Ypsilanti man found guilty of human trafficking and enslavement of children

In early 2011, a University of Michigan janitor by the name of Jean-Claude Toviave was arrested and charged with enslaving four West African children in his Ypsilanti home. The four, it would seem, were forced to cook, clean, iron and shine shoes for the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Toviave, who, when he was unsatisfied with their performance, would starve them and beat them with toilet plungers, electrical cords and broomsticks. This violent subjugation, according to journals kept by the four, who Toviave passed off as his own children, went on for nearly five years, until a middle school counselor was made aware of the situation and alerted authorities. (Toviave had enrolled the tree youngest children in school upon bringing them into the United States with forged documentation.)

The following statement, written by one of the victims, was read aloud during the course of Toviave’s trial, which ended yesterday with a guilty verdict and an 11-year sentence:

“The physical torture, beating me and starving me, you inflicted was so painful that I prayed at night that God would either help me to be free, or allow your assaults to kill me… The pain is something I will never forget. In the midst of your verbal and physical assaults, you worked the four of us to death.”

While there’s not a lot of information available about the children, and how they’re presently doing, the Huffington Post is reporting that one of the boys is currently president of his school’s student council, and wants to pursue a career in medicine. But, lest we think there’s a true happy ending here, it’s also noted in this same report that this young man has “permanent damage to his vision and persistent headaches,” as a result of having been repeatedly punched and kicked in the face. So, even if he is able, by some miracle, to put the memory of the abuse behind him, he’ll still have to contend with the physical manifestations of his ordeal for years to come.

Sadly, this is not an isolated occurrence. While this is the only local case that I can recall, it’s been reported by several news sources over the past decade that there are presently more slaves brought into the United States each year than at the height of the colonial slave trade. The following clip comes by way of ABC News.

…Worldwide, there are more slaves today than at any point in human history, and America is not immune to the crime. Restavèks (a Creole euphemism for domestic slaves, which translates roughly as “stay-withs”) are only a fraction of the estimated 50,000 slaves held in the United States. Each year, traffickers take more people — up to 17,500 according to Justice Department estimates — into slavery in the United States than traders annually took into bondage in colonial America.

The Justice Department has successfully prosecuted sex trafficking cases in record numbers since the passage of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act. But according to its own estimates, the government has liberated less than 2 percent of the slaves within U.S. borders.

Domestic slaves are the most difficult to discover, let alone free. Recent cases have revealed a pattern of domestic slavery in otherwise “decent” households, often in expatriot enclaves. In those cases, only the intervention of conscientious citizens broke the slaves’ chains…

It’s amazing to me that this was allowed to go on for nearly five years, right under our noses, and I feel as though there are lessons to be learned here. Unfortunately, though, I’m not exactly sure what those lessons are. Clearly, one major take-away from this whole ordeal is an appreciation for just how important our local educators are. Had it not been for an observant school counselor who had the trust of these children, this abuse might very well still be going on today. In a period where we continue to slash public education budgets, I think it’s incredibly important to keep in mind just how much our children, and thus our entire community, depend on these men and women. And my hope is that we all keep this case in mind the next time we’re told that, due to budget constraints, we have no choice but to let go more teachers and counselors. The fact of the matter is, the more children we have in each classroom, and the more cases we have assigned to each counselor, the less likely it is that we’ll bring things like this to light.

As for other ideas, I’m beginning to wonder if it might not make sense to require the genetic testing of children being brought into the United States from countries where this kind of human trafficking is known to be prevalent, to ensure that they are, in fact, related to those individuals claiming to be their parents? Ordinarily, I’d say that this would be overkill, and a violation of civil rights, but, as I’ve now heard of several cases of people passing off unrelated domestic slaves as their own children, I feel as though it could be warranted.

