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Erin Cooney promotes human trafficking awareness in Delaware high schools

December 20, 2015

Delmarva Christian High School senior Erin Cooney, a resident of Trappe, Md., did not know much about Delaware politics until she was nominated to represent DCHS at the American Legion Auxiliary’s Delaware Girls State in June.

Girls State, a weeklong government education program for high school juniors, provides an opportunity for students to learn firsthand how state and local government works. Delegates from Delaware high schools are selected by American Legion Auxiliary units who work closely with educators to evaluate potential leadership qualities in area high school students.

“Before coming to Girls State, we were told to draft a bill, and I wasn’t sure what to write about,” said Cooney. “Then, one day in our Life Calling class, Yolanda [Schlabach] gave her testimony about changing Delaware laws regarding human trafficking, and I knew I wanted to work on that.”

Schlabach, executive director at Zoë Ministries in Greenwood, partnered with the Polaris Project, a national human-trafficking prevention organization, and Delaware lawmakers in what would eventually become Senate Bill No.197, an act that heightens criminal penalties for those charged with human trafficking violations in Delaware, establishes new protections for victims and promotes public awareness of the issue.

Cooney worked with Mariah Lee, a Sussex Tech student, to write a bill that would further the impact of Senate Bill No.197.

“As it is now, when an individual who has been charged for human trafficking violations goes to jail, their money is seized and given back to them when they’re released,” said Cooney. “The bill that we wrote would mean that money seized would go back into the victims’ rehabilitation.”

At Girls State, students form mock governments at the city, county and state levels, elect officials and create a Senate and House of Representatives. Delaware Girls State students present their bills to this mock Congress in Legislative Hall’s Senate and House chambers.

Cooney was confident the bill they had drafted would pass without question, but when Cooney and Lee presented their bill, they faced more opposition than Cooney had anticipated. “A lot of the students didn’t understand the issue or its relevancy in Delaware, so we had to field a lot of tough questions,” said Cooney.

Ultimately, Cooney and Lee’s bill passed in the Senate but failed to pass in the House. “I thought the biggest victory would be getting the bill passed,” said Cooney. “So, when it didn’t pass, I was really upset.”

Cooney was equally upset at the lack of awareness among these Delaware high school students. “Some of these students will become political leaders in Delaware, and I wondered how they could get educated on this issue,” said Cooney.

Later that afternoon, Cooney came up with a plan. A last-minute speaker cancellation made for some unexpected free time in the day’s schedule, prompting Cooney to make an appeal to the Girls State staff. “After realizing there was an opening in the afternoon, I talked to Yolanda and the Girls State leaders, and they agreed to let Yolanda speak to the students,” said Cooney.

At 3 p.m. that afternoon, Schlabach came and explained to all of the Girls State delegates the impact of human trafficking in Delaware and what she and Zoë Ministries are doing to help combat this issue. The Girls State staff was so impressed with Schlabach’s presentation that they asked her to speak at Delaware Boys State, and at both Delaware Girls State and Boys State in 2016.

“I was excited that all of the students could learn more about human trafficking and take the information back to their schools,” said Cooney. “After Yolanda was done speaking, I saw a lot of students talking to her to see what they could do in their schools to help make a difference.”


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