In light of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Shepherd University hosted a teach-in last Wednesday with guest speakers and panelists consisting of local law enforcement, victims' advocates, social workers and attorneys to help raise awareness and shed light on a growing epidemic.
The program opened with a video of a Ted Talk called "Human Trafficking-Stop the Silence" by Catalleya Storm, who told her story of being trafficked in Ohio.
Storm shared the definition of human trafficking as "a form of modern-day slavery where people profit from the control and exploitation of others." She then went on to share the statistic that every 30 seconds, a child is trafficked in the United States. Storm became a target for a trafficker after years of abuse by a distant family member. She met her future trafficker and developed a bond. He began a process of gaining her trust and "grooming" her.
Grooming progresses with six steps. First, the would-be trafficker identifies a target with vulnerabilities, whether it be a child without a lot of supervision, a runaway or someone that has been abused.
Next, the trafficker gains the victim's trust by fostering a warm and inviting friendship that transitions into a role of dependency. The trafficker gains information through conversations with the victim or parents/guardians. The trafficker is highly skilled at manipulation and deceit, thereby able to converse well with other adults.
Third, the trafficker is able to fill a need through the information they've received, like being a "friend", buying gifts, supplying the victim with alcohol or drugs or paying extra attention to the victim.
Once these steps have been achieved, the trafficker begins to isolate their victim, keeping them from family and friends, and creating situations where they are alone together, further fostering their bond with things like babysitting, tutoring, coaching, etc., thus setting up the fifth step: sexualization of the relationship.
At this point, the abuser uses tools to desensitize the victim through talking and pictures. The abuser begins to demand "payment" for things they've provided like the gifts, cigarettes or alcohol, often demanding sex as a repayment of debt.
The last step of bondage is where the abuser maintains control over the victim by continued exploitation under violence, threat of force, threat of humiliation, blackmail or drug addiction.
Storm maintains that anyone's family member can be trafficked, particularly if people are unaware of the signs.
Dr. Chiquita Howard-Bostic, Chair, Shepherd University Department of Sociology and Geography facilitated the event and introduced the three main stage panelists, Catherine Oliver, victim advocate and attorney for Shenandoah Women's Center, Brittany Young, Shepherd Alumna and attorney for the Migration and Refugee Services Program with Catholic Ministries and Kristin Schulz, Shop for Freedom Manager at Justice Ventures International.
Oliver said her first introduction to trafficking was as a public defender. She met with victims of trafficking who were charged with crimes like prostitution, solicitation, thefts or drug possession. She said as she started to talk to the defendants, she would get to the real root of the problem.
"Here's the thing that I've found," said Oliver. "Human trafficking is a many-syllabled word. I have yet to find a single individual who will raise their hand and say, 'hello. I'm here to talk to you because I'm a victim of human trafficking'. There is a strong resistance to self-identify. (As a trafficking victim) As I've worked with the Shenandoah Women's Center, I've worked with victims of stalking, of domestic violence, of sexual assault, harassment-and people are very ready to tell those stories. They have names that they can claim. There is still shame, unfortunately, but it's become more accepted to speak about those things. But what I've discovered with human trafficking, sometimes people can't even recognize the situation that they have found themselves in."
Attending law school in Miami, Florida was Young's introduction to trafficking because of the cross section of different cultures there. Young said labor trafficking was prevalent, particularly in hotels there.
"Through law school I went into the immigration field, where trafficking is always a piece of the puzzle," said Young. "Any time you're sitting down and talking to someone trying to figure out if they have immigration options, one of the first questions I always ask is, 'have you ever been the victim of a crime?' Generally they say, 'no' because they don't think of themselves that way, so I have to dig deeper and ask questions like, 'have you experienced domestic violence? Has anyone ever hit you? Has anyone ever stolen something from you?' That's where you get more and more of the story."
Born in Houston, Texas, Shulz had no knowledge of trafficking until she read, "Not for Sale" by David Batstone as a freshman in college.
"I was very unfamiliar with the fact that girls my age and younger were being trafficked in the city that I grew up in, and to be honest, I was horrified." said Schulz. "I knew instantly in that moment that I not only wanted to do something, but I had to do something to be their voice."
Schulz said she studied abroad in college and a trip to Bangkok, Thailand really changed her life.
"I noticed that there were a lot of 12 year-old, 13-14 year-old girls walking around with men who were in their 40s to 60-plus-years old who were from western countries, Europe, U.S., Australia.," said Shulz. "I kept thinking it was odd that all these young girls were walking around with older men. Finally, I asked the owner of the hostel where I was staying at why this was happening. She just looked at me bluntly and said, 'Those girls are being trafficked.'"
Shulz continued, "To see it actually happening with my own eyes-that changed everything. I had read stories, gotten information and education from websites, but when I saw the girls it became so real."
The panelists answered audience questions before dismissing into break-out groups to discuss law enforcement, legislation and social response.
Panelists wanted to make sure people know the signs that could indicate someone is being trafficked. Some things that could be indicators are: if a person responds to questions as if they have been coached, if a person is not in possession of his or her identification documents, if the person is timid, fearful or submissive, if a person is not free to come and go as they please or if a person has unusually long work hours and doesn't make much money.
Authorities stress that in a case of suspected trafficking, do not try to intervene, call the authorities or the National Trafficking Hotline at, 1-888-373-7888. Or text HELP to: BeFree (233733).