Mooresville forum highlights tactics employed by traffickers in $32 billion industry
BY DEBBIE PAGE
Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery and is the third-largest criminal industry in the world, according to the FBI. According to the U.S State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, 24.9 million people worldwide have lost their freedom and basic human dignity to traffickers.
As the fastest-growing organized crime activity in the United States, human trafficking creates an estimated $32 billion a year for traffickers while destroying the lives of thousands of innocent youth. A 2016 study by the Center for Court Innovation found that between 8,900 and 10,500 children ages 13 to 17 are commercially exploited each year in the U.S.
At a recent forum in Mooresville on the issue, Executive Director of Present Age Ministries Hannah Arrowood said that North Carolina ranks among the top eight states for human trafficking, according to the Polaris Project.
Charlotte is the No. 1 location in the state for incidents of human trafficking.
Human trafficking came about because of simple economics, according to Arrowood. “Without demand, there is no need for a supply.” She also noted that surrounding counties are affected. “Trafficking does not stop at the county line.”
Traffickers have less legal risk in trafficking humans rather than narcotics because law enforcement has a more difficult time catching them and proving the case.
Arrowood’s Concord-based nonprofit organization actively works with many state and local agencies and other nonprofits to educate the public about human trafficking issues and to help victims after rescue.
Arrowood noted that few victims are kidnapped into trafficking as portrayed in films but are instead lured by gifts, romance, or promises of financial security.
Traffickers can appear any way they want to on social media, added Arrowood. They manipulate young girls by “boyfriending” them and professing love, gradually isolating them, developing a sexual relationship, and then passing them on to others for profit.
When investigating reports, law enforcement agencies have difficulty proving trafficking because the victims often volunteer or consent to sex with others to please their handler. They may be paid some small amount to cover the trafficker legally. Traffickers also can point out that the victim made no attempt to escape the situation and may even want to stay with the trafficker.
Arrowood noted that kids under 18 do not have the brain development and maturity to rationalize their way out of the trap. Some victims do not even realize they are a victim of trafficking for years.
After luring them in, traffickers soon resort to psychological abuse and threats against family or friends to coerce the victim to submit to their demands.
Arrowood warned that no one is immune to becoming a victim. Frighteningly, she has provided services to victims who were recruited in schools, church groups, and community organizations.
Once victims realize they are caught in trafficking, shame, fear, emotional trauma, and fear of deportation may keep them from seeking help. Arrowood said some do not truly understand their victimization. Some are victims of past sexual abuse, and this situation may not be the worst thing that’s happened to them, she said.
Prevention Specialist Kelly Stutts of Connect 4 Faith and Shared Hope International said that although the topic of human trafficking is “touchy, we have to talk about it and be bold.”
Stutts urged community members to teach young people to trust themselves and listen to their inner voice if something does not seem right. They should also learn the signs that someone else may be in trouble and needs help.
“It’s hard to risk a relationship because they might be mad or offended, but be bold and courageous here because you might save a life” since friends are often the first to notice signs that something is wrong. They must tell a counselor, minister, teacher, parent, or other adult if they suspect someone may be a victim of trafficking.
Stutts noted that traffickers look for kids, some as young as 3 or 4 years old, with a history of being abused, who are runaways or homeless, or who are lonely and disconnected. They establish familiarity, trust, secrecy, and erode barriers.
To underscore that any young person is vulnerable to traffickers, Stutts showed the short film “Chosen,” which shares the story of 17 year-old Brianna, a small town high school athlete, cheerleader, and aspiring nurse who was lured into the trafficking world by a handsome and charming 24-year-old man, Nick, who frequented the diner where she had a part-time job.
Brianna snuck off to meet Nick and his friends at a nearby lake house. The “friends” were actually potential sex trafficking buyers. Nick later lured her into a strip club job that paid hundreds of dollars more than her diner job.
When ex-boyfriend Evan became concerned about her behavior and learned she planned to leave for another state with Nick, he alerted his and Brianna’s parents, who brought in a human trafficking counselor and law enforcement officer to convince her she was being groomed for trafficking.
After initially refusing to see the truth, Brianna finally realized the danger in which she was placing herself. Now a human trafficking prevention advocate and nursing student, Brianna realizes that “Evan saved my life.”
The film also shared the story of 13-year-old Lacy, who was recruited by a 23-year-old man who offered romance, promises of marriage, and a beautiful home. He talked her into skipping school and helping him to get money by stripping and later prostituting herself. He threatened to kidnap her 10-year-old sister and hurt her family when she began to protest.
After her rescue, she and her family moved 3,000 miles away to escape the danger posed by the traffickers.
