By Amelia Fox and Julia Zanzot
Imagine being in seventh grade and being a victim of sex trafficking. Imagine having been trafficked since you were eight years old. Imagine being trafficked by your mother’s boyfriend. Imagine prostituting yourself at as young as 12 years old because it’s the only thing you have ever known.
Unfortunately, this is the reality for a significant amount of sexual assault victims, including a 13-year-old girl from Greensboro, North Carolina. She was seen in North Carolina Judge Michelle Fletcher’s District Social Services Court this past year for neglect, but it soon became transparent that the situation was far worse than first imagined. The young girl is now safe and in a new home, but she will never again be able to regain the innocence that she lost and have a normal childhood, all due to sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking is a scourge in the United States and countries across the world – but for a substantial amount of time, it has gone so widely underreported and misunderstood that little has been done to reduce the frequency and the depth of the issue.
This furthers its complicated nature and the need for increased awareness and advocacy. While this is a vastly wide-reaching issue – and has been for many years – it is one of the most underreported problems in the world today.
In the past, there has not been much government or international work to further the prevention of trafficking. However, now, many organizations and governments are working hard to raise awareness and prevent the crime.
One of the few established pieces of United States legislation focusing on human trafficking, The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), was established by the United States Department of State in 2000. The TVPA is arguably the most important anti-trafficking law ever passed, according to Fight Slavery Now, an advocacy group that focuses on action and prevention of ongoing trafficking.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines human trafficking as:
- a) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or
- b) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
A victim does not have to be physically transported from one location to another for the crime to fall within these trafficking definitions. There is not just one straight-forward, black-and-white definition of human trafficking; the term itself, and those who can be categorized under it as victims of trafficking, are often subjected to misunderstandings and grouping as a whole, even though no two trafficking survivors or their experiences are the same.
This issue is more prevalently associated with women and children especially, with 26 percent of the 20.9 million victims across the world being children, and 55 percent being women and girls. It is an overarching issue across the globe, both in developing countries and in developed countries in the world, including the United States.
The biggest hotspots for trafficking in the United States are mainly on the East and West coasts. But the highest occurrences are in Atlanta and areas of Southern California.
The state of North Carolina has seen an exponential increase in the number of human trafficking-related incidents and reports in the last 15 years.
According to the North Carolina Department of Administration, the prevalence of human trafficking in North Carolina is due to many factors including the major highways (40, 85, and 95) that run through the state, a large, transient military population, numerous rural agricultural areas with a high demand for cheap labor, and an increasing number of gangs in the state.
The geographic location of the state itself also lends to the increase of trafficking numbers, as one of North Carolina’s biggest metropolitan cities, Charlotte, is situated in a triangle of other infamous trafficking hubs, including Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
These geographical and socio-economic factors make it substantially easier for victims to fall prey to trained traffickers. Their use of manipulation, power and force combined take victims on a far more frequent basis than many realize.
“Sex trafficking – whether within a country or across national borders – violates basic human rights, including the rights to bodily integrity, equality, dignity, health, security, and freedom from violence and torture,” according to Equality Now, a non-governmental organization.
Equality Now is an organization that works for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls around the world, as well as to increase awareness and promotion of aid and protective initiatives for victims as well as preventing more innocent women and children from falling prey to traffickers and predators.
Not only are there many activist organizations and charity groups aiming to stop sex trafficking in the United States, but also, both national and state governments are working toward that goal as well. The Attorney General of North Carolina, Josh Stein, and his office work actively to decrease the prevalence of this organized crime in North Carolina.
“The biggest issue [surrounding sex trafficking] is creating broader public understanding of the existence of it,” Stein said. “It is so dark and troubling to think about it, so people do not want to understand it.”
Aside from awareness, the Attorney General’s Office works mostly with training of law enforcement. The office collaborates with the state’s Justice Academy, which trains employers involved in criminal justice, and provides ongoing training about sex trafficking.
“Last year, [in 2016] part of the curriculum [of the Justice Academy] was dedicated on training the law enforcement on human trafficking and how to respond,” Stein said. “This curriculum is now part of basic law enforcement.”
Much of the curriculum involves changing the way sex trafficking is understood for law enforcement. Police officers and other law enforcement agencies are being taught to understand the pathology behind the crime. Sex trafficking cases are usually very complicated because oftentimes, the victim does not know that she/he is a victim due to massive manipulation by the traffickers and the world into which they are forced.
“It is very hard because victims have often been brainwashed and become utterly dependent on their capturer for attention, drugs, or money,” Stein said. “It can be very hard to break the control [of the exploiter on the victim].”
Looking to the future, Stein has suggestions for preventing sex trafficking in North Carolina. These include aggressive law enforcement, intervention for young people who are at risk of becoming a victim, and shaming people who would take advantage of young victims.
While most of the social work for the victims comes from non-profits, the Attorney General’s Office also has programs dedicated to helping the victim. The office has created the Address Confidentiality Program, which aims to help victims of sex trafficking, domestic abuse, and other dangerous situations. These victims can use the address of the Attorney General’s Office on public records instead of their home address. This helps the safety of the victim because her previous captor cannot find the victim’s home address, according to Stein.
The Attorney General also recently attended a two-day symposium about human trafficking in November. The State of North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission was created by the Department of Justice in conjunction with the North Carolina Department of Human Trafficking.
