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Human Trafficking: The Silent Secret

We hear stories of people in far away places or in times long ago, people who were taken from their homes. Kidnapped, these stolen victims are forced into service, into manual labor or the sex trade. We hear the stories, but it often feels so distant, so removed from our local community. Yet the reality is that human trafficking is very real, very present, and right in our backdoor. Recently a news story “Selling Innocence: Human Trafficking Along the I-90 Corridor” identified how Erie is a prime location for traffickers, and a constant battle for law enforcement agencies and community organizations trying to save victims from modern day slavery.

Human trafficking has been defined by the Department of Homeland Security as “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” Millions of people across the globe are trafficked every year. Each year between 17,500 and 60,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. and hundreds of thousands are trafficked within the United States. Traffickers use many tactics, such as violence or the threat of violence, force, false promises, fraud, manipulation, coercion, and romantic relationships to lure victims. Traffickers may use physical or emotional abuse, threats, isolation from friends or family, and financial abuse. Victims often become trapped into slavery for many reasons, such as fear for their physical safety or the freedom and safety of loved ones. They may also be trapped because of shame, emotional attachment, and psychological trauma.

People who are trafficked can come from any nationality, age, gender, or race. However, some people are more vulnerable than others. Risk factors for becoming a trafficking victim include substance use, mental health issues, children in the child welfare system or those who have run away, those that have recently relocated or migrated, and others with few social contacts who are relatively isolated.

Traffickers can also come from any background and are as diverse as the people they traffic. Many use their privilege, wealth, and power to manipulate, control, and abuse their victims. Socio-economic manipulation and oppression are often their weapons. Traffickers have included business owners, parents or guardians, members of gangs or other community networks, intimate partners, restaurant owners, governmental representatives, and corporate executives.

Many myths exist about human trafficking, such as the belief that it doesn’t happen in the United States or that it is only done for sex. Other myths include that trafficking must include relocation or travel, only women and girls are victims, all victim are physically restrained, and that traffickers target people they don’t know.

There are a number of key indicators that you can look for to identify victims and get them assistance. The Department of Homeland Security has listed the following as important indicators; you can also download a printable indicator card to keep with you at all times.

Indicators of Human Trafficking:

  • Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?

  • Has a child stopped attending school?

  • Has the person had a sudden or dramatic change in behavior?

  • Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts?

  • Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?

  • Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?

  • Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?

  • Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care?

  • Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?

  • Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?

  • Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?

  • Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?

  • Does the person have freedom of movement? Can the person freely leave where they live? Are there unreasonable security measures?

Not all indicators listed above are present in every human trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any of the indicators is not necessarily proof of human trafficking.

For the past twenty years, SafeNet has organized and hosted the annual Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) Conference, providing training and continuing education credits to professionals on a variety of IPV related subjects. To help address our local issues, this year our focus is on Human/Domestic Trafficking. SafeNet’s Conference will be held on Wednesday, October 16th at the Ambassador conference Center, from 8:00 – 5:00 p.m., with a host of speakers relative to the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation. Continuing education is available for nurses, social workers, marriage and family therapists, professional counselors, law enforcement, and legal professionals. For additional information, please contact Shirley Williams, M.S. at 814.455.1774/ext. 245. If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, please call the Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.


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