Human Trafficking in North Carolina
By Kimberly Hamilton, Private Investigator, Female Agents, Inc.
Mention human trafficking and thoughts of sweat shops and teens being kidnapped and sold for sex in other countries are what first surfaces in most people’s minds. But human trafficking, commonly known as modern slavery, is much more than that and it is all around us. North Carolina is ranked as one of the worst top 10 states for this crime and is ranked 8th in the nation for calls to human trafficking hotlines.
So why is human trafficking such a problem in North Carolina? Human trafficking is based on supply and demand and there are many statewide factors that contribute to this crime and its continued growth. Large highways such as 1-95 and I-40 / 85 provide easy access for transporting individuals for trafficking purposes. Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Asheville and Wilmington are trafficking hubs because of those highways. North Carolina has a large number of military bases, which are prime locations for traffickers to find potential victims and willing clients.
Sporting events, a NFL team and beach / mountain tourism also provide profitable opportunities in which paid sex acts are in high demand. North Carolina is an agricultural state, making cheap farm labor very desirable. Out of all 50 states, North Carolina has consistently ranked very low in education and very high in immigration, both of which add to the human trafficking problem.
Drug use and dependency, abusive relationships, mental health issues and financial instability can all lead to a person being at a higher risk for trafficking. North Carolina has a high drop-out rate as well as tremendous numbers of domestic violence cases. Children who are involved with child protection agencies or may be in foster or group homes are at a much greater risk to becoming victims. North Carolina, across the state, is very vulnerable and traffickers use that to their advantage.
So what exactly is human trafficking? Human trafficking is defined as the use of force, fraud or coercion to get another person to provide labor or sexual service. In North Carolina, more cases of sex trafficking are reported than labor trafficking and the victims are mostly young women. The average age of a victim is 12 to 14 years old. Sex trafficking consists of forced prostitution and forced sexual relationships. Sex trafficking includes anyone involved under the age of 18 who participates in sex work because minors cannot legally give consent. Labor trafficking includes forced work, like agricultural work and domestic help. It can include little to no pay, violence or threats of violence, threats of deportation, and debt bondage. The sale of human organs is also part of human trafficking.
Human trafficking can be found in any city or community and is one of the fastest growing crimes in North Carolina. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, more profitable than illegal firearm and drug sales. It is the major source of income for organized crime and gangs. It is hard to detect by authorities and can easily be moved from city to city without any noticeable signs or red flags. Education on the detection, prevention and prosecution of human trafficking cases has been lacking in the past with the general public completely oblivious that this crime even existed in North Carolina.
Unlike other crimes, human trafficking can be “hidden in plain sight” and the victims are not always willing to speak up. It may consist of the maid at your beach hotel, the woman at the nail salon, the man cutting your neighbor’s grass, or the live-in nanny for some of your children’s friends. Human trafficking could be right around the corner of your home at the large farm that hires many workers, it could be within your favorite restaurant that you visit every weekend, or happening to that child in your children’s school that keeps running away and getting into trouble. Human trafficking is a crime where education and awareness are so greatly needed across our entire state in order to stop its growth and victimization of so many innocent people.
Traffickers prey upon victims and their vulnerabilities to force them into acts or situations in which they cannot escape. Drugs are often given to victims to create a dependency on the trafficker and at times, withheld as punishment. Violence is commonly used against their victims as well as the use of threats of arrest, telling their families, deportation, and other means to instill fear. Living conditions provided for the victims are often unsanitary and dangerous. Medical care is basically non-existent so health and dental issues go without being treated and there are high numbers of pregnancies and abortions. Traffickers do not want their victims placed in situations where they are questioned or have the opportunity to speak out. Victims are isolated from society, often have no ways to communicate with anyone other than their trafficker and generally have all identification, passports and legal papers taken from them.
Victims are often tattooed as a way to mark who they belong to. Bar code or gang symbol tattoos are often indicators a person is being trafficked and the most common places are on the back of the neck and inside the lower lip. Victims are very withdrawn, unhealthy in appearance, wear clothes that are unclean or do not fit, and have very few belongings. They may avoid any personal questions and appear paranoid when speaking to anyone. Traffickers see their victims as money making opportunities and treat them as disposable property, rather than as someone’s sister, daughter, son, brother, or friend.
Human trafficking is a state wide problem and it is going to take communities and law enforcement to work together. One way to stop it is going after the clients, decreasing the demand. Human trafficking convictions generally carry a stronger sentencing than other crimes, but prosecution is often difficult with no willing victim to speak up. It is linked to other crimes, such as drugs, illegal weapons, burglaries, identity theft, and child pornography.
Education on human trafficking within colleges and universities, doctor’s offices, law enforcement agencies and schools has increased over the past years. More and more resources are being created and laws are being passed to help as well. The North Carolina Safe Harbor Law was passed unanimously in 2013 and provides immunity from prosecution for some types of offenses to those who were forced into sex work. Starting in 2016, all law enforcement agencies are required to go through training to help recognize cases and victims.
Human trafficking cases need to be reported. The Polaris Project has a national human trafficking resource center hotline (NHTRC, 888-373-7888) and offers lots of information at www.polarisproject.com. Resources and support groups for victims have increased dramatically in North Carolina over the past several years. If you come across a situation or a victim of human trafficking, please report it. Creating awareness throughout communities is crucial. Law enforcement cannot fight it alone. Talk to people in your family, neighborhoods, to church members, groups or associations you may belong to. Educate your children on the dangers of social media and getting involved with dangerous situations or people. Be aware of that lonely girl standing by herself outside the gas station, of that hotel maid who has bruises on her arms and is painfully shy and quiet, and of that older gentleman who is deathly thin and weak working on that farm you pass everyday on your way to work.
There are 5 simple but useful questions to ask when speaking to a possible victim of human trafficking. These questions can also be used with children when they attend a birthday party or other event away from their parents. The questions require more than a basic yes / no answer and open the door for communication. Ask kindly and patiently then listen carefully to what they say and how they are saying it. Their answers may reveal a lot of information.
How did /do you spend your day /time?
What was your favorite part?
What was your least favorite part?
Did/do you feel comfortable / safe?
Is there anything you would like to share with me?
Victims of human trafficking are very present within our own communities. Each week, the news is reporting more cases and arrests involving trafficking and the public is beginning to learn that it does exist. Education and awareness is key to fighting against human trafficking and helping its victims. If you suspect something, please report it. Without the knowledge of the cases, the victims cannot be helped and the traffickers cannot be stopped.
Kimberly Hamilton is a North Carolina licensed private investigator and owns Female Agents, Inc.
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