In the dark, ugly world of sex trafficking, South Africa and Gambia are among the worst of the worst, countries known for the exploitation of underage girls and boys, as well as women.
Elizabeth Fildes will take a step into the belly of the beast this week when the Erie County sheriff’s deputy embarks on a 13-day tour intended to educate law enforcement officials in those countries on how to recognize and prevent sex crimes.
As a local leader in the anti-human trafficking effort here – Fildes has been involved in almost every major investigation over the past six years – she brings front-line, street-level expertise to any discussion of sex trafficking.
“It’s a crime that’s been hidden for so long,” Fildes said of the problems in Africa. “They’re finally coming to the realization that it does exist and that Americans and Europeans go there because of the sex trafficking.”
Fildes, who is recognized nationally as an expert in human trafficking, was picked as an envoy by the U.S. State Department and will visit several countries, including South Africa, Gambia, Botswana and Central Africa, as part of her mission.
She will give lectures and hands-on training on how to investigate and prevent sex trafficking, especially among children, a subject she is all too familiar with as head of the Western New York Human Trafficking Alliance, a task force of state, local and federal law enforcement officials.
The trafficking in underage girls and boys is especially acute in Gambia, an annual vacation destination for thousands of Europeans. Fildes said the government there has asked for her help in training its police force on how to deal with sex crimes.
“They have not been educated enough or made aware of the problems there,” Fildes said. “I see my mission as a way to reach out to them.”
The deputy will remind her hosts that they’re not alone and that human trafficking is present in every corner of the world.
To make her point, she will bring with her firsthand accounts of women from Africa who left their homeland only to become victims elsewhere, including here in Western New York.
“Several of my victims were from Africa,” she said. “And more often than not, they were from poor families who came to the United States looking for a better life.”
Even before leaving for Africa, Fildes had to chance to meet Thursday with judges and law enforcement officials from Ethiopia, who are in the United States as part of their own anti-human trafficking mission.
In Fildes, they found someone who, more than anyone else locally, is familiar with the plight of victims. She has been known for years as the officer in the room, the one who interviews victims and gains their trust.
She, more than anyone else, knows that without a victim’s cooperation, the chances of a successful prosecution are slim.
With that in mind, Fildes will remind the legislators, prosecutors and police officers she meets with in Africa that there’s more to solving the problem of human trafficking than jailing criminals.
She will remind them of the need for programs and services for victims, including shelters where they can live safely and begin a new life.
It’s a message she’s fond of delivering at home as well because of what she and others see as a huge void in the assistance provided to victims in Western New York.
Unlike foreign-born victims of human trafficking, who have access to a wide range of programs and services, there is no local shelter for victims born here.
Fildes and two other local women – Karen O’Hara of Springville and Aimee Wieler of Buffalo – are determined to fill that void and have formed United Hands of Hope House, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money to build a local shelter.
The group’s next fundraising event, “Out of the Shadows,” will be held Nov. 29 in Ellicott Square. Information on the event – tickets are $50 apiece – can be found at www.unitedhandsofhopehouse.org.