“The Commission is charged with examining and combating human trafficking; funding and facilitating research; creating measurement, assessment, and accountability measures; informing and educating law enforcement personnel, social services providers, and the general public; suggesting new policies, procedures, and legislation; developing regional response teams; and identifying gaps in law enforcement or service provision and recommending solutions,” according to the North Carolina Department of Justice website.
The conference was open to the public, but was focused for people who would come into contact with victims of human trafficking in their jobs. There were different tracks in the training for different occupations, such as law enforcement or medics.
Sex trafficking is also seen in the court system. Judge Fletcher works in the Department of Social Services (DSS) court in both Greensboro and High Point, North Carolina. The DSS court handles cases for abused and neglected children.
In potential trafficking cases, the department usually receives an anonymous call, alleging that a child has been physically, sexually, or verbally abused or neglected by a parent or caretaker. Once in court, the judges have been trained to identify signs of trafficking and contact the FBI to further investigate.
However, before the training, the judges in her court knew very little about sex trafficking.
“The FBI training really opened all our eyes [about sex trafficking],” Fletcher said. “Our idea of trafficking was something that happened somewhere else – and not here.”
Sex trafficking does commonly occur in both Greensboro and High Point. Certain times of the year, such as during the well-known “Furniture Market” in High Point, can lead to an increase in sex trafficking cases. More women are arrested for prostitution during that period, but several are later discovered to be victims of sex trafficking.
“On average, we [the district court] probably catch maybe one to two cases a month. When I say catch, I mean actually identifying them and referring them to the FBI,” Fletcher said. “I guarantee you that there are more victims we are not catching.”
Fletcher recalls a recent case where a pregnant 15-year-old girl came into DSS court due to neglect. The court immediately took custody of the girl and placed her in foster care. While she was in foster care, two middle aged men from Florida came to North Carolina and found the foster parents of the girl. The men tried to bribe the foster parents to let the young girl go with them, and the girl was ready to go. The foster parents reported the incident to the court and now the two men are being tried as traffickers, according to Fletcher.
This case represents the reality of sex trafficking in the United States. Most victims are trafficked by people they know and often do not even realized they were victims, like the young girl who was ready to go back with her traffickers. The case also reveals another truth surrounding sex trafficking: most victims have had contact with the child welfare system.
There are several identifying aspects that the judges learned about, according to Fletcher said. These include the way they respond to questions, lack of information about their life and occupation, and tattoos on their chest or neck that are usually the name of their trafficker.
Being aware of the signs has helped each judge in the district court be able to identify victims and get them the help they need.
“We are facilitators who then contact and notify the FBI and law enforcement about the possibility of a trafficking victim,” Fletcher said.
On a national level, the United States government has also been working towards making substantial progress in the prevention of human trafficking. On June 27, the U.S. Department of State launched the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – the government’s principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking.
It represents an updated, global look at the nature and scope of trafficking in persons and the broad range of government actions to confront and eliminate it.
“Human trafficking is as old as humankind,” said U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. “Regrettably, it’s been with us for centuries and centuries…Our challenge is enormous. Today, globally, it’s estimated that there are 20 million victims of human trafficking. So, clearly, we have a lot of work to do and governments around the world have a lot of work to do.”
In addition to TIP reports, the State Department announced The Program to End Modern Slavery earlier in the year. It’s a program aimed at increasing funding for prosecution, protection, and prevention efforts to reduce the occurrence of modern slavery wherever it is most prevalent.
That newly created initiative, as well as the work of advocates in North Carolina, the United States, and across the globe, who are pursuing justice and combating trafficking in their own countries, as well as cities, towns, and villages where some of the worst trafficking rings exist in the world, brings hope and action to a stubborn issue with the lofty goal of finally eradicating the horror of trafficking.
To further the work in accordance with this issue, many have created organizations or programs with the target goal of helping victims and survivors return back to normalcy and help them regain the ability to live on their own and be financially and emotionally stable.
In North Carolina, programs such as Lily Pad Haven do just that. Lily Pad Haven provides safe houses and a community of support for survivors of human trafficking. Over the past six years of operation, 645 survivors and their children have passed through their program and have stayed in the organization’s established houses.
Lily Pad Haven’s founder, Kimberly Perkins, saw the need for a place that survivors not only felt comfortable coming to after escaping their previously regimented and fragmented lives, but also a place that would provide them with direct tools and ways to regain the lives they had lost – or even find a future they never knew they would be able to have. By providing shelter and guidance, lives were changed and futures altered.
The time the survivors stay in the houses may be brief, but it is really in the actions of those who are willing to help that the true impact is made. There is so much trauma that comes with these survivors that no two are the same, according to Perkins.
Upon arrival, guests truly “start from scratch,” needing everything from a birth certificate to a social security number. It is not uncommon for those that the group comes in contact with to suffer from mental health disorders, such post-traumatic-stress disorder and more.
In many ways, human trafficking is unlike any other social or societal issue currently ongoing in today’s world. It is destructive, manipulative, and unforgiving.
The lives of those who became accidentally and unknowingly entangled in the web of sex trafficking are often forever altered. It leaves victims, and their loved ones significantly traumatized and at a loss when looking to their next steps.
But today, there are people and organizations that lend hope and optimism, that show that the problem can, and should, get better in the years to come. Through proper training, increased awareness, government initiatives, and organizational aid, more people are being saved from these horrors, and more survivors are getting the help and care that they not only deserve, but also desperately need to regain their lives and move forward.
On a state, national, and international scale, people are taking notice and giving these victims a voice. In return, change is occurring and progress is being made. A glimmer of hope is now evident in a previously unnoticed, underrepresented, yet urgent topic.