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2018 Northeast Ohio National Human Trafficking Day Conference; Croatian Heritage Museum Christmas Exhibit

On Friday, January 19th, we attended the "2018 Northeast Ohio National Human Trafficking Day Conference" put on by the "Renee Jones Empowerment Center" in the Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame College on College Road in South Euclid.

We have attended this annual conference for the last several years and have discovered that each year Ms. Jones and Ms. Traci Grasso (who is employed by the Center and does a fine job doing a little or all of everything) try to make it a little bit different. Of course, the conference was conducted by our friend, Sister Cecilia Liberatore.

The day opened with Ms. Kathleen Hackett; RN, MSN, SANE-P, University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children's SANE Coordinator; giving a presentation on "Trauma Informed Care" wherein we learned about the after-effects of severely traumatic experiences and how they might apply to human trafficking victims in need of treatment. One of the slides that Ms. Hackett exhibited challenged us to change our thinking from "What is Wrong with You?" to "What Has Happened to You?"

Next Judge Denise N. Rini of Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court talked about the "Safe Harbor Docket" which deals with juvenile victims of human trafficking. Judge Rini shared with us some of the various encounters that she has had with young people who come before her and the need to find the right balance between compassion for what they have been through and the need to make them understand that they ultimately must take responsibility for both their now and future behavior if they want to enjoy a meaningful and fulfilling life. We believed Judge Rini was very candid as she expressed her views on what was good and what was not so good about our current juvenile justice and mental health systems along with good vs. bad parenting so we could see why street smart youngsters can easily relate to her.

One of the speakers that we found to be especially interesting was Ms. Mercedes Gurney, a CWRU law student, who gave a detailed account as to why criminalization of prostitution has not worked to the advantage of sex workers because, since they are afraid to go to the police, it makes them very vulnerable to mistreatment by traffickers/pimps and clients. Once convicted of prostitution, a person's employment and housing opportunities are severely hampered especially in this digital age when almost everything that you do can be found on the internet. 

On the other hand, Ms. Gurney explained that total legalization of prostitution has not worked out so well in the Netherlands because traffickers manipulated the laws to further increase their presence. The result was that between 50% and 90% of sex workers were doing what they were doing against their will. Taking this into consideration, probably the best alternative is to do what has been done in Sweden which is to make it legal to sell sex but illegal to purchase; thus far, this seems to be the best way to help those who are subject to exploitation because they can now report abusive behavior without fear of legal reprisal.  

After lunch, there was a panel which featured Ms. Keesha McMillian, a licensed social worker, along with several people who conducted various therapies that seemed to be very helpful in aiding trafficking victims now in recovery. These panelists were Ms. Gretchen Miller (art therapy), Ms. Mali Rini (yoga), and Ms. Melissa Hauserman (horse therapy). Along these lines two of the survivors, well into their recovery, testified as to how much these therapies meant to them.

Near the end of the day, Detective John Morgan and Sgt. James Mackey from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office conducted a session in which they answered any and all questions that informed audience members had about human trafficking trends and their various investigations. As far as foreign-born (mostly undocumented) people being exploited by traffickers, we were told that in a few months the growing season of the agricultural industry will begin and both officers will be on the alert, along with their associates, for workers being subjected to slave labor.

We left the human trafficking conference early so that we could go to the Croatian Heritage Museum on Lakeshore Blvd. to finally view its Christmas exhibit. We had tried to do so several times over the last several weeks but we were either unavailable when the Museum was open or the museum was closed due to bad heating or foul weather.


On this day, Ms. Branka Malinar called and left a message to come on over because she and the rest of the volunteers were there working on a cataloguing project. Even though she was suffering from a worsening cold, Ms. Malinar was pleased to show us around the exhibit which featured family activities in Croatia during the Christmas season which starts on St. Nicholas Day (December 6th) when children place their shoes on the window sill. If they have been relatively good throughout the year, they might later find toys in their shoes but if they not been good they get switches. Ms. Malinar smiled as she said that she usually got switches when she was a girl. 

The season continues with the Feast of St. Lucy on December 13th to be followed by Advent. On Christmas Eve, the young men like to go caroling house-to-house and recite poems which have a startling resemblance to rap. 

Ms. Malinar went on to talk about other activities that take place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. One of these that really interested us was that a straw cross was manufactured that was placed on the dining room table. Underneath the table straw was spread symbolizing the manger where Christ was born. 

We also learned that there was a "badnjak" or yule log which is placed outside the front door. If a daughter in the household has attracted a young man, he will decorate the log with ivy. 

To the children's delight, an after dinner an exploration of the straw sometimes yielded coins. Of course, there was a Christmas tree too but since the rooms of the houses were often small and most assuredly packed with people, it was not unusual to find it hanging upside down!

Michael Patterson

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC




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