invited to attend Sen. Tom Harkin’s Steak Fry or a Democratic presidential forum, despite polling higher than fellow candidates and event attendees Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.). Mike Gravel also was excluded.



The People in Your Neighborhood

Corey Ellis launches grassroots campaign to strengthen the voice of Arbor Hill residents

 

“It’s really a call to action,” said Albany Common Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3), of his recently launched “Save Our Neighborhood” campaign. “There’s going to be a lot of different community initiatives with our youth, economics, quality of life, and volunteering. It’s a door-to-door campaign—speaking with people individually, saying, ‘This is what we’re doing; what do you think needs to be done?’ ”

As the Director of the Family and Neighborhood Resource Center at the Trinity Institution-Homer Perkins Center Inc., a local nonprofit social-service agency, and a longtime community activist, Ellis said that the average citizen feels powerless when it comes to effecting major change.

“People aren’t coming to the meetings, because no one’s ever come to them and said, ‘Listen, what are we going to do about things?’ ” said Ellis. “They don’t feel they can bring anything to that meeting. They already feel that their voices won’t be heard, because their voices are silenced most of the time.”

After a week of Ellis’ door-to-door campaign, more than 10 people signed up for various projects, including volunteering with youth, organizing a little league, and even sweeping the sidewalk outside their houses once a week.

“It’s the littlest things that help,” said Ellis. “If they want to work with our youth, we have a youth empowerment/employment program at Arbor Hill, they can help with that. If they don’t want to do anything else, we said, ‘We have a group of kids who have agreed to shovel on snow days and rake leaves; will you agree to give them about two dollars?’ It’s all about plugging them into something in their community.”

One of the issues Ellis will focus on with Save Our Neighborhood is youth violence. Getting neighbors organized will not only help decrease violence, he believes, but it will also help communities deal with tragedy.

“How do these things happen, and what effect does it have on us, and how to we get an outlet where people can begin to heal?” asked Ellis. “What we’ve got to realize is that a child who’s killed, it affects the family members, but then you have friends, you have classmates who are dealing with this loss, and we don’t even know if they have an outlet to deal with it. What we want to do with Save Our Neighborhoods is be a conduit so that when that happens, the family members have a place, so that they feel there’s a comfort there. They can also begin the process of trying to prevent these tragedies from happening. Prevention comes through an outcry of, ‘We’re no longer going to tolerate this in our community.’ ”

“We’re bettering our community by mentoring kids,” said Jason Ellis, who, along with Daryl McCray, owns Bricks Barber Shop on Central Avenue. The two were “more than happy to help” with Ellis’ campaign.

According to Jason Ellis, the barbershop serves as a community center where kids can find guidance.

“We show them the way to conduct themselves in the real world,” he said. “They need to know there is some hope in an atmosphere that is mostly hopeless, with no role models. We’re here to answer questions, or if they need anything, we’re here to help.”

Andre Lewis, youth coordinator at the Arbor Hill Community Center, hopes that the Save Our Neighborhood campaign will take his efforts to a grander scale.

“We focus on youth advocacy,” Lewis said. “We go throughout the streets of Albany, doing flyer campaigns, talking to young people about violence. We have an educational program about jobs for our youth.”

Lewis believes the Save Our Neighborhood campaign will help make elected officials and other leaders more aware of the struggles facing young people. “A lot of them are severely depressed. They’re facing adult situations. There are many that are close to being homeless. There are problems with gangs and shootings. We need to bring these issues into the limelight.”

“It’s about getting back to the neighborhoods where you know everyone on the block; you know everyone’s child on the block; you know their mother’s name,” Ellis said. “That’s how you’ll begin to stem the tide of youth violence. Because you can’t stop violence, but what we want to do is cut down on the amount of youth violence and find out why they feel the need to go to this extreme.”

Ellis’s determination to “turn the city around” with grassroots organizing was instrumental in getting him elected in 2005, when he promised Arbor Hill residents that he would fight against the abandoned, vacant building problem in the Third Ward. Now he includes abandoned buildings in the Save Our Neighborhood campaign.

“If we give you the landlord’s number of that abandoned, vacant building,” said Ellis, “will you agree to call him and ask him, ‘What are you doing with this building?’ Not just you, but there’s going to be other people doing it as well.”

