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|Up From Slavery
|Type of document:
|| Trafficking patterns
|| United States of America
|Date of publication:
||01 January 2006
||Up From Slavery
Woman Tells Of Years Of Servitude In Haiti, Fairfield County
By LISA CHEDEKEL
Courant Staff Writer
January 1 2006
Her high school graduation picture is a lie.
In it, Micheline Slattery is just another wiry teenager in a white cap and gown, mugging for the camera with her family - three cherubic children and their mother.
But behind Slattery's practiced smile is an anguish she kept from classmates and teachers at Norwalk's Brien McMahon High School. The only clue to the truth is a ragged scar on her left cheek - the work of a butcher knife wielded in fury.
The older woman in the picture had sealed Slattery's shame four years earlier, when she had the girl smuggled from their native Haiti to Connecticut to become a "restavec," or child servant, who would be her maid, cook and nanny. Slattery knew her own worth: $2,500, and not a cent more.
"I remember the day she picked me up at Kennedy Airport. I was crying. She yelled at me, `Shut up. I just paid $2,500 for you,'" Slattery recalled. "Since that day, I carried that number in my head. I thought that was what I owed her."
Slattery, an orphan who says she endured a childhood of abuse in Haiti at the hands of estranged relatives who made her their servant, is one of a handful of victims of human trafficking who have emerged from anonymity to draw attention to what some call "modern-day slavery."
Her decision to speak out comes as Connecticut and other states are considering ways to toughen penalties for those accused of human trafficking, and to improve support services for victims.
Slattery, now 29 and working as a nurse outside Boston, says she was among a number of Haitian children brought to Connecticut in the late 1980s and 1990s and sold to families as domestic workers. Some of her own relatives, whom she will not name for fear of retribution, were involved in the trafficking.
"It was the way they made their money," she said. "These were church-going people who drove school buses and worked in the community, and this was their business."
The U.S. Department of State calls human trafficking "among the fastest growing criminal activities" worldwide, estimating that as many as 800,000 people a year, mostly women and girls, are trafficked across international borders, many for prostitution and others for forced labor. Of those, between 14,500 and 17,500 are believed to be trafficked into the U.S.
Authorities in Connecticut say they have no estimates of the numbers of illegal immigrants who are smuggled into the state or who are victims of human trafficking, which involves coercion and exploitation. But several recent arrests, as well as the state's proximity to New York and Boston, have raised concerns.
In February, a Rwandan national who lived in Meriden was sentenced to six months in federal prison for his role in a smuggling operation that brought children from Rwanda to the U.S. and then to Canada. In July, a citizen of India who lived in Danbury was sentenced to three years in prison for smuggling immigrants into the country as part of a ring based in Great Britain. Some illegal immigrants have been connected to prostitution rings in the state.
Connecticut state police and federal law enforcers formed a statewide task force on human trafficking and smuggling a year ago.
"Do I think we have a problem? Yes," said Kevin J. O'Connor, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut. "I don't think it's a massive problem, like you'd find in large urban areas. Connecticut doesn't have a lot of large ethnic conclaves where you could hide that kind of activity. But then again, look at our proximity to New York," a major port of entry. "We've seen enough signs indicating that trafficking occurs here."
This month, a separate interagency task force created by the legislature is expected to recommend that Connecticut make trafficking a specific state felony offense, improve training for police to identify cases, and expand outreach to victims.
Keeping The Secret
As hard as she tries, Slattery cannot conjure up the faces of her parents, who were active in politics in Haiti. Both were killed - she believes by members of an opposing political group - before she turned 6.
She has no pictures of them. They were taken from her, along with the rest of her belongings, when her aunt and uncle and their 10 children took over her parents' sprawling estate in the town of Jacmel, she said. Slattery's older sister and two brothers were sent to work for other families, while she stayed on as a child servant.
"I think the only reason they kept me was because I was too young to be worth anything," she said.
Slattery was kept from school and assigned a litany of chores - feeding the livestock, cleaning the house and walking 5 miles a day to fetch water, she said. Her cousins took over her bedroom, leaving her to sleep on a cold floor. If she left a task unfinished or disobeyed, she recalled with a wince, her aunt or cousins would beat her back raw with a cowhide whip, or force her to kneel on metal graters coated in salt.
At 7, Slattery was sent to live with a female cousin in the capital, Port au Prince - a move that brought fewer beatings, at first. But it was this cousin who reached for the butcher knife one day, after learning that Slattery had confided her mistreatment to a neighbor.
It would be 20 years before she told anyone the truth again.
As she entered her teens as a servant for yet another relative, Slattery recalled watching with envy as children passed through the house to be given passports in new names and sent on to live with families in the U.S. She wondered about the fat stacks of money changing hands, but knew nothing about human smuggling or trafficking.
"I used to wish, I'd pray I could be one of those girls sent to a family in the U.S.," she said. "I thought they were so lucky to be chosen."
