Advocates: Sex trafficking more common than known

Rhonda Morris snapshot.jpg

Rhonda Morris


By Corinne Saunders

Monday, January 28, 2019

Editor’s note: Second in a series

While local law enforcement officials say human trafficking isn’t a common problem in Elizabeth City and state arrest data suggest it isn’t, local victim service providers paint a different picture of the crime’s prevalence in the area.

“We have children who have been trafficked,” said Rhonda Morris, who is in her 20th year as executive director of Kids First. “This is something that has been going on for many, many years.”

Kids First provides comprehensive services to victims of sexual abuse, ages 18 and younger, in seven area counties. The nonprofit served 270 new children last year, up from 253 the year before, and an average of between 210 and 225 several years before that.

Morris said at least 3 percent of all children Kids First serves each year are sex-trafficking victims. That’s about eight children a year.

“I think there are children who have been trafficked that we don’t know (they have been),” she said.

The U.S. Department of Justice defines human trafficking as a crime “that involves exploiting a person for labor, services or commercial sex.” Citing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, DOJ defines sex trafficking as a “commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion,” or where the “person induced to perform the act” isn’t 18 years old.

While the sex-trafficking victims seen by Kids First come from all counties the agency serves, most live in Elizabeth City, Morris said.

“You have a larger population in Pasquotank County, so of course you’re going to have the most coming from there,” she said. “This is a hot spot for drugs and gang activity, and that’s where that activity is going to be as well.”

One girl the nonprofit served had been trafficked since age 3, while others trafficked have included preteens and young teenagers, Morris said.

Traffickers typically lure older children via the internet, while younger children are trafficked by family members.

“Those are going to be the hardest to identify, (those cases where the victim is) in a family and being trafficked,” Morris said.

Investigations prompted by reports from persons outside the family have turned up the youngest victims she’s seen.

“It’s almost a fluke that somebody had that suspicion and reported (the ones we’ve had),” Morris noted. “Those children are so incredibly vulnerable and powerless, so they’re the easiest to hide.”

Trafficking ‘not new’

The Elizabeth City-based nonprofit Albemarle Hopeline, which serves adult domestic violence and sexual assault victims, has also worked with sex-trafficking victims.

Courtney Cottrell, who has worked in victim services for nearly a decade and who took over as Albemarle Hopeline’s executive director earlier this month, echoed Morris’ sentiments: Trafficking in Elizabeth City “is not new,” she said.

When compared to victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, sex trafficking victims “have a much, much higher level of trauma,” Cottrell said.

One Albemarle Hopeline’s biggest challenges with sex-trafficking victims is helping them overcome their drug addiction — an addiction usually forced by traffickers as a controlling device.

“We have to address the drug addiction before we can start therapy,” Cottrell said, noting it takes “intensive, intensive therapy to recover from that trauma.”

People on the outside may only see a drug addict or prostitute, but “it’s about the power and control that’s being extended over the victims” that may not be visible, she noted.

“The market for human trafficking is tremendous because it’s a commodity that can be sold over and over,” Cottrell said. Guns and other items can only be sold once, but traffickers sell people repeatedly, she continued.

“A victim is a victim to us; I think we can agree one is too many,” Cottrell said.

Why traffickers active here

Tanya Street is an outspoken sex trafficking survivor and adviser to The Beloved Haven, a nonprofit in Currituck County that works with sex-trafficking victims. She says she’s “absolutely” met current and former victims of sex trafficking from northeastern North Carolina, and believes sex trafficking is more of a problem here than many realize.

“Your area in particular is a tourist area, and people are looking to relax,” she said. “As a male, one of the things you do is buy sex, because it’s always available. Traffickers, because they’re business people, meet the demand. The demand for labor is high in North Carolina, and the demand for cheap labor is even higher.”

Construction and agriculture industries “intersect” when it comes to labor and sex trafficking, explains Street, a member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking and a policy champion on the National Survivor Network’s Policy Leadership Team. She also notes that cleaning services and nannies are also jobs where persons are regularly trafficked.

“Pimps are very intuitive, and you know it’s a money-making business for them,” Street said. “They are serious about their money.”

Street, who lives in the Hampton Roads, Virginia, area, was lured into sex trafficking at age 18.

“My son was just a few months old when I started, so the pimp had night care for kids,” Street said in the 2016 documentary film, “In Plain Sight: Human Trafficking.” Her voice cracked with emotion as she repeated, “They had night care for kids, so we would drop our kids off.”

Why victims don’t come forward

Street never reported her situation to police, which is apparently common among sex-trafficking victims.

“You may not even know your trafficker because they hide,” Street explained. “Some of it (trafficking going unreported) is out of fear for their life (and) some people just want to move on with their lives without feeling the threat.”

Traffickers are rarely caught “because they’re smart; they understand the business,” Street said. “A lot of traffickers have people who work for them. They work behind the scenes. They make sure they cover themselves.”

Street knew who her trafficker was, “but I didn’t know his name, any information about him (or) where he lived.”

There’s an additional reason why victims don’t identify their traffickers, Street says. Many are forced by their traffickers to commit crimes they feel they’ll be held responsible for if they come forward, she said.

“You never have victims self-identify,” said Tina Pennington, founder of The Beloved Haven.

Victims’ thinking is usually, “Well, he did let me live with him, he gave me clothes … so no, I’m not really a victim; I agreed to this. It was the least I could do.”

And because traffickers generally prey on the vulnerable, it can be a difficult for victims to even realize they are in fact a victim, Pennington said.

“That’s their boyfriend, and they have plans to one day get married and live the life he’s promised,” she said. “You’re telling somebody who’s maybe been in this situation from the time they’re 5 or 6 years old that this isn’t normal; this isn’t what love looks like.”

For more information about sex trafficking, visit www.belovedhaven.org, Street’s website at http://identifiableme.org , https://humantraffickinghotline.org/state/north-carolina and In Plain Sight: Human Trafficking at www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0MeBhjjugE.