“I’m speaking as a neighbor,” said Ellis. “ ‘This is what I see as the issues—what do you think? And how can you help?’ ”

—Jessica Best

jbest@metroland.net


Primary Results

“This is a victory for positive cam paigning and an affirmation of my faith in the people of Albany,” said Mike Conners after declaring victory in the Democratic primary for Albany County Comptroller.

Bagpipes heralded Conners’ entrance into North Albany American Legion post 1610 where he was greeted with cheers and applause. Confident and perhaps a bit hoarse, Conners individually welcomed and thanked everyone present before breaking into “The Fields of Athenry” as he neared the end of what he has called “the toughest campaign I’ve been involved in.”

Friends and supporters awaited the results of the primary over beer and hot dogs as Conners and Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings socialized their way through the anxious crowd. Only a smattering of elected Democrats were on hand to show Conners support, including state Assemblyman Jack McEneny, Menands Mayor Tom Coates, and Albany County Legislator Gil Ethier.

Results were slow to come in. At 11:30, with only 31 percent of districts reporting, Conners declared victory.

“Mike and I separate politics from friendship and leadership,” said Jennings, “and we say we’ll do whatever we have to do to make this a better city, a better county. That’s why Mike and I have been friends for a long time. I respect the job he’s done, and I’m very happy to announce that Mike’s a winner.”

Conners declared the night “a victory for the high road,” congratulating his opponent, Patricia Slavick, but deriding her “handlers” for running a dirty and deceitful campaign.

Conners vowed to get tougher on the issues of poverty and health care in the weeks to come.

“I’ve been nice for the past four and a half months,” said Conners, “but I not gonna be so nice now.”

In Democratic primaries for the Albany County Legislature, Brian Scavo secured the nomination in District 8, incumbent Shawn Morse held in District 18, Wanda Willingham took District 3, and Christopher Higgins grabbed the nod in District 6.

Watervliet City Councilman Michael Manning beat his opponent, incumbent Robert Carlson, in his bid to run for mayor on the Democratic line.

“I want to thank everyone for coming,” a casually dressed, and tired, Ken Zalewski told a roomful of supporters at the Irish Mist in Troy. “We were calling this our victory party before we knew it was a victory!”

And an impressive victory at that, he went on to point out. With 88 percent of the vote, Zalewski trounced his opponent, Tom Thornton, for the Democratic line for District 5 in Troy City Council. Many insiders see Zalewski, who apparently has raised more money then any candidate for Troy City Council in history, as part of a tide that will flip the Republican- controlled council.

“We want to see the council go Democratic! We want to see the administration go Democratic! And we want to see Jim Conroy,” he said, pointing to the Democratic mayoral challenger, “go and fire [Dept. of Public Works Commissioner] Bob Mirch for a second time!”

On the Working Familes Party line, Zalewski, a longtime WFP organizer, was trailing by one vote to his challenger Nick Lengua. The results of absentee ballots were, as of Tuesday night, still unknown.

Lengua, along with WFP mayoral candidate Christopher Consuello, is seen by many as an agent of Mirch, running solely to fracture the WFP and confuse voters who would otherwise support the Democratic candidates.

In North Greenbush, Mark Evers snagged the Republican line for the mayoral race. Along with Lou Desso, who won the Republican line for City Council, the two men are now endorsed by all four major parties for the upcoming general election.

The celebration started early at the Circus Café in Saratoga Springs on Tuesday night as incumbent Mayor Valerie Keehn watched poll reports roll in. Early results indicated Keehn was winning the Democratic primary versus challenger Gordon Boyd at a ratio of about 2 to 1.

Keehn won all but three districts, with one being tied and the other two going to Boyd. The final tally gave Keehn 65 percent of the vote to Boyd’s 35.

Having just come from a City Council meeting, Keehn celebrated her win with Public Safety Commissioner Ron Kim and her supporters. Keehn’s strong showing will now allow her to focus her campaign on Republican challenger Scott Johnson. Keehn says she will try to unify the Democrats going into the Nov. 6 general election. Keehn asked her supporters to reach out to those who supported Boyd in the primary.

Two years ago, Keehn defeated the Democratic-endorsed candidate Hank Kuczynski and went on to win the general election against Republican incumbent Mike Lenz. Keehn also won the Working Families Party primary against Boyd, while Boyd won the Independence Party line, adding to the Conservative Party line that he had earlier secured. Although his name will be on the ballot in November, it is not clear what kind of campaign Boyd will run.

—Compiled by Jason Chura, Chet Hardin and David King



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