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    On February 7, 2019, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), lead the passage of the “Put Trafficking Victims First Act”, which ensures that survivors of human trafficking do not go unnoticed. The bill was approved by a vote of 414-1. Watch her remarks below:

    REMARKS AS PREPARED:

    I introduced H.R. 507, the “Put Trafficking Victims First Act,” with my colleague the gentlelady from Missouri, Ms. Wagner.

    Ann, thank you for your hard work over the years on this important legislation.  We are here today because of your dedication and willingness to work, in a bipartisan manner, to address the problems faced by victims of trafficking. We both recognize that Congress must do more to combat this heinous crime.

    HR 507 is designed to ensure that survivors of human trafficking do not go unnoticed.  First, it expresses the sense of Congress that law enforcement set aside a portion of the funds they receive for combatting human trafficking to ensure that victims receive support that is trauma-informed and victim-centered.  This will provide victims with a better chance of recovering from their experiences.

    Second, this legislation addresses the tremendous need for expanded victim services, improved data-gathering on the prevalence and trends in human trafficking, and effective mechanisms to identify and work with victims in an effective and respectful manner.

    It directs the Attorney General to form a broadly-representative working group to assess the status of the collection of data on human trafficking and recommend best practices, conduct a survey of survivors regarding the provision of services to them, as well as prepare a report to Congress on Federal efforts to estimate the prevalence of human trafficking, the effectiveness of current policies addressing victim needs, and analyzing the demographic characteristics of trafficking victims and recommendations on how to address their unique vulnerabilities.

    The bill also directs the Attorney General to implement a pilot project testing the methodologies identified by the working group and requires the Attorney General to report on efforts to increase restitution to victims of human trafficking.

    With this type of information in hand, Congress can provide appropriate oversight of efforts to combat human trafficking, and researchers, advocates, and law enforcement agencies will all have a shared resource as they continue to develop innovative approaches to stop traffickers.

    Finally, the bill expresses the sense of Congress that States should implement trauma-informed, victim-centered care for all trafficking victims.

    Forced labor and human trafficking are among the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprises. Globally, these inhumane practices generate an estimated $150 billion a year in profit.  That’s three times the amount that the top Fortune 500 company made in 2016.  Criminals are profiting from the systematic abuse of vulnerable people around the globe. Sadly, women and girls represent approximately 71% of these victims.

    The U.S. State Department estimates that between 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into our country from other nations every year. These victims are part of the estimated hundreds of thousands of victims of trafficking, currently living within our communities.

    My home state of California has the 9th largest economy in the world. It is also one of the nation’s top four destinations for human traffickers, especially for child sex trafficking.  In 2018, of the 5,000 reports to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 760 of them were from California.

    As the Founder of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, I am very aware of the risk to vulnerable youth. Foster youth, along with runaways and homeless youth are at the highest risk of being sex trafficked.   Experts agree that the foster care system is yielding a disproportionate number of human trafficking victims.  Nearly 60% of all child sex trafficking victims have histories in the child welfare system.  We cannot allow this to continue.

    Washington, DC is home to the most powerful government in the world. Yet, even in DC, women, and girls are being trafficked.

    Organizations like Courtney’s House are working to improve the outcomes for sex trafficking survivors

    Tina Frudt, Director of Courtney’s House (right here in DC), asserts that African American and Latino communities are not immune to human trafficking. Her organization provides trauma informed services to sex trafficking survivors between the ages of 12 and 19.

    Tina is also a child sex trafficking survivor.  As a 9 year old in foster care, she was sex trafficked.  By the time Tina turned 14, she became one of the 2 million children who run away from home each year. Nearly 200,000 of them will be sex trafficked.

    In Tina’s case, her adult abuser was more than twice her age and forced her to become a child sex worker. It took her years to escape.  Now, Tina helps children, like her recent client, a 12-year-old girl, whose 25 year-old abuser called himself her “boyfriend” rather than her trafficker.

    H.R. 507 will improve the implementation of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015.  Trafficking victims, like the girls at Courtney’s House, face many challenges even after they are freed from trafficking rings, ranging from access to social services and utilizing assistance programs.  Survivors face difficulties navigating social services and assistance programs.

