Lake County launches task force to combat human trafficking

Lake County law enforcement officials and community leaders announced a new task force Wednesday that aims to free those being forced into labor or commercial sex work and bring offenders to justice.

The Lake County Human Trafficking Task Force will be a collaboration between prosecutors, law enforcement agencies and victim service providers, officials said during a launch event Wednesday.

Lake County State's Attorney Eric Rinehart said only 34 human trafficking-related prosecutions were brought in the county from 2010 to 2020, a low number resulting from survivors often not cooperating with law enforcement.

"We have to imagine the control that these traffickers have over their victims," Rinehart said. "Psychological manipulation, physical abuse and financial exploitation lie not only at the center of the trafficker's mentality, but these are also the same forces that drive this crime deep into the shadows."

The task force will be funded by a $1.5 million federal grant, half going to the state's attorney's office and half to A Safe Place, a nonprofit that provides services to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.

The funding will pay for employees at both agencies dedicated to assisting human trafficking victims.

A Safe Place CEO Pat Davenport said the grant-funded employees will provide an infrastructure for collaboration between all agencies combating human trafficking in Lake County.

A Safe Place assists about 100 victims a year. About 75% of the cases are related to sexual abuse or forced commercial sex work, and the rest are people being exploited for labor.

Richard Fitzgerald, deputy special agent in charge of the Chicago field office for Homeland Security Investigations, said forced labor can happen in many lines of employment, including people forced to work in factories, salons or as nannies.

"In a foreign country, people might be duped into coming here for a specific job, and then once they come here their documents are taken, their passports are taken and their identities are basically held hostage," Fitzgerald said. "They're forced to work for the people that have transported them here to pay off those debts. And it's really a never-ending cycle because those debts don't get paid off."

The grant money was incorporated into the county budget on Tuesday.

"These federal dollars that our team earned will make Lake County safer now, and years into the future," Rinehart said.

Those concerned about a potential human trafficking situation can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, or text "BeFree (233733).

Eric Rinehart
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