Imagine a man bringing four West African children to Ypsilanti, Michigan. They were brought to this country using false records, pretending these were his children. The man promised a better life and an opportunity to learn. However, the children said the man failed to keep his promise. He beat these children on a regular basis; and he would not allow them food or to sleep for failure to complete household chores. He attacked them with items like a broomstick, a phone charger, a toilet plunger, a stick, or even an ice scraper. Any household item would do.
Is this modern slavery or is it child abuse?
Federal prosecutors attempted to convict the man, Jean-Claude Toviave, of forced labor. Yet, the man’s conviction was overturned. The federal appeals court decided that forcing a kid to do chores and beating them for failure to complete them isn’t enslavement. They decided the treatment was child abuse.
Previously, Toviave had been sentenced to over eleven years when a federal jury convicted him of forced labor. From a written statement at the last sentencing, one teenage victim wrote, “You had no respect for me. I wake up with nightmares. You said that you would kill me with your bare hands when I was only a child. I pray that one day you will be able to change your ways.”
So after the conviction was overturned, Toviave was then charged with child abuse in state court. Such a charge shows the deficiencies in the legal system in addressing the trappings of human trafficking. Human trafficking is largely a hidden crime that involves treating human beings as commodities. Although, the most common reference point is forcing people into prostitution, this is a multi-faceted crime.
The Michigan Commission on Human Trafficking stated, “Human Trafficking exploits people through compelled service. Thousands of people each year, both within the United States and abroad, fall victim to this horrific crime. In Michigan, children, women, and men are compelled into prostitution, domestic servitude, and other labor for little or no pay. Reports indicate that human trafficking is the second-largest and fastest-growing criminal industry in the world.”
The key right now is to raise the level of awareness so that authorities can distinguish a case of human trafficking from child abuse. Many of these children are hiding in plain sight, brought to the United States using valid work visas, and then forced to work for less than minimum wage, or be subjected to sex crimes that often result in having more children. In the present case, the defendant forced these children into a life of domestic servitude.
Toviave slipped through the cracks, but it highlighted where the system needs to change in how these cases are evaluated.