Effie Caldarola

If you connect the term “human trafficking” with exotic locales and wild action films like “Taken,” in which the actor Liam Neeson tracks down his daughter’s captors in Europe and kills a slew of scary-looking Eastern Europeans in the process, you’re like a lot of people, including me a few years ago.

I now realize that trafficking is a problem on the streets of my city, and trafficking recruiters may be no further than the middle school or high school my kids attended.

What is human trafficking? Trafficking is no less than a modern-day form of slavery. It can involve sending people to faraway places, but it may enslave someone in their own community. It often ensnares victims for the sex trade, but it can exploit people to work in factories, restaurants or farms. A hallmark of trafficking is that it focuses on the vulnerable. And the vulnerable are all around us, even when they seem invisible.

The United Nations estimates more than 20 million people are trafficked, or enslaved, worldwide. Others put that number at 30 million, but the real figure is hard to pin down when a “hidden” population is involved.

I recently spoke to a social worker at Covenant House, an organization that provides shelter and services to runaway and homeless youth. She works with vulnerable kids in a medium-size American city and said young males and females are typical prey for a trafficker.

“A girl who hits the streets can be approached within 45 minutes,” she said.

The ideal target is a 15- to 20-year-old girl who is alone in the world. She may be escaping abuse at home or has been kicked out by her family. She’s needy, perhaps naive, and a trafficker befriends her and begins to groom her. He flatters her, spends money on her and leads her to believe she’s in a romantic relationship.

To a troubled teen, he’s prince charming.

Soon, he begins to exert control. He takes her identification and money. He may ask her to share sexual favors with others, or sometimes her initiation comes in the form of gang rape. Eventually, she is psychologically and physically dependent, and is used for the trafficker’s money-making purposes.

This is different from prostitution, in which an adult woman chooses to trade sex for some kind of payment. The trafficked youth finds herself in a place of coercion.

My Covenant House contact said that in the U.S. city where she works, her staff had encountered 25 young people in the past three months who fit the criteria for being trafficked and none fit a particular demographic. They can be the kids next door.

Pope Francis, aware of the issue when he served in South America, cares deeply about the problem. In November, he held a workshop at the Vatican in which experts discussed “Trafficking in Human Beings: Modern Slavery.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops work with a group of more than 20 Catholic agencies, including Covenant House and Catholic Charities USA, to combat trafficking. States are beginning to pass laws dealing specifically with trafficking. Local as well as federal agencies such as the FBI have become involved in this battle and are becoming more attuned to signs of trafficking.

The bishops have designated Feb. 8 as an annual day of prayer for survivors and victims of human trafficking. It falls on the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, who was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Sudan.

Our job is to become aware and educated, and to pray and fast on Feb. 8.