At 14, she got her wish. She would be sent to Miami to be reunited with her siblings, a cousin in Port au Prince told her. She was given a passport in a fake name - Judette Pierre - and schooled in what to say to immigration officers. She followed the script exactly, greeting the stranger who met her at the airport as "Mommy."
But instead of the promised reunion, Slattery said her passport was confiscated and she was shuttled to Fairfield County, where the woman in the graduation photo - a distant cousin named Marielina - was expecting a return on her $2,500 investment.
For four years, Slattery said, she was Marielina's "little maid," cooking meals, tending to the three young children and trying to escape the preferred methods of punishment - having her head shoved into the wall or her ears twisted. She was allowed out of the house only to attend school - first in Darien and later in Bridgeport and Norwalk, as the family moved frequently.
If she complained, Slattery said, Marielina would threaten to have her deported back to Haiti to live on the streets.
"I was still a kid, just a scared kid back then," Slattery said. "I didn't know I was a victim. I just knew they were mean people and they were exploiting me.
"If I had known I could've run away and gone to someone for help ..." Her voice falters. "I didn't know."
When Slattery turned 17, Marielina helped her get a night job as a cashier at a Duchess restaurant in Norwalk. Slattery said the kind treatment she received from her boss only fueled her anger at Marielina, who took most of her earnings.
At 18, during a violent clash with Marielina, Slattery said, she bolted from the house for good. She rented a room from an elderly neighbor, using her restaurant job to pay for secretarial classes. Eight years ago, she moved to Massachusetts, where she enrolled in college and became a nurse.
Only recently has Slattery begun to speak about her past. A therapist helped to put her in touch with a Boston group that aids trafficking victims, and she testified this year before the Massachusetts legislature in support of a bill creating a commission on human trafficking.
Although she is not interested in seeing her traffickers prosecuted, she is now affiliated with the American Anti-Slavery Group, a Boston-based organization, and has begun telling her story at schools.
Coming forward has been difficult.
"You're ashamed, because it's a shameful life to live," she said. "Can you imagine, telling people you lived in servitude in America? That is so degrading. ...
"But I also want people to understand it's happening. If they need to see a face, see mine."
Nothing has worked so far.
Law enforcement officials and human rights advocates say the chief obstacle to curbing human trafficking is the reluctance of victims to come forward.
In the past five years, the federal government has increased penalties for traffickers and provided funding to states to identify and assist victims. At least 11 states, including Florida and New Jersey, have enacted laws to make trafficking a separate state felony offense.
But those efforts come as immigration rules also are being tightened, which some believe is pushing victims deeper into hiding. The federal government now makes 5,000 special visas a year available to trafficking victims who cooperate with law enforcers and who seek to become legal residents, but only a fraction of those have been sought.
"Getting victims to come forward is the big difficulty," said state Sen. Andrea L. Stillman, D-Waterford, who heads the Connecticut interagency task force. "They're afraid of law enforcement, of being deported, of retribution against their family members back home. We need to do a better job of recognizing victims and offering them help."
Last summer, Connecticut state police received a $449,000 federal grant to combat trafficking. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded the Bridgeport-based nonprofit International Institute of Connecticut Inc. a $500,000 grant to provide outreach to victims among other services.
While the majority of women and girls are trafficked for sexual exploitation, human rights advocates say others are enslaved as domestic workers. In some cases, traffickers may think they are helping a child by bringing her into the U.S.
"The focus has been on sex slavery, but you see a number of individual cases of forced domestic labor popping up around the country," said Liora Kasten, program director for the American Anti-Slavery Group.
While Connecticut has seen evidence of smuggling, in which aliens pay others to bring them into the U.S., authorities have not been able to prove a "direct nexus" between smuggling and human trafficking, O'Connor said. In the case of the Rwandan children being smuggled to Canada, prosecutors don't know where the children ended up.
But O'Connor said the task force is working on "a handful of promising cases," while educating police to identify trafficking. When brothels are uncovered, for example, police try to ascertain as much as possible about the circumstances of the women working for them.
"The good thing is," O'Connor said, "I think Connecticut is sensitized to this issue already."
For her part, Slattery isn't sure what to say when people ask her how to spot a victim. She can only conjure up old pictures of herself - ones she'd rather forget.
"If you see a young woman on the street with someone's children, and she can't discipline them ... or someone sitting at a laundromat for an entire day ... or someone who lives with an aunt and never goes out."
She stopped herself.
"The problem is," she said, "we're invisible."
Slattery, a devout Protestant, said she has moved past hating those who mistreated her. She believes her estranged relatives stopped trafficking several years ago.
Today, she has a good job, a boyfriend and a relationship with her brothers and sister, who found one another as adults.
She said she saw Marielina, who now lives in Florida, at a funeral last year in Bridgeport. When Marielina asked relatives for money for gas, Slattery said, she gave her $100.
"You know what? God never lets anything go unpunished. I'll leave it at that," she said. "What matters to me is that what they wished for me is not what God had in store."
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