I also think that we, as the local community, need to accept some responsibility. Thankfully, the abuse in this case was eventually caught by someone in the public school system, but it took five years, and one has to think that there were other warning signs over that span of years that some of us saw and chose not to act upon. (I saw it noted somewhere that Toviave was also farming the kids out to clean and perform menial tasks for friends, so I think it’s likely that people must have seen something.) While I’d rather not live in a community where people are encouraged to call the police on their neighbors every time they see a kid with a bruise carrying a mop bucket, I do think that things like this are less likely to happen in communities where people are more engaged with one another. And, by “engaged,” I don’t mean nosy. I’m not suggesting that people surveil their neighbors. The occasional friendly conversation, however, may not be such a bad thing.

One last thing… As someone who may very well have helped to build the Habitat for Humanity house where this abuse took place, I’ve gone through an interesting progression of feelings this evening. At first, I was a little angry at the thought that I might have helped to have built a home for a man like this. I don’t know why I’d expect Habitat for Humanity to identify this man as a human trafficker when our Immigration officers apparently weren’t able to, but I found myself doing just that. And my fear is that others might do the same… or worse… come to the conclusion that a majority of those acquiring homes through Habitat for Humanity, are conniving schemers who just know how to play the system to their own advantage. I know it’s something of a tangent, but, as I care a great deal about the program, and know the good that it does, I’d hate to see stories like this begin to undermine the mission.

I’ve got more that I’d like to say, but I’m falling asleep… If you’d like to learn more about the case, you can find coverage at both USA Today and the Detroit Free Press.

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22 Comments

  1. Edward
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    One wonders if the children were given to him by parents that were hoping they might have better lives here, or if they were purchased.

  2. Mr. Y
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Sadly, it’s just a matter of time before the anti-immigration folks begin to demand that these young people be sent back to Africa.

  3. Watching Ypsi
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Address, in Ypsilanti, or area?

  4. Posted March 27, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    I found the comments on these news stories incredible.

    This country is filled with ignorance and bigotry.

  5. Elliott
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    If I’m not mistaken, there was a case about a dozen years ago, near Briarwood Mall, where several sex slaves were liberated from an Asian massage parlor. I don’t know if the women were allowed to stay in the United States, or if they were deported.

  6. anonymous
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    So many questions….

    – Was there a mother in the house, or other adults, who were complicit? If so, are they being charged?

    – There’s reference to these child slaves being used to work at the homes of others. Was Toviave receiving payment for their work? Are the individuals who benefited from their work likewise being prosecuted?

    – Do we know the circumstances by which Toviave came to be in possession of these children? Is there perhaps a network that facilitates these arrangements?

    – Are these young people still in our community? Are they in foster care? Are they together?

    – Have our elected officials proposed legislation that might assist in the identification and prosecution of such individuals?

    – Has the school counselor been identified? Has he or she commented on the case?

  7. K2
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    My favorite comment from the Huffington Post site:

    “He forgot the that we Americans have moved our child labor slaves over seas.”

    It is interesting that, when corporations are caught using child labor abroad, people tend to look the other way, but, when we see it in our own communities, we get outraged.

  8. XXX
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I don’t mean to excuse this man’s actions. I am curious, however, as to whether or not these young people would have been any better off in Togo. What are the prospects for a young person there?

  9. double anonymous
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    How long is it going to take before someone links to that post about Steve Pierce’s claims about how white people from Kentucky were brought to Michigan as slaves during WWII?

  10. Posted March 27, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    In response to XXX,

    Kids are better off in homes where they are loved. It doesn’t matter whether that home is in Togo or the United States.

  11. XXX
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I would agree, but these children either came from homes with parents who chose to sell them into slavery, or gave them away in hopes that they would find better lives here.

  12. Posted March 27, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    OK, it’s possible that the children were sold. I highly doubt this. If they were girls being sexually abused, I might assume this, but boys?

    I’ve seen boys sold as apprentices to fisherman along Lake Vic, but they perform specific economic functions. This guy had little to gain monetarily from these kids.

    It’s more reasonable to assume that the kids are related to this man somehow, even if they weren’t his own children. African families are large and far-reaching. I don’t know about Togo, having never been there, but in East Africa, a nephew, for example would still be considered as this man’s child.

    It’s probable that the children’s caregivers thought they were doing the best for their children, but (in my experience) most people really don’t understand the downsides to living in the US far from tight family networks.