WATCH A TRAILER FOR ‘CHOSEN’
Stutts noted that in a recent North Carolina human trafficking sting operation, church members, business leaders, and a UNC professor were arrested. “Don’t think that because they sit next to you in church that they are not involved. These people are out there creating a demand, and traffickers are there to meet the need.”
LOCAL TEENS ARE VULNERABLE
Ashlie Shanley, a Cabarrus County assistant district attorney, said that her county has an 80 percent human trafficking conviction rate because of community awareness. “Traffickers are at low risk in a community that does not know what’s going on,” she said. “We want them at high risk.”
Shanley urged people to share information about the dangers and indicators of human trafficking with others to stamp out this menace in the community.
She shared two recent cases involving teens. A 16-year-old boy connected with a seemingly friendly girl online who urged him to share nude pictures and later to meet up. The “girl” turned out to be a man who sexually assaulted him, leaving the teen shocked and vulnerable.
In another case a young girl accepted a Facebook friend request from a man she thought was safe because he was connected to other Facebook friends. He started sending her nude pictures and stalking her using the personal information (her address, phone number, school, activities, etc) she had posted on her Facebook page.
The girl did not tell her parents until her mom noticed her odd behavior and started asking questions. After the man, who actually lived in Florida, was reported, he was prosecuted.
Shanley warned parents that “sometimes kids get on a path and they do not know how to get off. That’s why it’s important to have an exit plan with your kids right now.”
Shanley shared a University of Toledo study that reported the most common online apps sexual predators use to lure youths, including Instagram (watch both the real and fake “Finsta” accounts kids may have), Roblox (a video game site for young kids with player communication capabilities), Fortnite (a danger for young boys), dating and chat apps (Tinder, Yellow, Sugar Babes, Bedpage), Chatroulette, and Monkey (a Chatroulette for kids).
The perpetrators often meet their child victims on one social media site and then move him or her to Snapchat so that the perpetrator’s criminal activity disappears.
These “master manipulators” figure out kids’ vulnerabilities and insecurities through their social media posts and then exploit them, promising understanding, affection, protection, or success.
Shanley noted that social media allows relationships to develop quickly while masking the harmful intent of the predator. The traffickers can also develop virtual relationships with multiple victims without ever leaving the house.
To create barriers between traffickers and youth, Shanley said that community education and awareness, engaged parents, and confident youth were imperative. She urged parents to get kids involved in extracurricular activities to build self-confidence and to make friends who will look out for each other.
She also urged parents and educators to teach young people to keep their information private, not using their full names or posting personal photos of family members (especially younger siblings) or pets. They should also avoid revealing their current location, school, or home address or posting about vulnerable emotional states.
Young people should never meet an online “friend” in person. They should use different screen names on different apps to make finding them more difficult for a stalker and have an exit plan (a secret code word with parents) if they ever get in an uncomfortable situation and want to get picked up.
They should never send a photo they wouldn’t want grandma to see and should lock social media privacy to friends only. In Snapchat, they should put their account settings to only “My friends, not everyone” for contacts, share “My Story” with only friends, and put the location tracker in “Ghost Mode” so a predator cannot track them.
“Let’s make traffickers’ job harder,” said Shanley. She suggested turning off the router or taking phones at 10 p.m. since much of the online danger occurs late at night.
Shanley also warned about sharing explicit photos on phones since even possession of this material is a crime. “Consent is not a defense.” Persons younger than 17 cannot even legally possess a nude photo of themselves.
Arrowood noted that North Carolina law now dictates that youth learn about the dangers of sex trafficking in health classes, but no funding, curriculum, or training are provided by the state. She urged parents to check with their schools to make sure the information is presented.
NC GS 115C-81(el)(4a) states that Boards of Education must address sex trafficking awareness and prevention in school and that seventh graders will be taught reproductive health and safety education and awareness of sexual assault, sexual abuse and risk reduction.
“You now know, so you’ve got to do something, whether it’s a conversation with your neighbor or to go back to your church and talk about it or with your kids or neighborhood — you’ve got to do something,” said Arrowood.
“If you just came here and learned something and do nothing, what good is it? So, as a community, we can make it stronger and safer and get rid of this issue.”
According to the Polaris Project, in 2018 North Carolina had 287 reported human trafficking cases. This puts North Carolina 10th among all 50 states, in terms of the number of reported human trafficking cases.
Twenty-five percent of these cases were minors with an average age of 15. Eighty-eight percent of adults were identified as victims of sex trafficking, with 12 percent in forced labor.
Arrowood said common avenues for traffickers to entice victims include social media, gaming chatrooms, strip clubs, escort services, large events (concerts, athletic events, etc.), malls and shopping centers, movie theaters, airports, and other public places.
