North Carolina has a human trafficking problem.
Last week, officials met in Charlotte to train hotel and motel industry members about how to identify and assist law enforcement in combating human trafficking.
“Trafficking happens in front of us and it’s almost this invisible crime because it is so hard to pinpoint,” said Lizzy Adams, spokesperson for The Salvation Army of Wake County.
She said coastal tourism, the meat packing and agricultural industries, high levels of immigration and high transit are all factors in the Triangle area that attract human traffickers.
“Any population that has a high vulnerability,” Adams said, “that is the common denominator in cases of human trafficking.”
She said traffickers use force and coercion, as well as victims' debts and addictions to involve and confine their victims.
“People get involved with some sort of promise or idea — whether it be a better life, an education, a healthy relationship — and suddenly it gets taken away from them,” Adams said. “Their needs and their hopes are exploited by these traffickers.”
Not a foreign issue
Robin Colbert, associate director at the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said there are a lot of misconceptions about human trafficking.
“Human trafficking is not just sex — it’s sex and labor,” she said.
Americans tend to see human trafficking as a foreign issue that doesn’t occur within our own neighborhood, but the reality is that most cases are domestic, Colbert said.
“It’s hard to examine ourselves as a country because it’s a lot easier to say, ‘No, that doesn’t happen here,’" she said. "When in actuality we know it happens here, and we’ve allowed it to happen."
Colbert said the origins of human trafficking stem from controversial parts of U.S. history like prostitution and slavery, which have led Americans to avoid the issue.
“We’re just starting to look at it in a way that it’s not always them, it is us,” she said.
Adams said it is important to build awareness to correct preconceived notions of human trafficking.
“It’s so important that parents are informed, that teachers understand, that even kids start to understand and grasp this concept,” she said.
Counteracting the problem
In 2011, The Salvation Army of Wake County started an outreach program, Project Freeing Individuals Gripped by Human Trafficking (FIGHT), to counteract human trafficking crimes and provide comprehensive case management to victims.
“The goal is to get them to a point where they’re healthy and stable and can live a normal functioning life the way anyone else could,” Adams said.
Project FIGHT is part of an emergency response team — including medical and law enforcement officials — that responds to cases of human trafficking and provides basic necessities like food, shelter and clothing.
Other approaches to resolve this issue have been initiated at UNC.
Dean Duncan, a research professor at the UNC School of Social Work, was awarded a five-year $1.24 million grant in 2014 to investigate the issue of child trafficking in North Carolina.
This led to the establishment of North Carolina Organizing and Responding to the Exploitation and Sexual Trafficking of Children — or Project NO REST.
The research team has developed several goals for the five-year period, Duncan said.
“One goal was to develop a comprehensive plan to address the trafficking of youth in North Carolina, and by youth I mean all individuals 25 and under,” he said.
The next phase of Project NO REST will be the recruitment of three to five communities across the state to implement the comprehensive plan, he said.
“We hope to select those communities by midyear,” Duncan said.
He said the plan addresses trafficking in six parts — which include youth engagement, screening and other services for victims and a reliable data evaluation of trafficking trends in the state.
Duncan said there is currently no good, centralized database to track the number of individuals who have been trafficked.
'Not just a North Carolina problem'
“That is not just a North Carolina problem,” he said, “That’s a problem facing agencies and organizations across the country.”
The project ultimately aims to provide resources nationwide.
“In our final year of the project, we hope to develop a tool kit or guide that other communities across the state and country can use to implement anti-trafficking programs, ” Duncan said.
Colbert said that although policy and legislative reform is on its way, true reform won’t begin until the public is fully aware.
“As we begin to open our eyes, then we begin to do something about it,” Colbert said.
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