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What can stop human trafficking in Charlotte?
August 27, 2012
Human trafficking is an issue often separated in our minds by thousands of miles and millions of GDP dollars. Despite generally being considered a "third world problem," the illegal trade of selling and buying women, men and children is happening here in North Carolina. And although estimates of those trafficked through the area are incomplete due to the secretive nature of the illicit market, our state consistently ranks in the top ten of U.S. states most likely to be subversively riddled with human trafficking, according to the Polaris Project’s data. As an international hub and major highway intersection between Miami, Atlanta and D.C., Charlotte is home to all kinds of international and domestic sex and labor trafficking.
But in Charlotte’s fight against human trafficking, there’s a lot standing in the way of prevention, rescue and recovery. Addressing our community’s general unawareness and destructive stigmas is the next step toward taking action against the growing trafficking problem in the Queen City.
Awareness: It’s happening here.
“It’s happening in your backyard,” Sarah* of United Family Services reports. “The main thing that deters people from acting, other than stigma, is thinking that it’s not happening here and that it only happens in other countries. But that is just not true.” (*Name has been changed to protect the identities of victims of human trafficking and those who work with them)
United Family Services is a Charlotte nonprofit that provides services to individuals and families in crisis, including victim assistance in cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, violent crimes and child abuse as well as human trafficking. Sarah works with UFS as a direct link between victims and the services they need, like shelter, counseling and protective services.
In the past two years, Sarah says, the public’s knowledge of local trafficking has increased from nearly nothing to a growing number of individuals and organizations looking for ways to help. But she recognizes that most people still don’t know this is a local problem.
The U.S. nonprofit Polaris Project provides what little public records there are on human trafficking. Of the 326 North Carolinian calls made in 2011 to the National Human Trafficking Hotline – the Polaris Project’s toll-free hotline that receives and relays tips to law enforcement, aids victims, and educates the public – 56 of the callers were from Charlotte. And it’s not just foreign nationals being trafficked; of the 27 victims referenced in last year’s calls, 8 were U.S. citizens. Nationally, the nonprofit estimates that 100,000 - 300,000 U.S. children are currently being trafficked within the domestic sex trade.
But looking past the limited to nonexistent numbers of reported victims – women and men who are often misidentified as prostitutes and victims of domestic violence – authorities know there is unfortunately much more going on beneath the surface of these incomplete statistics. Human trafficking in Charlotte was a significant enough issue to lead the FBI to establish a task force in Charlotte dedicated wholly to trafficking crimes. The problem also influenced the establishment of the North Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force, which has several government and nonprofit members working within the city. And the collaboration of these advocates and government agents has led to rescues. One such success occurred in May of 2011 when a call from a Charlottean to the National Human Trafficking Hotline led the FBI to rescue a victim of sex trafficking and arrest her exploiter.
Sarah has personally seen as many as five victims of human trafficking in her work with UFS, and she expects that many of the other 100 employees of UFS have seen just as many, if not more. But numbers aren’t important to those who work to stop human trafficking.
“One is too many,” Sarah simply states.
Stigmas: Don’t be too quick to judge.
Neet Childs, a local survivor of human trafficking, was exploited at 16 and trafficked into prostitution in her home city of Charlotte. She was trafficked by a man twice her age who showered her with attention and gifts until the day he betrayed her trust by exploiting her. But by that point, his web of manipulation and lies were as effective as chains in keeping her under his control and bringing Neet into local sex trafficking.
For years, Neet was trapped in the illegal sex trade of North Carolina by manipulation, hopelessness and the pressure to support her mother and sister from a young age. But in 2006, all of that changed when a man looked beyond the stigmas that came with her position and reached out to offer her the encouragement and hope that eventually gave Neet the confidence to rescue herself from trafficking. After a four-year recovery, Neet now owns a bakery, Neet’s Sweets, and teaches her skills to other women who have been trafficked while also using her services as a platform to advocate for victims who cannot speak for themselves.
