January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. As Exploit No More works to bring awareness to the issue of child sex trafficking in new sectors of our community, we’ve encountered an important question: “Does community awareness even matter?”
To answer the question, we reached out to our colleague, Regina Labby. Regina recently served as the Resident Director for a nationally-recognized safe home for domestic minor sex trafficking victims, is a long-time advocate for human trafficking survivors, and has provided critical training to aftercare programs across the country. As a survivor-informed advocate for trafficking victims, here are some of her thoughts on why awareness matters:
Ever go to the mall? To church? Drive on the highway? Go grocery shopping? Purchase gas? Eat at a restaurant? Go to the park? Go into a school?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are on the frontlines of outreach to survivors of human trafficking.
Many people think that if you are not doing outreach at strip clubs or working in a safe house for survivors of trafficking, you need not educate yourself to the issue of human trafficking. Those who are educated in human trafficking trends would suggest that doctors, police officers, and medical professionals are on the front lines. And they are on the front lines, but so are everyday people who do everyday things.
In fact, I would argue that everyday people are more on the front lines of interacting with survivors of trafficking because victims do not have the same guards up when talking to a waitress as they do with the doctor, whom they would be accompanied by their trafficker or some other person who holds control and reports to the trafficker. A trafficker is more likely to send a survivor into the gas station alone to pay for gas than he/she is likely to allow them to appear in court alone. Traffickers keep close watch over situations where trained professionals might be able to identify their victims and thus intervene. Traffickers typically are not threatened by everyday people.
While it is possible, it is less common that a survivor of trafficking is locked up in a room and unable to communicate or interact with the “outside world.”
Generally speaking, interactions with the “outside world” are limited and closely supervised by the trafficker but still possible. In my experience working directly with domestic minors of sex trafficking, all of them had direct contact with the “outside world”. Most of them visited the doctor at least once when they were trafficked, went to the mall on occasion, went to school at least some of the time, and walked around outside, in bars, clubs, or on the streets. None of these experiences required a professional outreach worker to intervene and make a difference.
All it would have taken was for another patient at the doctor’s office to be educated, notice, and call the police. If a parent had noticed that her child’s classmate came to school with expensive clothing and electronics but yet had no means to acquire them, perhaps she could have intervened and asked questions. If a patron at a bar had noticed the branding on one of the other customers, he could have asked questions or observed the situation and then called the National Human Trafficking Hotline to take action.
None of these people needed professional degrees to identify the survivors.
All they needed was a little bit of education and awareness to identify that they may have interacted with a survivor of trafficking and the courage to contact authorities who could properly intervene. These everyday people were on the frontlines and they didn’t know it. What made these everyday people part of the front lines? The fact that they were everyday people.
To find out more on how to identify a survivor of trafficking, visit http://www.state.gov/j/tip/id/. To report a tip, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733).