Advocates: Better vigilance, being a little nosy can help sex-trafficking victims
By Corinne Saunders
Wednesday, January 30, 2019
Editor’s note: This story is the last in a series.
When it comes to ensuring children don’t fall victim to sex-trafficking, Tanya Street’s advice to parents is similar to what they might hear if they were trying to keep their kids from using illegal drugs or joining street gangs.
“My advice is, know where your child is,” Street advises in the 2016 documentary film, “In Plain Sight: Human Trafficking.” If a child says they’re going to their friend Samantha’s house for the weekend, “Check on Samantha,” Street says.
Street, a sex-trafficking survivor and adviser to The Beloved Haven, a Currituck-based agency that helps sex-trafficking survivors, says checking to ensure teens are where they say they are isn’t unreasonable, particularly since some sex-trafficking of minors takes place on weekends.
Warning signs that a child might in fact be a sex-trafficking victim include “they’re overtired all of a sudden or their grades drop dramatically,” Street said.
Hope, another sex-trafficking survivor who lives in Elizabeth City, says another warning sign of sex-trafficking that people, particularly medical professionals, should look for in potential victims are constant tests for sexually transmitted diseases.
Hope, who asked that her real name not be used for this story, said that when she was being sexually trafficked in the region, she “had to get tested all the time” because “I’d always have an STD.”
“I was at the health department every two months, (and) was positive every time; no one asked why,” she said.
Trips to the health department or other medical facilities are actually a potential window of escape for sex-trafficking victims, Hope said.
“You have a brief moment in time to reach out to them” when their trafficker is not there, Hope said. The only other potential window for escape is when sex-trafficking victims encounter law enforcement for petty crimes or drug use, she said.
“If a police officer does catch them, you have a moment to try to help them,” she said. “Otherwise, you’re not going to come across them.”
Street says she’d like to see law enforcement work a lot closer with sex-trafficking survivors. She believes it could have real impact stopping the crime.
“Law enforcement should really bring them in to help with ideas on how to attract traffickers, (and) how to understand the mindset of traffickers,” she said.
Victims understand traffickers’ mindset, and officers learning “how they move and how they think can be so helpful,” said Street, who has conducted numerous training sessions on human trafficking for law enforcement agencies since 2012.
Besides police, persons working in medical services, the hotel industry or for social service agencies are the most likely to encounter human-trafficking victims, said Michael Lewis, director of Outer Banks Hotline. Hotel workers, for example, may see “a room that different people are going in and out of,” he said. If they see something that seems unusual, they need to speak up and report it, he said.
“If you see something, say something,” Lewis said.
Tina Pennington, founder of The Beloved Haven, said one place law enforcement, counselors, and the public at large can “look deeper” for potential sex-trafficking is among those addicted to illegal drugs.
“Wherever there are drugs, we know there are other things that are following,” Pennington said.
Kathy Ballance, executive director of Hyde County Hotline, notes that “every community has problems that aren’t comfortable,” and sex trafficking is obviously a problem a lot of people are not comfortable talking about. That’s why banding together and proactively addressing the issue is key, she said.
“Making a decision to work together toward safer villages, towns and cities is a smart decision and places value on the lives of every citizen, whether they are directly or indirectly victimized,” Ballance said.
Hyde County Hotline recently received a $50,000 grant from the North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission to provide services to victims in Hyde County. However, because of the “nature of the human trafficking epidemic,” Ballance believes victims from other area counties could benefit from the services as well. Her organization is hiring an advocate who she says will focus on identifying and serving victims of trafficking..
Hyde County Hotline already works closely with Outer Banks Hotline and The Beloved Haven, and together, they also hope to create a “regional response team” to better serve victims, Ballance said. The Beloved Haven also plans to build a safe house for sex-trafficking victims. The nonprofit also has held numerous training sessions on human trafficking that have been attended by local service providers, community members, victim advocates and law enforcement officials.
Hope, who was able to escape her life as a sex-trafficking victim with Pennington’s help, also wants to help. She’s earned a phlebotomy diploma and will receive her associate degree in medical assisting from College of The Albemarle in May. She plans to use her degree working in a medical field where she believes she’s likely to encounter young women trapped in her former situation.
“I want to work somewhere where I’ll encounter these girls,” Hope said. “Because I’ve been through it, I’ll know what to look for. I want to help. ... These girls (who are victims) are getting younger and younger.”
Members of the public can always call law enforcement if they think someone is the victim of sex trafficking, said Gail Hutchison, a victim’s advocate for the Dare County Sheriff’s Office.
“The best scenario is (the victim’s having a bad day, (but) you might be saving someone’s life,” she said.
For more information about sex-trafficking, visit www.belovedhaven.org, Street’s website at http://identifiableme.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.