But harmful stigmas against those willingly or unwillingly participating in the commercial sex trade affect the way many see the women Neet has dedicated her life to helping.
“I think people forget that nobody wakes up saying they want to be a prostitute or caught up in trafficking,” Neet says. “There are a lot of things that come before the trafficking presents itself. They may not know their self-worth; they may be looking for acceptance and guidance and love; they may have been mistreated when they were younger. And that carried on with them through this lifestyle of being exploited.”
For Neet, the basic need for support and love transcends race, social class, gender and age and is one of the most significant reasons everyone should educate themselves and others about human trafficking. Misconceptions about whom trafficking happens to, including the common stereotypes of foreign nationals and girls from poor or broken families, may be keeping many in Charlotte from recognizing and aiding human trafficking victims.
“I feel that some people don’t get over their stigmas until it happens to someone they know, unfortunately,” Neet says. “Once people recognize that this could be anybody, then it will be addressed.”
The devastation human trafficking brings upon a city and its residents is apparent. Trafficking is not only a major violation of basic human rights, but the illegal trade is often tied to drug rings. Large events held in Charlotte, such as sports games and the upcoming DNC, become more of a challenge to control with organized crime rings in play. The large influx of people is a lucrative lure to traffickers of both people and drugs, making the months before such large events the most pressing time to educate our community about trafficking.
“[Human trafficking] is an important issue because it affects everyone whether you think it does or not,” Sarah says. “It’s a huge humanitarian issue. It presents significant safety issues for a community. It’s also something you need to know about just to keep safe.”
But most importantly, it’s a crisis because there are people living in Charlotte who are having their most basic right to freedom taken away from them, and it’s up to our community to stop this.
Help: What you can do
The Polaris Hotline is available at 1-888-3737-888 any time of the day or night in 72 languages. The nonprofit organization is available for questions, tips and can even activate task forces in crises. It only takes one tip to bring down a trafficking ring.
Tell someone about human trafficking, and then challenge them to tell someone. The more people who know, the better.
Learn the signs and report suspicious activity. Often trafficking is hidden in plain sight and not what you think it might look like, but the warning signs can often still be observed. There is often a controlling third-party involved in a victim’s life; mental health signals like fearfulness or anxiety; signs of malnourishment, abuse or neglect; strange and demanding work hours; and constant traffic in and out of his/her house. Trafficking can happen in any area of Charlotte.
Know who is vulnerable. Although children are often at highest risk of being trafficked, a large number of those who are taken into sex trafficking are between the ages of 18-24. For labor trafficking, it can range anywhere from children to elderly adults. Neet encourages adults to become involved in the lives of young men and women and address their insecurities and needs before someone else takes advantage of them.
Support nonprofits who dedicate themselves to preventing, rescuing and assisting victims of human trafficking. And to Neet, survivor-based programs are especially essential.
“If you don’t understand how to help someone who’s been through that trauma and pain, it’s going to make it hard for you to really help them,” Neet says. “By supporting survivors and survivor-based organizations, you’re helping us to help them with support, resources and encouragement. Seeing a survivor make it out encourages them and gives them hope.”
Organizations that work to end human trafficking in Charlotte have spent months before the DNC educating service providers, like hotel, health care and law enforcement workers, on what to look for during large events that might point to trafficking. But understanding that what you do about human trafficking can change the lives of those in modern-day slavery in our city is perhaps the most powerful tool.
“[Victims] need to know that people care, that there is help and that people are learning about it,” Sarah says. “I think it gives hope to the whole problem in general just for even one person to learn a little bit more about what human trafficking is.”
For more information on United Family Services, visit www.unitedfamilyservices.org. For more information on Neet’s Sweets, visit www.NeetsSweets.com. For more information on the Polaris Project and National Human Trafficking Hotline, visit www.PolarisProject.org.