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Road for sex trafficking runs through the Albemarle

Beloved Haven
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Tina Pennington (standing) talks about sex trafficking during a presentation at the Riversedge meeting house in Moyock. Pennington is the founder and president of The Beloved Haven, a group working to combat trafficking across northeastern North Carolina.

061516HumanTrafficking2
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By Corinne Saunders
Correspondent

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Editor’s note: January is National Slavery & Human Trafficking Prevention Month. To highlight the problem of sex trafficking, The Daily Advance begins a series of stories today looking at its impact in the Albemarle region. 

Hope was 6 years old the first time she was sold.

“I remember every part of that, when I was 6,” the 26-year-old former sex trafficking victim says. “I replay it in my head down to what I ate.”

Hope, which is not her real name, recalls that her dad was in the military then and her mom “wasn’t stable at the time.” As a result, Hope spent her childhood bouncing from one caregiver to another, from one state to the next.

When she was 6, Hope says one of her caregivers allowed a man to pay to have sex with her. She said she told her dad about what happened but he didn’t believe her.

Hope ended up moving with her dad to Elizabeth City as a pre-teen, and at 17, found a boyfriend who she thought could provide her all the affection she’d been craving.

“He was the first person to say, ‘It wasn’t your fault,’” Hope recalls the boyfriend saying to her about what had happened when she was with the caregiver.

Soon, however, it was the boyfriend who started selling Hope to others while she was still a minor, threatening her, forcing her to use drugs or face a beating, and manipulating her so she wouldn’t leave.

When the boyfriend posted her availability online, Hope claims he included “code words” on Craigslist and other websites that let those logging on know she was underage.

“He was able to charge more money that way. Some men just paid $400 just to look,” Hope says.

Unfortunately, Hope’s story is not so unusual, even here in northeastern North Carolina. She’s one of dozens of young women, teens and adolescents who are victims of sex trafficking. A hidden crime that destroys lives and futures, sex trafficking persists, for the most part, undetected.

Victims, however, have gained important resources through area agencies that provide help, counseling and perhaps most importantly, hope. 

When she was 22, Hope was able to regain control of her life with the help of Tina Pennington, founder of The Beloved Haven, a Moyock-based nonprofit dedicated to helping sex trafficking victims.

“(Pennington) was the first person who reached out and actually cared — the first person who didn’t want to turn a blind eye,” Hope said. “If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t have left (my boyfriend trafficker). I probably would be dead by now.”

Sex traffickers often force victims to take illegal drugs. Heroin is the drug of choice because its user is immediately addicted, Pennington said. “It’s like a carrot: Do this, get your fix.”

Hope said she and her trafficker fought many times about her using heroin. She took other drugs he forced her to take, but she repeatedly refused to take heroin, despite the guaranteed beatings.

“That’s probably the greatest blessing of all — she was able to walk away from it all without having to deal with that,” Pennington said. “She still had her mind.”

Help from The Beloved Haven

Hope is one of 12 sex trafficking victims who have reached out to Pennington since The Beloved Haven was founded about four years ago. The organization has been able to provide direct services to three victims. The others decided they were not yet ready to leave their traffickers, or their window of opportunity to do so closed, Pennington said.

“The majority of the calls that we’ve received have come from Elizabeth City,” she said.

While focused on the seven counties in northeastern North Carolina, Pennington said The Beloved Haven is willing to help both women and men who’ve been trafficked anywhere in the region.

“The trafficking industry is fueled by money and power,” Pennington explained. “Those are the buyers,” referring to people with money and power. “It’s a known fact that if you go to any other country and ask who’s buying sex, it’s Americans, because they have money.”

It’s hard for trafficking victims to reach out to police for help, not only because of their troubled lives and their likely drug use, but also because prominent persons are often those purchasing the services of sex-trafficking victims, Hope says.

“How can you reach out when they’re the ones making it worse?” she asked. “A lot of the men I was with had a lot of strong ties to the community.”

Hope said it’s easy to become jaded — to become convinced that no one in a position of authority cares what happens to you.  

Judges see trafficking victims “in front of their face all the time getting drug charges, getting theft charges,” she said. They think, “Oh, here’s just another abuser in Elizabeth City. No one’s asking.”

A hidden crime

According to the Elizabeth City Police Department, the agency has arrested three persons on prostitution-related charges in the past three years. Two persons were charged with misdemeanor prostitution and one with misdemeanor aiding and abetting prostitution. The most recent arrest for prostitution was in November 2016.

Through interviews, city police concluded “none of those persons charged had any connection to human trafficking,” according to an email from police Chief Eddie Buffaloe and Deputy Chief James Avens.

“At this time, we have no documented cases, complaints or information pointing toward human trafficking in the city,” Buffaloe and Avens said.

Statewide, human trafficking also isn’t a crime that results in a lot of arrests.

In 2018, law enforcement officials across North Carolina filed only 179 charges against 89 defendants for crimes that included human trafficking, sexual servitude or involuntary servitude, according to N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts data. Those charges resulted in only 15 convictions.

Cumberland County law enforcement, including the Fayetteville Police Department, filed the most human trafficking-related charges by far in 2018. Law enforcement officials filed 48 charges against 34 defendants in the county. Wake County, which has triple Cumberland's population, reported the second-most human trafficking-related charges in 2018: 33 against 15 defendants.

In a Jan. 19 story in the Fayetteville Observer, Cumberland District Attorney Billy West attributed the large number of arrests in the county to a local task force focused on human trafficking — one of the few in the state, he noted.

Despite the larger number of arrests, however, only four convictions for human trafficking were reported in Cumberland and just two were reported in Wake, according to the AoC data. There were no charges filed for human trafficking in any county in Northeastern North Carolina.

For more information about human trafficking, visit www.belovedhaven.org, https://humantraffickinghotline.org/state/north-carolina , an overview of Children’s Advocacy Centers of North Carolina at https://vimeo.com/311172201 , and In Plain Sight: Human Trafficking at www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0MeBhjjugE .

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