    To me, it’s hard to fault the families, but I wouldn’t argue that the kids are better off for it, any more than I would argue that a kid getting beaten and cleaning fish for no money on Lake Vic is better off than a kid who stays at home, no matter how poor.

  13. XXX
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Agreed. But this young man is now aspiring to be a doctor. Would that have happened for him in Togo? Again, I’m not saying he’s better off for the abuse. I’m merely trying to get beyond the outrage, which we all feel, and be somewhat objective. Here’s the main question that I’m struggling with: Would we be helping or hurting these young people by keeping them out of the United States?

  14. Posted March 27, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    We do no one any favors by sending them to live with daily beatings far from home.

    As far as “keeping them out,” obviously we aren’t. INS believed that these kids were this man’s biological children. Obviously, though they were defrauded, they were doing their job.

  15. Linh Song
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how the children immigrated here and under what visa? When Americans have children abroad through surrogacy there are DNA tests to prove that at least one parent is a citizen. And when countries have faced adoption “irregularities,” a euphemism for corruption and trafficking, sometimes USCIS, USDOS, and authorities in the sending country will require DNA tests. But the system became so unreliable in these cases that DNA tests were not enough (Guatemala, Vietnam, etc.). All of this to say that yes, sometimes DNA is used to verify relationships but inconsistently so. What I’d be more concerned about is the children’s immigration status and if they have representation so that they are able to get T-visas, special visas for trafficking victims:
    http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/types/types_5186.html
    http://newamericamedia.org/2012/02/us-visas-aid-trafficking-victims-at-their-peril.php

    Otherwise, if they get in trouble with the law as non-citizens then they can be detained or deported, depending on whether their home country is willing to repatriate them. This can be for minor offenses, not even federal. The Southeast Asian American community was really hit hard by this law, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996, and about 1/3 of indefinitely held detainees were of Vietnamese and Cambodian descent. There have been adoptees and other children who were deported for minor crimes (shoplifting, marijuana possession).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illegal_Immigration_Reform_and_Immigrant_Responsibility_Act_of_1996
    http://www.aclu.org/blog/immigrants-rights/ending-laws-fuel-mass-detention-and-deportation
    So I hope that the guardians of the children in this case are mindful of securing their immigration status and eventually adjusting that so that they are permanent residents.

  16. Posted March 27, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Than you, Linh. My hope is that someone knowledgeable about the case finds this post and sees your comment.

  17. Posted March 28, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I don’t know about Togo, but generally speaking developing countries don’t really have adequate infrastructure to record births and I’ve never heard of INS requiring DNA tests to prove paternity.

    In the context of Sub-Saharan Africa, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. Kids are highly mobile and often are raised by people who are not their biological parents. Parents are often absent or dead (HIV) or just simply unable to care for their children.

    This guy may not be the biological parent of these children, but for all practical purposes, he may have been assigned the job and thus, was the primary caregiver.

    It’s interesting that people are focusing on his parental status and calling this a failure of immigration. Even in the US, not all children are raised by their biological parents.

  18. Watching Ypsi
    Posted March 28, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Anybody find and address or the area in Ypsilanti this individual, is said to have lived? Maybe in the court document? Just a bit strange, I’d say?

  19. facebook stalker
    Posted March 28, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Former school board member Kira Berman had the following to say about his case:

    I agree that school crowding and counseling overload may have lengthened these children’s suffering. Our administrators too often confuse our building “capacity” with our ideal building size. They are repeatedly shown that this building or that building is at “only” 75% occupancy – the unwritten assumption being that 100% is the goal. Very few ever question that assumption, and people get angry with you if you do… Of course, anybody who has ever worked in a school that is “at capacity,” knows that it is far from what should be our goal. This case is so difficult for me to think about!

  20. Watching Ypsi
    Posted March 28, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    WOW,
    this event sure, has hit a number of issues, Human Trafficking, school over crowding, immigration, parenting, caregiver?

  21. Watching Ypsi
    Posted March 28, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    I forgot, AND, right here in Ypsilanti, oh joy.

  22. jdj
    Posted March 28, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    He looks like a nice man. I’d definitely let him take my children to the other side of the world.

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