Friar Raises Awareness for Human Trafficking in New York State

Peter Chepaitis Around the Province

Peter Chepaitis, one of the leaders of Bethany Ministries, located less than an hour from Albany, N.Y., recently submitted a description of events that happened  this year that brought him much satisfaction and joy. The ideas that Peter presented in a homily led to the drafting of a law against human trafficking. He describes the series of events as “a story of collaboration for the cause of justice.” An update about the  law can be found at the end of Peter’s story.

MIDDLEBURGH, N.Y. — It was February and I was at the Ministers of the Word meeting in St. Petersburg, Fla. I checked e-mail and found a message from Steve Pavignano about the “Amazing Grace Sunday Campaign,” to raise awareness that slavery still exists in our world. This integrated social justice campaign was timed to coincide with the release of the film, Amazing Grace and the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain.

Since I was scheduled to preach at Masses in parishes in Middleburgh and Schoharie the following weekend, I decided that I would preach about human trafficking. As a part of my homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary time, I pointed out that New York State did not yet have a law that made human trafficking a felony.

The newly elected New York State Assembly representative for my district attended three of the four Masses that weekend, since he serves as music minister for both parishes. He took notes during the homily, and was visibly moved. I gave him a copy of my research and he agreed to review the various forms of state law that were being debated in the Assembly and the Senate.

During Lent, on a free afternoon during a mission in Rochester, N.Y., I went to see the movie, Amazing Grace.  I was so moved that I integrated it into my preaching for the closing of two missions, and several more Sunday homilies. When I next saw my assembly representative on Palm Sunday, he said, “I am co-sponsoring a bill against human trafficking in the Assembly.”

The last time I saw a news report about the governor meeting with members of the state legislature, the only issue which they all agreed on was making human trafficking a crime in New York State.

As I reflect on that experience, I feel great joy that I am part of an evangelizing fraternity. Steve challenged me to spread Good News, and I was able to bring the Gospel to people and places he would never reach.

New York State legislators agree on anti-human trafficking bill
On May 16, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders announced an agreement on legislation that will combat the trafficking of human beings. The legislation makes sex trafficking and labor trafficking felony-level crimes and provides access to state social services for trafficking victims.

The United States Department of State has estimated that between 18,000 and 20,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year for forced labor, involuntary domestic servitude, or sexual exploitation. New York is known to be a frequent port of entry for such activity, according to a press release from the governor’s office. Trafficking also originates domestically, and both types of trafficking frequently involve children.

To fight these forms of modern-day slavery, New York now joins the federal government and 24 other states that have enacted anti-human trafficking legislation. Under the legislation, traffickers who advance or profit from prostitution activity by compelling, inducing, deceiving or forcing their victims into prostitution activity can be convicted of the class B felony of Sex Trafficking. Traffickers who exploit workers using similar types of coercive activity can be convicted of the class D felony of Labor Trafficking.

Under the new legislation, victims of trafficking who are not otherwise eligible for social services, either because they are not United States citizens or because they are foreign nationals who have not yet been certified as eligible for federal assistance programs, can now receive social service assistance from the state. These services include case management, emergency temporary housing, health and mental health care, drug addiction screening and treatment, language and translation services, and job training. They also include coordination with the federal government to obtain special visas that allow the victims in the United States to testify against the traffickers, eventually becoming eligible for refugee status.

The new legislation also provides for the following:

  • Creation of an inter-agency task force to coordinate implementation of the new law, collect data on trafficking, and recommend best practices for training and community outreach to help law enforcement, social service providers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the general public to recognize trafficking situations. The Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) has already begun training for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies.
  • Clarifying in statute that knowingly selling travel-related services to facilitate prostitution — a business known as “prostitution tourism” — is the class D felony of Promoting Prostitution in the Third Degree.
  • Suppressing the demand for prostitution by elevating the lowest-level patronizing a prostitute crime from a B to an A misdemeanor.

Peter Chepaitis, a leader of Bethany Ministries, lives and works in Middleburgh, N.Y.