By Chris Landers
WHEATON – In retrospect, Joy Zarembka said, she should have noticed something strange about the family down the street. Their oldest child, a girl, looked different than the family’s other four children. It was only later that Zarembka realized the truth.
“I found out that I lived next door to a slave in Montgomery County,” Zarembka said. The girl, whom Zarembka did not identify, was tricked by the couple posing as her parents into coming to the U.S. to go to school. Once here, Zarembka said, the girl was beaten and sexually abused, forced to work without pay and never saw the inside of a classroom.
That case led Zarembka, now the executive director of the Break the Chain Campaign to take up the cause of human trafficking. She and other advocates, along with state, local and federal officials launched the “Stop Human Trafficking” campaign Tuesday in Montgomery County.
One in four Montgomery County residents is foreign born, according to the 2000 U.S. census, compared to one in ten state-wide. That makes the county attractive for traffickers, officials say, who like to hide their victims, like Zarembka’s neighbor, in plain sight.
“Each year, perhaps as many as 17,000 persons are trafficked [into the U.S} every year for the purposes of commercial sex or forced labor,” said Dr. Wade Horn, assistant secretary of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. “We unfortunately know that human trafficking exists … in towns large and small, suburban and rural, and even here in Montgomery County.”
There have been four cases of trafficking prosecuted by the federal government in the county, including the 2001 conviction of a Silver Spring couple for bringing a 14-year-old girl from Cameroon under false pretenses to work as a maid and nanny unpaid in the couple’s home.
Often, fear of deportation and mistrust of authorities keep trafficking victims from coming forward. Jeredine Williams, a former diplomat from Sierra Leone who now heads the Silver Spring-based Migrant and Refugee Cultural Support, said trafficking is a crime where, the more you look, the more cases you find, and she hopes to get more people looking.
“It’s a hidden crime,” she said. “It’s very well disguised. The only way you can verify it is by asking questions.”
Those questions are laid out on a card distributed to police and social service workers, along with others who may come into contact with victims of trafficking. The questions are designed to uncover “human trafficking red flags” like living with an employer or being unable to come and go without the employer’s permission.
Lt. Bob Bolesta, who heads the Montgomery County Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit, said his detectives have received special training to help them identify cases of trafficking that might have been seen as isolated prostitution arrests, domestic assaults or rapes. He said they’ve been helped by advocacy groups like Williams’, which can provide the officers with translators. State anti-trafficking legislation was introduced in the House of Delegates last year, but stalled, according to Del. Adrienne A. Mandel, D – Montgomery, one of the bill’s 75 sponsors. Mandel said the bill failed to pass because of a lack of time to “educate” her colleagues on the seriousness of the issue, but she expects it to pass next year.