No room for fraud, waste in fight against human trafficking

It’s a crime so horrific it makes you shiver with anger. Though this nation  abolished slavery 150 years ago, human trafficking continues as a modern-day  slave trade.

Brutal criminals withhold passports and threaten workers and their families,  forcing them to provide their labor, often as prostitutes.

At least, human trafficking has gotten the attention of Congress, which  passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000 to provide essential  services to victims and to prosecute their perpetrators.

However, Congress and the president have blindly thrown money at the problem,  resulting in waste, duplication and mismanagement.

The problem begins with the numbers. To gauge if our programs are working, we  need baseline statistics, but we have no idea how many trafficking victims there  are, much less what percentage we are rescuing.

A Government Accountability Office study found the numbers relied on by the  United States were developed by one person who did not document all of his work.  The numbers reflected methodological weaknesses, gaps in data and numerical  discrepancies. These figures are useless.

Estimates of the number of worldwide victims from both the public and private  sectors have ranged from 500,000 to 27 million.

Even one victim is too many, but juxtapose these staggering figures with the  numbers of victims rescued each year (380 in 2009), or the number of successful  prosecutions (47 in 2009), and it appears we are doing a very poor job fighting  this crime.

At the low end of victim estimates, we are saving 0.08 percent of victims; at  the high end, our heroism rates at 0.0014 percent. Yet we are spending over  $485,000 per victim saved, and almost $3.8 million per criminal convicted.

But even with those we are helping, our programs are marred with waste and  mismanagement. On the international side, the State Department has awarded  grants for creating a music video about trafficking, producing a 15-minute film,  developing a mobile application, and even one $115,000 grant for “no specific  project yet.”

Another grant spent $100,000 to assist only 24 women who are vulnerable to  being trafficked, but are not trafficking victims. Many of these grants are  duplicative of USAID’s trafficking grants. While the goals here may be  admirable, this money could be better spent.

Spending for domestic victims doesn’t paint a much brighter picture. The  departments of Justice and Health and Human Services both give out grants, often  to the same exact organizations for the same exact purpose.

This duplication of effort might not be so bad if these grants were actually  helping to solve the problem, but they aren’t.

Between April 2007 and March 2008, the DOJ Inspector General audited only  seven of the hundreds of trafficking grants, but found “significant  deficiencies” in each, some spending more than $700,000 in unallowable  expenditures, others serving far fewer victims than promised.

The grant recipients also spent wildly different amounts per victim, from a  low of $2,500 per victim to a high of $71,542.

Furthermore, many different U.S. agencies run trafficking public awareness  campaigns with no coordination among them. In the United States alone, separate  but duplicative ad campaigns are run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement,  Customs and Border Protection, and Health and Human Services.

It’s not as if these problems are new. In 2005, USAID was funding an  organization made up of brothel owners who were using U.S. tax money to bring  girls back to their brothels after they were rescued by law enforcement. We were  funding the traffickers themselves.

That should have been a wake-up call that more oversight is needed, a call we  should heed now before the situation grows even worse.

Russ Ferguson is a former federal prosecutor and former legislative  counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner:

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