WASHINGTON — The federal government is taking new steps to highlight the horrors of human trafficking and help victims of the often hidden crime.
Through an initiative dubbed the Blue Campaign, the Department of Homeland Security is launching a website, logo and mission statement, as well as distributing thousands of posters, tip sheets and public service announcements about trafficking.
The efforts, part of a broad federal push to deal with trafficking, will help more victims be identified, federal officials say. Some advocates and researchers warn that such a campaign needs to be focused on evidence-based techniques and clear measures must be used to evaluate its success.
"It is such an insidious crime that is often not recognized enough," Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told USA TODAY. "We want to bring it out of the shadows, go after the perpetrators, and we want to make sure the victims are taken care of."
Human trafficking, as defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, can be the recruitment, transportation or harboring of people by means of force, deception or coercion. Victims, often mentally and physically abused, can be forced into prostitution, unfair working conditions or other exploitative situations.
In September, President Obama announced several initiatives aimed at ending trafficking nationwide, including the first-ever assessment of the problem in this country.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama adviser, told USA TODAY that federal officials are committed to circumventing traditional government bureaucracy, enhancing data collection, funding trafficking initiatives and making the public more aware.
"We really think by raising everybody's awareness that you will see this isn't something that's isolated in certain parts of the country," she said. "Everyone has role to play."
Napolitano said she first got interested in trafficking as a prosecutor several years ago. When she became the head of Homeland Security, she began working with agency resources to aggressively investigate and support prosecutions of the crime.
Her department investigates human trafficking, arrests suspects and trains law enforcement officials. It also processes immigration relief services through special visas for victims. In fiscal year 2012, the agency's investigative arms — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations — initiated 894 cases, got 381 convictions and seized assets of more than $1 million.
In 2010, her department created the Blue Campaign to combine the agency's efforts to, among other things, raise public awareness, initiate criminal investigations and train law enforcement officers to recognize the signs of trafficking. Wednesday, the campaign was relaunched with a new mission statement that says it will aim for more collaboration with government officials, law enforcement, private organizations and other partners.
As part of the efforts, the department, using funds in its fiscal year 2013 budget, spent $300,000 on three general awareness posters and six public service announcements. The posters feature the Blue Campaign website address, dhs.gov/bluecampaign, and headlines that point out that the problem can hit working-class and affluent neighborhoods. They read, "What good is a time card, when his freedom is clocked out?" and "Some prisons have metal bars, and some have picket fences."
Fliers include the department's tip line, 866-347-2423. They instruct people to know potential trafficking signs such as a person who works long or unusual hours, someone who shows signs of mental or physical abuse or a child traveling with someone who does not seem to be their real parent or guardian. The sheets tell people to report tips and know the resources in their area.
"We are trying to make it as clear and straightforward as possible," Napolitano said.
Her department spends $11 million of its $39.1 billion budget on support for Immigration and Customs Enforcement's efforts in countering human trafficking and human smuggling.
Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, executive director of the Justitia Institute, a non-profit group focused on researching human trafficking, immigration and social justice, says the government must make sure it's spending its funds wisely and on efforts that will really curtail the problem.
"Increasing citizen awareness is helpful, but that has pretty much been a substantial part to combating human trafficking since 2000," Mehlman-Orozco said. "We are seeing a disconnect between laws in the books and laws in action. We need research to see whether the laws are as effective as they should be."
She said that although the number of trafficking prosecutions has risen, it is nowhere near where it needs to be to adequately address cases. Research must be done to assess the problem, determine what other variables come with human trafficking and develop evidence-based ways to provide victim services, Mehlman-Orozco said.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Lt. Karen Hughes has been overseeing human trafficking investigations in southern Nevada since 2007 and said the federal government has done a great job in the past year of energizing and training officers and first responders. She and 50 others went through a two-hour Homeland Security training course last month.
"Local law enforcement are now starting to feel support at a federal level to make more coordinated approaches to bring about awareness and hopefully prevention," she said.
To make sure the efforts really work, the DHS should have specific benchmarks for determining whether the renewed Blue Campaign is successful, said David Abramowitz, director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a coalition of non-profit groups.
"It will be a question of whether there's a significant increase in the number of tips they get," Abramowitz said.
Napolitano said the department plans to closely assess the success of the Blue Campaign by looking at the number of calls it gets into its tip line, the number of victims identified, the number of law enforcement officials trained and the number of investigations and prosecutions initiated after the campaign. Officials will measure how often the public service announcements are played and how much traffic the new website gets.
Napolitano said the department still faces challenges, including dealing with foreign nationals and governments that may have sovereignty over land in the USA and are suspected of trafficking. She and her department remain determined to look for new ways to fight the often gruesome crime.
"So often at DHS, our role is to play defense," Napolitano said. "We protect critical infrastructure. We help secure cyber-networks. We prevent illegal crossings at the border. On human trafficking, we can go on offense and use the tools and the capabilities of this department."
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