    What’s more, survivors may face criminal charges, possibly even convictions for prostitution, loitering, or indecent exposure.  The threat of prosecution may lead trafficking victims to avoid contacting law enforcement for help, even as they face horrific trauma on a daily basis.

    This bill is designed to ensure that survivors of human trafficking do not go unnoticed.  First, it expresses the sense of Congress that law enforcement set aside a portion of the funds they receive for combatting human trafficking to ensure that victims receive support that is trauma-informed and victim-centered.  This will provide victims with a better chance of recovering from their experiences.

    Another component of H.R. 507 encourages law enforcement and prosecuting agencies to make every attempt to determine whether an individual has been a victim of human trafficking before charging them with offenses that are a result of their victimization.  This is of particular concern to communities of color. According to the FBI, African American children made up 57% of all juvenile prostitution arrest.

    In Los Angeles, we changed how children were treated. Today, a minor cannot be charged with prostitution, which means children are no longer being placed in handcuffs when it’s the adults who are abusing them who are the real criminals.  There is no such thing as a child prostitute. I strongly support efforts to recognize children as victims rather than criminals.   In this bill, we encourage treating victims as victims and providing them with the necessary supports.

    I am reminded of a case in Tennessee that has been in the news recently, involving Cyntoia Brown.

    Cyntoia was only 16 years old when she was abducted by a drug trafficking ring, repeatedly drugged and raped, and sold to a child predator for sex.  In a moment of desperation, she fought back against her trafficker and killed him.  She, the victim, ended up with a life sentence.  Mercifully, Cyntoia was granted clemency last month, by the Governor of Tennessee after having served 15 years—for defending herself.   Victims of these horrific acts, like Cyntoia, should not have to hope for grants of clemency 15 years later.

    Although much of the focus of human trafficking is on those who have been sex trafficked, those who have been trafficked for domestic labor should not be overlooked. There was a story a few years ago in The Atlantic entitled “My Family’s Slave.”  The author shared an intimate account of the life of a Filipina woman who for years was forced to work for a family as a domestic laborer in the U.S. from dusk till dawn.  An estimated 21 million men, women, and children are forced into labor around the world.  There are cases all across the United States.  We are working towards eliminating human trafficking in the United States.

    Mr. Speaker, Congress’ intent is clear:  Protecting victims from the heinous crime of human trafficking is of utmost concern.  I am proud to have worked across the aisle with Congresswoman Wagner on this important legislation, and I urge our colleagues to support it.

    Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

    Mr. Speaker, H.R. 507 supports efforts to stop human trafficking.   We are making progress in protecting those who have been caught up in this horrific criminal activity, and this bill is a great example of what we can accomplish when we focus on helping the most vulnerable among us.

    We have an obligation not only to end human trafficking but to support people who undergo horrific experiences like these.  This bill is yet another step in the right direction.

    Once again, I would like to especially thank Congresswoman Wagner, for her efforts in this regard.  I was very pleased to team up with her again on this legislation and hope we can continue to work on these issues in the future.

    For these reasons, I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting this bill today.

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    Health

    Study Shows Immune Cells Against Covid-19 Stay High in Number Six Months After Vaccination

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    A recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers provides evidence that CD4+ T lymphocytes — immune system cells also known as helper T cells — produced by people who received either of the two available messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for COVID-19 persist six months after vaccination at only slightly reduced levels from two weeks after vaccination and are at significantly higher levels than for those who are unvaccinated.

    The researchers also found that the T cells they studied recognize and help protect against the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the delta variant — currently the predominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States — causes more infections and spreads faster than earlier forms of the virus.

    The study findings were first reported online Oct. 25, 2021, in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

    “Previous research has suggested that humoral immune response — where the immune system circulates virus-neutralizing antibodies — can drop off at six months after vaccination, whereas our study indicates that cellular immunity — where the immune system directly attacks infected cells — remains strong,” says study senior author Joel Blankson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The persistence of these vaccine-elicited T cells, along with the fact that they’re active against the delta variant, has important implications for guiding COVID vaccine development and determining the need for COVID boosters in the future.”

    To reach these findings, Blankson and his colleagues obtained blood from 15 study participants (10 men and five women) at three times: prior to vaccination, between seven and14 days after their second Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine dose, and six months after vaccination. The median age of the participants was 41 and none had evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.