In the U.S., 100,000 minors are used in prostitution each year. The victim’s average age is 13, and their average life expectancy once they enter trafficking is seven years. For girls, the average entry age is between 12 and 14, and for boys, the entry age range is 11 to 13.
WHAT IS HUMAN TRAFFICKING?
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” DHS believes that millions of men, women, and children are trafficked worldwide in any community, including rural and affluent suburban areas.
Victims, who can be any age, race, gender, or nationality, fall prey to traffickers who use violence, manipulation, or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations.
Victims fear getting help to escape their plight because of language barriers, fear of their traffickers, or fear of law enforcement, thus making human trafficking a hidden crime.
Traffickers utilize force, fraud, or coercion to snare victims and force them into unpaid work or commercial sexual exploitation. Victims are susceptible because of psychological or emotional vulnerability, poverty, lack of close relationships, natural disasters, or political instability.
Often, the traffickers so traumatize the victims that they may not identify themselves as victims or ask for help when they have an opportunity.
Most victims are involved in sex trafficking in escort services, massage parlors, motels, or special event-related venues, with others in forced labor in agriculture, begging rings, domestic work, retail, or restaurants.
Victims of domestic servitude work as housekeepers, cooks, or nannies in individual homes. The traffickers take their travel documents or threaten to reveal illegal status to control them and keep them as virtual prisoners.
KEY INDICATORS OF TRAFFICKING
Recognizing key indicators of human trafficking is the first step in identifying victims and can help save a life. These indicators include:
♦ Disconnection from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship.
♦ Overly tired.
♦ A drop in school attendance.
♦ Sudden or dramatic changes in behavior.
♦ Inconsistencies in stories or explanations.
♦ Talks about wild parties and tries to recruit others to attend.
♦ Tattoos or branding.
♦ Frequent use of online dating/hookup sites.
♦ Older boyfriend or friends suddenly appear.
♦ Brags about or suddenly has money or expensive items.
♦ Engaging in commercial sex acts.
♦ Disorientation, confusion, or signs of mental or physical abuse.
♦ Bruises in various stages of healing.
♦ Appearing fearful, timid, or submissive.
♦ Signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care.
♦ Often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers or who seems to be in control of where they go or to whom they talk.
♦ Appear to be coached on what to say.
♦ Living in unsuitable conditions.
♦ Lacking personal possessions and appearing not to have a stable living situation.
♦ Lacking in freedom of movement or living under unreasonable security measures.
♦ Multiple electronic devices with no explanation as to why.
♦ Fearful of law enforcement.
♦ Unclear about their living situation or address.
If someone suspects trafficking, he or she should not attempt to confront a suspected trafficker directly or alert the victim to any suspicions for safety reasons. Contact law enforcement immediately to investigate suspected cases of human trafficking.
The END Human Trafficking Ministry at Williamson Chapel United Methodist Church, working with partners Present Age Ministries, United Methodist Women, Justice Ministries, Shared Hope International, and A21, actively seeks to educate the community about this scourge going on right here in this community.
WCUMC works with local law enforcement and regional agencies to determine the greatest need in the area. From education and awareness to spiritual warfare, the church is dedicated to doing everything it can to ending this horrific crime.
Since 2011, partner Present Age Ministries has been committed to combatting the sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking of teen girls. They work “to rebuild trust, restore hope, and redefine love one life at a time.”
The group provides straight forward information to youth about human trafficking and prevention-focused intervention to address underlying issues that may influence youth to become human trafficking victims.
The organization creates ToGETher events, designed for attendees (i.e. medical, financial, educational, faith based), to provide a human trafficking awareness seminar that demonstrates how every group in a community is critical in eradicating this issue.
Attendees leave with the information to make an impact after learning trafficking warning signs, risk factors and preventative measures, the effects on a survivor (based on science and survivor stories), statistics, and the efforts to end this crisis.
To request a Present Age speaker to any community or faith based group, visit https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WMPMDXY
TO REPORT SUSPECTED TRAFFICKING
To report suspected human trafficking to federal law enforcement, call: 1-866-347-2423
To get help from the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733)
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about the issue, visit the Polaris Project website
Watch the September symposium on Human Trafficking: HERE
SUPPORT THE MOVEMENT AGAINST HUMAN TRAFFICKING
WCUMC Director of Serve Ministries Amy LaCount invited community members to get involved with the ministry at WCUMC and urged local school systems to do more to educate kids of these lurking dangers.
January is Human Trafficking and Sex Trafficking Awareness Month. LaCount urged community members to participate in the prayer vigil on the human trafficking issue on the third weekend in January at WCUMC and asked other churches across the county to participate.
For more information on the WCUMC efforts to combat trafficking, please contact LaCount at firstname.lastname@example.org orJanice McKelvey at email@example.com.