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We must all join the fight against human trafficking

We must all join the fight against human trafficking

Problem of 21st century slavery affecting our children, getting worse

We're talking about our children here.

Nine, 10, 11, 12 years old. 14-year-old girls. 15-year-old boys.

The most vulnerable. The most easily exploited by adults.

Their lives thrown into turmoil through domestic abuse and unsafe foster homes and poverty and drugs.

We're talking about the sex trafficking of our children, the new slaves of the 21st century.

It's not just a distant item on the news. It's not something you see on "60 Minutes" and forget about.

Our communities — Schenectady, Albany and others along interstates that pass through our region with easy access to Canada, New York City and Boston — are right in the middle of it.

The number of people affected is chilling, and probably underreported.

According to a 2013 report by the New York State Bar Association, human trafficking is a $32-billion-a-year business. In New York, nearly 12,000 cases of human trafficking were reported between 2000 and 2010. According to SAFE Inc., in Schenectady, 13 million children are victimized by human trafficking worldwide.

About half of the sex trafficking victims in New York, according to Hofstra University, are under the age of 18. One out of three homeless youths in the country, including runaways and foster children, will encounter a pimp within 72 hours out on the street.

And now police are seeing a substantial link between sex trafficking and heroin.

Law enforcement agencies and local social services organizations like SAFE are aware of the problem and are taking steps to help through investigation and intervention. They're working together to identify victims and get them the help they need.

State legislation is being designed to increase the penalties for human trafficking and helped victims come forward by protecting them from prosecution from their crimes.

No less than 15 pieces of legislation are pending in the New York State Legislature this year that would boost penalties for offenders; create an affirmative defense for victims of human trafficking who engage in crimes such as prostitution; set up human-trafficking hotlines; promote sharing of information; and adding members from various agencies involved in drug abuse, domestic violence, labor and criminal justice to the interagency task force on human trafficking.

Awareness and attention to the problem is growing, just as the problem itself seems to be exploding.

The public needs to join in the effort.

It's happening all around us, in our neighborhoods, hotels and motels, on the streets and perhaps in the home next door.

Keep aware of suspicious activity involving children. If it looks unusual, report it. A young woman dressed in sexy adult clothes might be a child in trouble. Report it. If you see men in hotels with young girls alone, report it. It might be an innocent case of a single dad on a field trip with his kids, or it might be a case of a child being sold to the highest bidder.

This is not just New York City's problem. It's not just an international problem. It's not just a problem for the FBI to handle.

It's our problem.

We all need to be aware of it and do everything in our power to eradicate it.

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