    CD4+ T lymphocytes get their nickname of helper T cells because they assist another type of immune system cell, the B lymphocyte (B cell), to respond to surface proteins — antigens — on viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Activated by the CD4+ T cells, immature B cells become either plasma cells that produce antibodies to mark infected cells for disposal from the body or memory cells that “remember” the antigen’s biochemical structure for a faster response to future infections. Therefore, a CD4+ T cell response can serve as a measure of how well the immune system responds to a vaccine and yields humoral immunity.

    In their study, Blankson and colleagues found that the number of helper T cells recognizing SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins was extremely low prior to vaccination — with a median of 2.7 spot-forming units (SFUs, the level of which is a measure of T cell frequency) per million peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs, identified as any blood cell with a round nucleus, including lymphocytes). Between 7 and 14 days after vaccination, the T cell frequency rose to a median of 237 SFUs per million PBMCs. At six months after vaccination, the level dropped slightly to a median of 122 SFUs per million PBMCs — a T cell frequency still significantly higher than before vaccination.

    The researchers also looked six months after vaccination at the ability of CD4+ T cells to recognize spike proteins atop the SARS-CoV-2 delta variant. They discovered the number of T cells recognizing the delta variant spike protein was not significantly different from that of T cells attuned to the original virus strain’s protein.

    Although the study was limited because of the small number of participants, Blankson feels it pinpoints areas that merit further research.

    “The robust expansion of T cells in response to stimulation with spike proteins is certainly indicated, supporting the need for more study to show booster shots do successfully increase the frequency of SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells circulating in the blood,” says Blankson. “The added bonus is finding that this response also is likely strong for the delta variant.”

    Along with Blankson, the members of the study team from Johns Hopkins Medicine are study lead author Bezawit Woldemeskel and Caroline Garliss.

    This study was supported by the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Vaccine-related Research Fund.

    The authors do not have financial or conflict of interest disclosures. 

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    Health

    Poverty, Racism and the Public Health Crisis in America

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    Although extreme poverty in the United States is low by global standards, the U.S. has the worst index of health and social problems as a function of income inequality. In a newly published article, Bettina Beech, clinical professor of population health in the Department of Health Systems and Population Health Sciences at the University of Houston College of Medicine and chief population health officer at UH, examines poverty and racism as factors influencing health.

    “A common narrative for the relatively high prevalence of poverty among marginalized minority communities is predicated on racist notions of racial inferiority and frequent denial of the structural forms of racism and classism that have contributed to public health crises in the United States and across the globe,” Beech reports in Frontiers in Public Health. “Racism contributes to and perpetuates the economic and financial inequality that diminishes prospects for population health improvement among marginalized racial and ethnic groups. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of poverty in the developed world, but despite its collective wealth, the burden falls disproportionately on communities of color.” The goal of population health is to achieve health equity, so that every person can reach their full potential.

    Though overall wealth has risen in recent years, growth in economic and financial resources has not been equally distributed. Black families in the U.S. have about one-twentieth the wealth of their white peers on average. For every dollar of wealth in white families, the corresponding wealth in Black households is five cents.

    “Wealth inequality is not a function of work ethic or work hour difference between groups. Rather, the widening gap between the affluent and the poor can be linked to unjust policies and practices that favor the wealthy,” said Beech. “The impact of this form of inequality on health has come into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic as the economically disadvantaged were more likely to get infected with SARS CoV-2 and die.”

    A Very Old Problem 

    In the mid-1800’s, Dr. James McCune Smith wrote one of the earliest descriptions of racism as the cause of health inequities and ultimately health disparities in America. He explained the health of a person “was not primarily a consequence of their innate constitution, but instead reflected their intrinsic membership in groups created by a race structured society.”

    Over 100 years later, the Heckler Report, the first government-sanctioned assessment of racial health disparities, was published. It noted mortality inequity was linked to six leading causes of preventable excess deaths for the Black compared to the white population (cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, infant mortality, chemical dependency and homicide/unintentional injury).

    It and other reports led to a more robust focus on population health over the last few decades that has included a renewed interest in the impact of racism and social factors, such as poverty, on clinical outcomes.

