CHARLOTTE, N.C. Human trafficking is a reality in Charlotte, and on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, the U.S. Department of Justice hosted a conference about how the community can stop it.
The Tuesday meeting was in response to a national increase human trafficking, but it was also timely because human trafficking thrives on large-scale events like national conventions.
In Charlotte, United Family Services saw between 10 and 15 victims in the past fiscal year and another victim since this July. United States cases are mostly labor and sex trafficking.
“It sounds so cliché, but it really is modern-day slavery,” said Kelly Coyne, a spokeswoman for United Family Services, which serves victims of domestic violence, rape and human trafficking.
About 285 law enforcement officers, medical and social providers and community advocates gathered at the conference Tuesday at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church.
At the meeting, U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins spoke along with a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, Coyne of United Family Services, and a Polaris Project representative. Polaris Project is a global organization based in Washington, D.C., that pushes for stronger human trafficking policies, operates a national hotline and helps trafficking victims.
“It’s a crime that hides just under the surface,” said Brock Nicholson, an ICE agent who covers the Carolinas and Georgia.
The conference was also an opportunity to foster partnerships between law enforcement and others involved in the community, which Coyne said was paramount for trust-sensitive cases like human trafficking.
Tompkins said highways like Interstates 77, 85 and 40 create easy mobility that is attractive to captors.
But she said some people might be misled by the word “trafficking.”
“It’s a bit of a misnomer,” Tompkins said. “It’s more about coercion than movement.”
Human trafficking involves someone forcing another to work or perform a sexual act and also to be in total control of that person.
Coyne said trafficked people aren’t all in prostitution: Often times they’re being forced to work in nail shops, restaurants or even as panhandlers. She said one indicator of labor trafficking in restaurants is when the wait staff is different every week.
Some victims are foreign, and others are U.S. citizens, Nicholson said. Visas are available for foreign victims, and Nicholson said he doesn’t deport them.
Coyne also said anyone can be a victim.
“What does a human trafficking victim look like?” she asked. “Hold up a mirror.”
She encouraged anyone with a suspicion that there might be a trafficking situation to call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-3737-888.