Teen Brings Awareness to Human Trafficking

Marissa Fitzgerald, Staff Writer

Marissa Fitzgerald

While a typical high school student tends to worry about things like dating or sports, that is not the case for Norwich Free Academy upper, Lauren Forando, who has taken an interest in the underground epidemic of human trafficking. She has devoted her time and effort to bring awareness to both the NFA community and Southeastern Connecticut.

According to the United States Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is a modern day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain.

Forando started her philanthropy work when she was 13 years old, after watching a documentary on Netflix called Half the Sky, which is about sex trafficking, maternal mortality and sexual violence.  Forando then read the book Sold by Patricia McCormick, which tells the story of girl from Nepal who is sold into sex slavery.  The story inspired her to have a conversation with her parents and then she did some research of her own.  The information that she collected made her realize how much awareness for this international issue that is hitting close to home is needed.

With the help of Project Outreach Coordinator Jodi Vara and history teacher Laura Binder, Forando was able to launch a school wide fundraiser, collecting gently used bras for the human trafficking organization Free the Girls.

Free the Girls is a non-profit organization that provides job opportunities for survivors of human trafficking in third world countries.  The organization also spreads awareness and educates about the topic.

“Gently used bras go to women in third world countries, who are survivors of human trafficking, and they are used as a stepping stone, for them to create their own secondhand clothing business,” says Forando.

Survivors of human trafficking sell bras because they are virtually guaranteed to be surrounded by only women while doing so; therefore, they are able to recover from years of abuse and start a new life.  

Human trafficking is assumed by many to be an overseas epidemic, however, it is rampant in the United States. According to Polaris, a leading organization that works to eradicate modern day slavery, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline has received 14,588 trafficking cases inside the United States since 2007. 

After talking with her peers at a club meeting about human trafficking, and hearing how little they knew about the issue, Forando decided that she needed to educate young adults, and she organized an event at which experts in the field could share their knowledge.    The panel event was held on Tuesday, March 29, 2016. 

Panelists included: Lee-Ann Gomes, Nazmie Batista, Ashton Hurd, Jasmine Marino, Dr. Steven Neufeld, Detective Julie St. Jean, Hartford Chief of Police James Rovella, and State Senator Cathy Osten(19th district).   

Boston Native, Marino, was a victim of human trafficking for 8 years.  She was raised in a dysfunctional household with a mother who struggled with mental illness and a mostly absent father.

“I was left alone, almost on the edge of neglect…I had to figure out life on my own…When you have to figure out life on your own on the streets, it’s usually the wrong information,” says Marino.  (To hear Marino’s story firsthand, listen to the audio clip above.)

Marino was a prostitute in Hartford, just a quick 40 minute ride from Norwich, and in many other locations around the country.

“Trafficking is happening, hidden in plain sight; it’s everywhere.  We are not noticing because we don’t know what we are looking for,” says Marino.

Nine years later, Marino has found her calling as an advocate for human trafficking; she works as a mentor to at risk young girls.  She is also the Ministry Associate for the Abolitionist Network and the Director of Bags of Hope Ministries.

“To use my pain for a purpose-it has been such a blessing, to be able to do that.  To use something so traumatic and so horrible and use it for someone else’s good, makes it all worth it,” says Marino.

Marino is one of many individuals making an effort to help eradicate the commercial sex industry.  In fact, several organizations in Connecticut are working to help survivors and bring awareness to the public.

The Safe Futures Shelter in New London helps victims get the help they need to have a successful future, and the State of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Family Services has created Human Anti-Trafficking Response Teams (HART)  all over Connecticut to prevent and stop human trafficking.  DCF also works with law enforcement officials and a federal task force to help educate and identify victims who need help.

“People are learning more about it.  [Human Trafficking] was not something that social workers in our office knew about; school personnel, emergency medical professionals did not know, law enforcement. So, as we become more educated, people become more aware of the issue. It gets reported, and then we can service,” says DCF HART member Ashton Hurd.   

The internet provides an easy place to sell young girls and exploit the commercial sex industry, and its far reach has caused human trafficking to become the fastest growing criminal industry in the world.  

“I can’t believe that you can go on Craig’s List or backpage.com and buy a refrigerator and a human with a click of a button,” says Marino.  

Forando remains passionate about the issue.  “I hope next year to have another bra drive, when I am a senior, and hopefully [when] I leave, someone will continue spreading awareness.  I want to become a human rights lawyer, so it is definitely a cause that really touched me, and I want to continue to fight it throughout my life.”