    The Myth of Meritocracy

    Beech contends that structural racism harms marginalized populations at the expense of affording greater resources, opportunities and other privileges to the dominant white society.

    “Public discourse has been largely shaped by a narrative of meritocracy which is laced with ideals of opportunity without any consideration of the realities of racism and race-based inequities in structures and systems that have locked individuals, families and communities into poverty-stricken lives for generations,” she said. “Coupled with a lack of a national health program this condemns oppressed populations such as Black and Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and disproportionately non-English speaking immigrants and refugees to remain in poverty and suffer from suboptimal health.”

    Keys to Improvement

    The World Health Organization identified three keys to improving health at a global level that each reinforces the impact of socioeconomic factors: (1) improve the conditions of daily life; (2) tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources; and (3) develop a workforce trained in and public awareness of the social determinants of health.

    The report’s findings highlight the need to implement health policies to increase access to care for lower-income individuals and highlight the need to ensure such policies and associated programs are reaching those in need.

    “Health care providers can directly address many of the factors crucial for closing the health disparities gap by recognizing and trying to mitigate the race-based implicit biases many physicians carry, as well as leveraging their privilege to address the elements of institutionalized racism entrenched within the fabric of our society, starting with social injustice and human indifference,” said Beech.

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    Mental Health

    When Giving Thanks, Don’t Forget Yourself

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    As we give thanks at the holidays, it’s easy to overlook someone important: your past self.

    While it’s well documented that gratitude toward others can improve wellbeing, two University of Florida scientists find that gratitude toward your past self also has benefits.

    Does thanking yourself seem a bit…selfish? The researchers, UF psychology professor Matt Baldwin, Ph.D., and undergraduate student Samantha Zaw, think not.

    “Despite the fact that past gratitude is self-focused, it reminds people that they’re part of a bigger story and that they have the power to grow,” Baldwin said. “It’s possible this promotes a pay-it-forward type of mentality.”

    Gratitude is what psychologists call a self-transcendent emotion, one that lifts us out of the everyday and expands our perspective, which can help us get along with each other better. In a recent experiment, Baldwin and Zaw asked participants to write brief gratitude letters. The first group thanked someone else, the second thanked themselves, while a third, the control condition, wrote about a positive experience they’d had. Zaw and Baldwin then surveyed the participants about their self-perception after writing the letter. Although the results are not yet published, early analysis shows that the exercise gave the other- and self-focused gratitude groups a sense of redemption and helped them feel they were morally good people. However, the group that wrote to themselves scored higher on both measures.

    The past-self group also saw a benefit the others didn’t: an increase in the self-awareness measures of clarity, authenticity and connectedness.

    “Unlike gratitude toward others, being appreciative of ourselves carries an added benefit of truly understanding who we are and feeling connected to ourselves,” said Zaw, a McNair Scholar who has been working with Baldwin since her freshman year as part of UF’s Emerging Scholars Program.

    Zaw and Baldwin’s research — the first known data gathered on past-self gratitude — was inspired by a Reese’s cup. When Baldwin’s co-worker, boredom researcher Erin Westgate, returned to the office after pandemic lockdown, she was delighted to discover a peanut butter cup she had squirreled away in her desk.

    “She texted me like, ‘Oh my gosh, my past self left my future self a Reese’s,’” Baldwin recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a second. You’re expressing gratitude towards something your past self had done. We have to study this.’”

    As Zaw and Baldwin dug into previous studies, they found plenty on gratitude toward others and a few on self-compassion, but nothing on past-self gratitude. They designed the letter-writing experiment to test its effects, presenting their findings at the Society of Southeastern Social Psychologists in October and at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in February.

    If you’re curious about the benefits of self-gratitude, Zaw offered a way to try the experiment at home, maybe as a new Thanksgiving tradition. Take a few minutes to write a thank you message to someone else, and another to yourself for something you did in the past. Sharing what you wrote could foster connections between loved ones, she said, but the exercise can also pay dividends if you try it on your own.

    “At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we focus on other people, but self-care is really needed too, especially if we want to feel more clear about ourselves,” she said. “Maybe it can even lead to a better vision for ourselves for the next year.”

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