One of the most difficult aspects of educating people about human trafficking is getting them to believe it’s happening at all.
“The issue is many people say, ‘That doesn’t happen here,’” said Celia McIntosh, Chair of the Rochester Regional Coalition Against Human Trafficking (RRCAHT). “It happens everywhere; what makes you think for one second it’s not going to happen in Penfield, East Rochester or Victor?”
Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center has received 36,000 reports of human trafficking, and 5,000 of these calls came from New York alone, McIntosh said.
It’s not just New York City skewing the numbers either. In 2017, 294 youth were referred to the Center for Youth, which works with several community organizations to screen for potential human trafficking victims and offers programs and resources to youth in dangerous situations. Of those referred, 62 individuals were confirmed victims of human trafficking according to Valerie Douglas, Director of the Runaway, Homeless and Counseling Programs at Center for Youth.
Douglas also oversees the Safe Harbour program, which is designed to help youth victims of human trafficking.
Human trafficking is a highly underreported and underrecognized crime, according to Douglas, Spaull and McIntosh, meaning these numbers, though they may look high, should be higher.
That goes for all surrounding areas as well. Elaine Spaull, executive director of the Center for Youth and a council member for the East District of the City of Rochester, explained the higher numbers Monroe County typically reports compared to surrounding counties don’t necessarily mean other counties are experiencing human trafficking at lower rates.
“It’s not that Monroe County has a worse problem than so many other counties; we’re just very good at identifying it,” Spaull said. “We’re not worse, we’re better at identifying and responding. There may be other counties reporting small numbers, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening there.”
Who gets trafficked?
Both the RRCAHT and the Center for Youth are focused on educating Rochester and surrounding communities, and the first step in this is making sure people understand it is indeed happening.
“You’re not going to recognize it because you’re not looking for it because you don’t think it’s here,” McIntosh said. “If it’s on the news, if we formed a coalition, if we’re educating people, you need to step back and say, ‘What are the signs?’”
After that, it’s all about informing people about who is at risk for human trafficking and how someone can recognize a potential trafficking victim.
Youth, especially female youth, are most often subjected to trafficking. Younger people are typically easier to “groom.” Traffickers gain their trust and also teach them certain habits, overall making them more submissive. This is often coupled with drugs or abuse.
Traffickers also target youth who are marginalized, like poor youth, youth in foster care, LGBT youth and more. However, it’s important to understand, McIntosh said, that trafficking can occur and does occur with all men, women and children.
“People become more vulnerable if they’ve had trauma, prior sexual abuses, are homeless, lack social support and relationships,” McIntosh said.
While RRCAHT focuses primarily on educating the community, Center for Youth works directly with at-risk youth. Every child connected with Child Protective Services (CPS) or any child that triggers a red flag at school for being homeless or in a potentially dangerous situation, trafficking related or not, is referred to the Center for Youth. When they’re referred, the center relies on a number of indicators to determine whether they show signs of being trafficked or at-risk of being trafficked.
From there, Douglas said the goal is to create an open and trusting relationship through texting, phone calls, email, or face-to-face meetings without appearing judgemental and without setting rules.
Spaull said this means supporting the young person and being there to listen rather than push, even if they end up going back to their trafficker or don’t want help initially:
“Let’s say a young person is working with us and they decide they’re going to go back (to the trafficker), a lot of agencies say, “Well we’re done with you. You didn’t’ do what you said.’ The Center for Youth continues to be that one place where a young person is told ‘We’ve still got your back.’”
Even for those who do believe human trafficking is happening in their towns, they may be misled by other misconceptions. For example, McIntosh said often people believe they’ll recognize someone who’s been trafficked immediately, or that the person will reach out to help.
“No one is going to run up to you and say, ‘Hey, I’m a trafficking victim and I need help,” McIntosh said. “They don’t typically view themselves as victims.”
However, there are potential signs someone is being trafficked, like someone who doesn’t have things like their own ID (if they would reasonably have one at that age), someone who isn’t sure of what state they’re in, someone who has odd brandings or tattoos, someone who isn’t in control of their own money, etc. For youth, their trafficker is often an older boyfriend or girlfriend and they may be affiliated with gangs as well.
Another common misconception is youth and children are trafficked after being snatched off the street by a stranger. McIntosh explained most traffickers are adults or older teens that youth know. Additionally, McIntosh estimated around 50 percent of traffickers are women. Family members may traffic children when they’re in particularly tough situations.
McIntosh also said it’s important to recognize trafficking occurs as a part of a much larger, broken system that allows for it.
“It doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” McIntosh said. “There are other issues you need to advocate change for: violence against women, inequality in our systems.”
McIntosh went on, stating human trafficking wouldn’t occur at all if there wasn’t a market for trafficked services, like human sex trafficking to fulfill demand for prostitutes or slave labor to satisfy the demand for cheap labor.
Finally, Douglas said there’s a misconception that victims of human trafficking will be endlessly thankful once they’re rescued, but this is rarely the case. Often, victims of human trafficking have created bonds with their traffickers through the grooming process or are related. They may actually be angry after being rescued, but Douglas said it’s all part of the coping process.
“You get systems and service providers and parents who get burned out and frustrated because a teenager is a teenager, and just because you figured out the trafficking doesn’t mean they’re going to be pleasant and happy about it,” Douglas explained. “But the research shows the majority of (teens) wishes they never got involved with the trafficker in the first place, so even if they aren’t thankful in the moment, down the road they’ll wish it hadn’t happen.”
How you can help:
- Educate yourself and others about human trafficking, sex trafficking, youth trafficking and more
- Then, work on educating others on signs they should look for in their own children and in strangers they interact with
- Report suspected signs of trafficking to the proper authorities, such as the police if you don’t know the individual
- If you think your child or a child you know is a victim of trafficking, you can refer them to the Center for Youth
- Donate to organizations like the RRCAHT and the Center for Youth to allow them to pay more liaisons to help
- Volunteer with community organizations fighting against human trafficking