COE lecturer focuses on prevention of human trafficking in study abroad course

In Romania, 69 percent of the human trafficking victims never completed middle school, 46 percent were younger than 18, and 11 percent were recruited by relatives and spouses. Stark 2013 statistics, like these from the Romanian National Agency against Trafficking Persons, highlight a crisis. In the poor, central European country of Romania and other countries around the globe, experts estimate 20.9 million people have become prime targets for human traffickers, who profit off the sexual and labor exploitation of others in a form of modern-day slavery.

This summer, 15 students at the University of North Texas traveled to Romania with UNT Educational Psychology Lecturer Julie Leventhal to try an approach to human trafficking that aims to prevents it from happening, rather than waiting to rescue children and adults years later. The new study abroad course through the UNT College of Education combined in-class sessions with three weeks of travel and came just weeks ahead of the July 30 U.N. World Day against Trafficking in Persons.

"Preventing human trafficking requires these things that don't necessarily seem related: building relationships with kids when they are young, teaching parents how to interact with children and helping families identify higher risk situations," said Leventhal.

Fifty-three percent of human trafficking victims are sexually exploited, and 40 percent are forced into labor, in the U.S. and in 88 other countries, according to the 2014 United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. Experts believe forms of abuse, such as domestic servitude, forced marriage, warfare and organ removal, are under-reported.

"Parents and even teenagers may think that there are good job opportunities for their children or for themselves in other countries, such as modeling or domestic positions, but in reality, it could be prostitution or domestic slavery," said Leventhal. "We want to teach them the warning signs of potential trafficking situations in order to prevent negative outcomes from even occurring in the first place."

Students worked with the Open Door Foundation, an emergency shelter for trafficked victims in Romania; the Ruth School, a community school for primarily disadvantage children from most Roma families; and a variety of nonprofits and non-governmental organizations such as eLibrare, which works on awareness, prevention and community networking against trafficking.