Crime & Courts

Human trafficking response in Charlotte grows

A high-rise law office in an uptown tower seems like an odd place to learn more about human trafficking.

Still, some 65 people gathered at Moore & Van Allen on Friday morning to become better equipped to respond to an emerging problem in Charlotte and beyond.

“Human trafficking is a war we can’t afford to lose,” U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said at the morning news conference at the law firm. “It’s one we won’t lose.”

January is “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.” Law enforcement here and around the country say they are better prepared to spot cases and react.

Nationally, arrests and convictions have more than doubled in the last two years, said Joe Gallion, deputy special agent in charge for ICE-Homeland Security Investigations. In June, a nationwide crackdown by the FBI freed some 165 children from sex-trafficking rings.

Traffickers are particularly active in the Southeast, with the pipeline from Atlanta to Charlotte a major source of forced labor and prostitutes along the East Coast, authorities say.

In Charlotte, Tompkins’ office handled two high-profile trafficking cases in 2014 while a third with Charlotte connections is being led by federal prosecutors in Florida.

Her office has also become a key engine in the Charlotte Metropolitan Human Trafficking Task Force, which organized Friday’s training for judges, lawyers, service agencies and interested members of the community to recognize and deal with sex or labor trafficking.

Moore & Van Allen, one of the state’s most influential law firms, launched its own effort in late 2013, said the firm’s Sarah Byrne, a task force member. The Charlotte office offers free legal help to victims, and volunteer attorneys and legal staff have so far taken on two dozen individuals, she said.

More attention to the problem has also exposed the limits of the community’s ability to respond. Carla Tweddale, founder of Lily Pad Haven, a nonprofit that operates a shelter for victims of sex trafficking, says her group has had to turn girls and women away because it did not have room.

Still, Tompkins said Charlotte is more prepared because of a better understanding of trafficking and coordination between groups such as the FBI, Homeland Security, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office and charitable organizations.