North Carolina must figure out how to identify youth who are likely to be lured by human traffickers, make them less vulnerable, and do more to help victims recover from their trauma, advocates say.
“If gang members can pick them out and target them, why can’t we develop some of those same skills, identify them and help them?” said Gale McKoy Wilkins, executive director of the N.C. Council for Women, a state advisory group that sponsored a summit on Wednesday to discuss human trafficking in the state. “We have to figure out: How can we combat human trafficking in the state of North Carolina?”
The meeting drew more than two dozen federal, state and local police officers and investigators, social workers, lawyers, researchers and those who work in nongovernment agencies from different parts of the state, all of whom have dealt with human trafficking.
Police and others say North Carolina may have among the highest incidence of human trafficking of any state in the country, though no agency keeps track of all the cases.
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Also referred to as modern slavery, human trafficking is defined legally as the use of force, fraud or coercion to get another person to provide labor or sex. Sex trafficking differs from prostitution in that prostitutes are at least 18 and engage in the sex trade willingly. Trafficking victims are held in the trade by other means, and receive little or no money for their services.
In North Carolina, investigators say, the average sex trafficking victims are 14-year-old girls, though police say vulnerable adult women and some boys also are targeted.
At Wednesday’s meeting, participants broke into groups to discuss cases that have been tried in the state in recent years and to look for actions by police and other agencies that helped or hurt with the prosecution and with the victims’ recovery.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara D. Kocher discussed the case of Randolph Johnson Spain of Wilmington, who was convicted in federal court in January on charges that he transported women across state lines and prostituted them. Investigators said Spain essentially courted several women, beginning in 2009, making them believe he loved them, then advertised them online and forced them to engage in sex acts. He regularly beat the women, investigators said.
He is due to be sentenced in May.
Kocher said victims need more support once they are removed from their traffickers, including housing and counseling. Many victims are lured into trafficking after they run away from home or foster care, and realize too late they can’t find safe shelter.
One officer told the group that traffickers often wait at bus and train stations in cities across the state looking for young girls who might be runaways. They may buy the girls a meal, and then offer them a place to sleep.
Wilkins said that if traffickers can spot vulnerable youths that easily, teachers, social workers, church youth leaders, emergency services workers, hotel operators, even restaurant workers can be trained to do so, too, and offer help first.
Last fall, Dean Duncan, a researcher at UNC’s School of Social Work, landed a five-year $1.25 million federal grant to get a better sense of the scope of North Carolina’s human trafficking industry and to prevent children who have been in foster care from being lured into it. Duncan hopes the grant can be used to develop educational programs and a plan of care for those rescued from trafficking, such as finding a place for them to stay, helping them finish school or get a GED, and get counseling to rebuild their self-esteem so they are less vulnerable to manipulation.
Presently, much of the work done to help trafficking victims is done through nonprofits across the state.