A word many people associate with a dark part of U.S. history or something that exists in other countries, but not here.
But that part of American history has not ended.
And human trafficking, commonly known as modern slavery, isn’t only a problem affecting someone else in some other part of the world.
It is here. In the United States. In North Carolina.
According to the United Nations, human trafficking is the harbor or transport of someone through threats and can include any form of coercion to create a power dynamic.
It’s not like the movie “Taken,” said Barbara Friedman, a co-founder of the Irina Project, which studies media representations of human trafficking.
“Those representations, especially because they are so popular, are part of what contributes to the misunderstanding about trafficking,” Friedman said.
All state law enforcement officers will be required to be trained in handling human trafficking starting in 2016. New law enforcement members currently only take a one-hour class, said Alex Lowrie , a coordinator for the North Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
The coalition has formed Rapid Response Teams composed of more than 65 organizations to monitor human trafficking in specific areas and provide resources.
“A multi-disciplinary approach is super important in the sense that we can all come together and understand where everyone is coming from,” Lowrie said.
“When we have those Rapid Response Team meetings, and we are talking about actual cases, it’s kind of an ‘aha’ moment for everyone in the room.”
Human trafficking can range from one person coercing another to a large organized crime ring. It often includes forced labor or sex work.
Labor trafficking includes forced work, like agriculture work and housekeeping, while sex trafficking specifically refers to forced sex work, such as forced prostitution and forced sexual relationships. Sex trafficking also includes anyone younger than 18 who participates in sex work because minors cannot legally consent.
“I don’t think anybody in the world has really figured out the numbers — like how prevalent the problem is, how much it happens — because it’s so hidden,” said Rebecca Macy, associate dean for academic affairs in the UNC School of Social Work who studies the effectiveness of human trafficking resources.
According to the International Labour Organization, 1.5 million people are trafficked for labor annually in developed economies, and more than 20 million people are trafficked for labor worldwide, of which 4.5 million are forced into sexual exploitation. The United Nations estimates that human trafficking is a multi-billion industry in the U.S., third only to illegal drug transactions and trading illegal firearms.
Large highway systems in North Carolina provide easy access to transporting individuals for trafficking purposes. Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, Greensboro and Wilmington are trafficking hubs because of the popular highway systems throughout those cities.
This breaks the myth that people who are trafficked aren’t American, said Amy Weil, medical co-director of Beacon Child and Family Pr ogram, which provides services for people who have experienced interpersonal violence.
“Because we live in the I-95 corridor, our problems are usually trafficking across state borders with people who have been born in this country,” Weil said.
Much like how the hidden nature of human trafficking makes it hard to track, it is also difficult to identify people who are being trafficked.
The Rapid Response Team looks beyond the surface, said Detective Matt Pearson of the Cary Police Department. He serves on the law enforcement arm of the Rapid Response Team.
“The problem was we had seen it, we just didn’t know exactly what we were looking at,” he said, noting that asking more questions and being observant can help identify trafficking.
When Pearson goes on undercover prostitution stings, his training has taught him how to know when to look deeper into the possibility of trafficking.
“That’s when our eyes really started getting open and going, ‘Wow, it’s right here, it’s right here in your face.’”
Abusive relationships, drug dependency, financial instability and mental health issues can all lead to a person being at a higher risk for trafficking.
Since captors use fear and coercion to remain powerful over the individuals who are being trafficked, self-identification as a trafficked person is incredibly rare.
“They have a lot to lose by upsetting their captor and a lot to gain by kind of staying the same,” Weil said of people who are trafficked.
Weil and Macy say asking questions such as, “Do you have your passport?” or “Where are your keys?” can provide important knowledge about whether someone is controlling an individual’s independence.
There are many discrepancies when it comes to legal treatment of trafficking. For example, until last year, children who were victims of trafficking could be convicted of prostitution because state statutory rape laws did not apply to instances where adults bought sex.
At least 31 anti-trafficking laws, also known as safe harbor laws, are now in effect nationwide.
North Carolina’s safe harbor law was signed into law in July 2013 and passed the N.C. General Assembly with no votes against it. The law provides immunity from prosecution for some types of offenses to those who were forced into sex work.
The first person to be convicted under the new safe harbor law in North Carolina was incarcerated in Sept ember.
Since human trafficking is often hidden, prosecutors sometimes avoid using human trafficking as the crime in court because it is hard to prove.
“(Prosecutors) use anything from tax evasion to unsanitary living conditions to not having identification of employees, anything they can find that will stick and is easier to prove,” Lowrie said.
The North Carolina Safe Harbor law states that a minor will be taken into temporary protective custody if he or she is involved in a trafficking situation. The law also requires that the reporting officer must report the situation to the Department of Social Services, and an investigation into the incident must begin within 24 hours of the officer’s report.
The effects of human trafficking last longer than the length of the trafficking activity and affect more than the immediate person who has been trafficked.
Macy said many people who are trafficked do not receive basic primary care because their captors do not want to provide an opportunity for the trafficked individuals to tell someone about their situation.
Physical signs include anything from dental problems to sexually transmitted infections to unwanted pregnancies, she said.
Macy said mental health problems usually accompany highly traumatic situations. She said health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression usually develop in individuals who are trafficked.
It becomes a public health issue, she said, because trafficking is preventable.
Programs like the Beacon Child and Family Program hope to provide comprehensive services for individuals who have been trafficked to help them become acclimated back into society.
“I think we have to be able to recognize it so that we can figure out how to help the individuals who are still suffering with it, and I think those kinds of continuing awareness and education campaigns, especially for health providers, are really important,” Weil said.
Project Freeing Indviduals Gripped by Human Trafficking (FIGHT), based in Raleigh, was founded in 2011 to provide resources to help people escape trafficking situations.
In the first 18 months of the program, the group managed 51 cases for victims of human trafficking.
Project coordinator Dale Alton said the age range of people Project FIGHT helps is 14 to 63 years old.
“The one thing I would say that I have learned through all my years is no one organization or person can do this alone,” Alton said. “It’s collaborative building and connecting all the different pieces for what they need.”
The UNC School of Medicine and the Beacon Child and Family Program started Carolina Men Care to encourage men to take a stand against interpersonal violence.
Weil said that men talking to men can be more effective in motivating people to act against human trafficking.
Alton said a large part of prevention is trying to decrease the demand for the product.
“If you don’t stop the demand, no matter how many children are rescued, they will go out and find more,” Alton said.
Macy said expanding the conversation is key.
“It’s like that metaphor that you are picking drowning people up out of the river and they keep coming and coming, and you pull them out, and hopefully you catch most of them, and you maybe don’t catch all of them,” Macy said. “So finally someone has to go upstream and say, ‘Well who is pushing them in?’”