Though often seen as an urban issue, human trafficking is also prevalent in rural areas, said Beth Bullock, director of advocacy at REACH for Tomorrow and ambassador for Shared Hope International, an organization dedicated to eradicating human trafficking around the world.
“Human trafficking is just as much a problem in rural America as it is in the inner city,” Bullock said. “People just don’t know what they’re looking at. If you notice that a man in his 50s who you know lives down the street and you notice a young girl, depending on your perception of her, you could assume that she’s his granddaughter; you could assume a lot of things. If you don’t really interact with her and you don’t really see what’s coming and going, how do you know it’s not his granddaughter coming to visit? You don’t because you don’t know what you’re looking for.”
Bullock first interacted with victims of human trafficking while trying to help people, a large number of whom were women, struggling with substance use find treatment programs.
“I didn’t really know anything about trafficking — I thought trafficking was like the movie ‘Taken’ or it was in other countries,” Bullock said. “As I started hearing stories from these girls, I started to get a better picture of what trafficking really is. These dough boys, drug dealers, pimps — they know they can take advantage of women who are in addiction, and if they dangle that drug over their head, they can get them to do whatever they want them to do.
“That’s just one facet of trafficking. Unless you work in it or really educate yourself, we’re just complicit. We don’t know what it looks like; we don’t know what it really is.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security states, “Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”
According to Bullock, when traffickers employ force, they may use physical restraint or harm, confinement to a location, and rape to control their victims; fraud can include false promises of employment, love or a better life; and coercion can include psychological manipulation and document confiscation but could also be any scheme, plan or pattern intended to cause their victims to believe that failure to perform an act would result in restraint against them and fear-inducing threats to share information or pictures with others or report to authorities.
Early in her work with victims of human trafficking, Bullock said she spoke to a woman whose boyfriend forced her to work at a strip club against her wishes. The woman indicated that he would beat her if she didn’t. Her boyfriend also took any money she made.
Each year, human trafficking brings in around $150 billion in revenue, Bullock said, and traffickers typically view human trafficking as a relatively low-risk method that offers high profits because victims are generally unwilling to come forward or may not even realize they’re being trafficked.
“In order to charge someone, you need to have a victim,” Bullock said. “The majority of victims walk away with their traffickers because they don’t understand what’s happening to them because they’ve been groomed to a point to believe that this person has their best interests in mind and cares about them.”
In order to better respond to human trafficking, Bullock encourages teachers and administration in schools, members of faith-based organizations, and community members to educate themselves on human trafficking through research and training courses.
Bullock has worked with administrators, counselors, teachers and students at schools like Paint Valley. Once faculty and staff began learning about human trafficking, Bullock said they were able to develop protocols to use in the event students were victims of human trafficking.
“It’s not something where you go, ‘Ding, ding, ding, we’ve got a trafficking victim over here. We need to have a group meeting.’ You just can’t do that,” Bullock said. “It has to be very discrete, very quiet. You have to understand that if that’s a kid in a school, they don’t even know what’s happening to them is trafficking because that’s their life, that’s what they’re used to, and that’s normal.”
To protect children against human trafficking, Bullock recommended building a safe place at home or in classrooms where children can speak comfortably and without judgment.
“We have to start young — teaching personal boundaries, what’s OK and not OK, who’s your safe circle of people, are you allowed to say ‘no’ to an adult?” Bullock said. “We don’t teach kids very early on that they have choices, they control their bodies and what happens to their bodies, and they have the power to say ‘no,’ and their ‘no’ is valid.”
Preteens and teens are at risk, but adults — both men and women — can also be victims of human trafficking.
According to Bullock, the top five risk factors for human trafficking are recent migration or relocation, substance use, runaway and homeless youth, mental health concern, and involvement in the child welfare system. Bullock added that familial trafficking, where parents or other family members living in addiction traffic children, is much bigger than many people realize.
“If you have people in your community, you have trafficking in your community,” Bullock said. “Is that to say everyone needs to be terrified? No. Are you going to see it? Possibly not, but if we aren’t educating ourselves about what human trafficking is and what it looks like and we miss it, that might be the only opportunity that person has to get out.
“No one is exempted from becoming a victim of human trafficking. Be aware of your surroundings, and educate yourself.”
For help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text “BeFree” to 233-733. If you’re experiencing an emergency, call 911.
REACH for Tomorrow is hosting a training course entitled “Children of Trauma and Resilience” on June 27. The session will be presented in Chillicothe as well as online. Anyone is welcome to take the training course, which is one of the courses required to obtain a clinical Starr Commonwealths Certified Trauma Practitioner certification.
For more information or to register, visit http://www.reachfortomorrowohio.org/training—conferences.html.
Potential grooming and/or child sex trafficking warning signs, according to Shared Hope International:
* Signs of physical abuse, such as burns, marks, bruises or cuts.
* Unexplained absence from school; truancy.
* Sudden inappropriate dress or sexualized behavior.
* Overly tired in class or unable to keep up with studies.
* Withdrawn, depressed, or distracted.
* Bragging about making or having lots of money.
* Displays expensive clothes, accessories, shoes, or new tattoo(s), which are often used by pimps to brand victims.
* Older boyfriend, new friends with a different lifestyle, or gang affiliations/involvement.
* Disjointed family connections, running away, living with friends, or experiencing homelessness.
* Interacting and sharing personal information with sometimes significantly older people online.
* Constant cover-up for abuser, self-shaming/blaming.
* Risk-taking behaviors, poor boundaries.
According to Shared Hope International, traffickers often exhibit these behaviors or characteristics:
* Jealous, controlling or violent.
* Significantly older than female companions.
* Promise things that seem to be too good to be true.
* Is vague about his/her profession.
* Takes time to learn a child’s hopes and dreams and exploits their weaknesses.
* Encourage victims to engage in illegal activities to achieve their goals and dreams.
* May not become sexual or forceful until trust is built.
* Encourages inappropriate sexual behavior.
* Pushy or demanding about sex.
* Expresses financial difficulties to make victim feel obligated.
* Accompanies and translates for, or speaks for, victim at school or medical appointments.
* Befriends a child online through social media, gaming or apps that provide private communications.
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.