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Ten Minutes with a Human-Rights Pioneer

Alison Boak has devoted her adult life to the prevention of human trafficking. She consults on how to detect and uncover trafficking, while also supporting its victims; collaborating with law enforcement in Westchester, across the nation, and all over the globe. In 1999, she founded The InternationalOrganization for Adolescents (IOFA). She lives in Pound Ridge with her husband and four children.

Human trafficking is defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as “modern-day slavery.” How has your work been both hyper local and global? Human trafficking is the second or third largest trade in the world: weapons, drugs, and people. Traffickers are experts at what they do, how they pick their targets, and how they groom them. People also think traffickers are going be that stereotype of a shady-looking gangster—perhaps in eastern Europe. But it’s not like that at all. There was a case in Pound Ridge, the Joseph Yannai case, and he had been luring young women and girls from Europe for ten years. It can be going on right under your nose. 

How did that case affect you? After I read about that case, I walked into the police department and said, “You’re going to think I’m really weird, but I heard about the trafficking case. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 15 years. If you need any help …” They said, “Yes. We’ve never had a case before.” I got involved, and we started a task force. Now Chief David Ryan and I are really dear friends, and we’ve traveled all around the country training and working on this issue.

What is the IOFA focused on at the moment? Two things: We provide training and technical assistance on cases of child sex trafficking nationally. We have also started a new initiative: a group working at the intersection of human trafficking and disabilities.

How did you get involved in this work? After college, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Latvia for three years. I had no idea what human trafficking was, had never heard of it. I came back home to go to grad school, and the front page of the New York Times had an article about a young Latvian woman, she was 20, who was trafficked to Israel and forced into sex slavery for several years. A few weeks later, the front page of the Chicago Tribune had an article saying that the FBI had busted the largest human trafficking ring, and the traffickers were from Riga, Latvia. The United Nations gave me a school grant, and I went back to Latvia to work with youths who were being trafficked in eastern Europe.

How can locals become involved in your work? I was one of the founders of the Westchester County Anti-Trafficking Task Force. We organize therapeutic retreats every three months for Westchester County kids who’ve been trafficked. We bring them together. We kind of give them a day that’s a break from their stressful lives. And we are building a community of kids who’ve been through the same experience. We’ve had a really phenomenal result with that. The Pound Ridge Working Mothers Group has been an outstanding and constant resource to us in this.

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