Human trafficking -- both in terms of labor and sex -- is becoming more prevalent in the suburbs, and legislators and law enforcement officials say they're taking steps to fight its spread and increase awareness.
On Thursday, elected officials joined representatives from suburban police departments to learn about what more can be done to address the problem. The forum at Benedictine University in Lisle was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton.
"It (human trafficking) is happening in the suburbs," Roskam said. "It is happening in ways that should be apparent to us, but we don't even see it."
Human trafficking is defined as obtaining a service through force, fraud or coercion, officials said. It could either be labor trafficking or sex trafficking.
Chicago's position as a major convention city and transportation crossroads has contributed to making the region a hub for the commercial sex trade, Roskam said.
He said he invited community leaders from communities such as Rolling Meadows and Hanover Park to hear three experts -- including Pilar Dunning from the Salvation Army's STOP-IT Initiative and Lynne Johnson from the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation -- to give them the tools they need to pursue human trafficking cases.
"This is one of the issues where awareness is going to have a restraining influence," Roskam said, "because we're talking about victims who are being manipulated -- and we can rescue them."
Jack Blakey, chief of the special prosecutions bureau for the Cook County state's attorney's office, said most of the area's human trafficking is connected to gangs.
"We'll see gangs fight over drug territory but cooperate when it comes to domestic sex trafficking," Blakey said. "You can sell a kilo once. You can sell a child over and over."
Cook County has been able to prosecute more cases in recent years because of new state laws and the creation of a task force that brings law enforcement and social and legal service agencies together to work on trafficking cases.
Blakey talked about the development of the "Chicago approach" to handling such cases. The approach makes it possible for authorities to pursue cases without having to rely on victims testifying in court.
Still, the key is to first determine whether someone has been a victim of human trafficking.
"Your criminal justice system is already interacting with these victims," Blakey said. "But they are not coming in and being processed as human trafficking cases."
The task force provides training on how to identify victims. There's also a law enforcement working group that can help suburban departments with their cases.
"We will work with you on the front end and triage the case," Blakey said.
Blakey stressed that departments need to work collaboratively because human trafficking is a multijurisdictional crime.
"Your criminals are working in multiple counties," Blakey said. "They're working in multiple cities."
On the federal level, Roskam is co-sponsoring legislation to combat human trafficking. The measure includes requiring states to take steps to identify, prevent and address sex trafficking of youths in foster care, officials said.
In the meantime, Roskam said his hope is that the law enforcement officials and experts who attended Thursday's event will work together in the future.
"They can play an incredibly important role in rescuing people out of this trap," he said.