Women on the Front Lines Explain How We Can Better Fight Human Trafficking

January marks National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Some estimate that human trafficking is the fastest growing and third largest organized criminal activity in the world, just behind the drug and arms trades. Polaris, an anti-trafficking advocacy group, cites a study of the commercial sex industry in eight U.S. municipalities. Trafficking generated between $39.9 million and $290 million depending on the city. The benefactor of these funds earned over $30,000 a week on average. With the potential to earn such sums of money, sex trafficking is considered a low-risk, high-reward venture.

Trafficking happens in every state across the country. According to the Department of Justice, 83 percent of trafficking victims are American and almost 50 percent are children. As Opportunity Lives has previously reported, state and federal governments are boosting efforts to combat trafficking in local communities in part by raising awareness.

For example, a new law took effect in Florida on January 1 that requires rest areas, airports and emergency rooms to post signs that notify trafficking victims of available resources to help them escape. Failure to do comply will result in non-criminal citations for businesses. Advocates hope the new law will help curb activity in massage parlors and strip clubs, which are key businesses where women are often trafficked.

Opportunity Lives spoke with anti-trafficking advocates in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. about their views on areas of improvement to combat trafficking and what ordinary citizens can do to alleviate the problem.

Reverend Becca Stevens is the founder of Thistle Farms in Nashville, a community of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction. They employ more than 50 survivors through their social enterprises, which include a natural body care company, Thistle Stop Café, artisan studio, and global marketplace called Shared Trade.

Founded in 1997, Thistle Farms includes a two-year residential program and advocacy services for up to 700 women yearly. Stevens now has over 100 women on the waiting list.

“At Thistle Farms, these women are safe,” she told Opportunity Lives. “No more running from traffickers. They need to understand that there is a way out.”

Stevens believes that policies for expunging records for women who have been trafficked could be improved. Working through a network of attorneys, she helps women expunge records dating back to childhood truancy reports or custody battles. Additionally, she believes that creating a housing network for victims is a critical policy initiative. Victims need immediate housing and a safe community, which is why Stevens created a two-year residential program at Thistle Farms.

Sheila McClain, director of survivor services for End Slavery Tennessee, works closely with Stevens and would prefer to see more funds directed toward domestically trafficked victims. McClain’s program serves mainly minors and young adults in their early 20s. Last year, 44 percent of the girls she served were between the ages of 13-25.

“For victims who have been trafficked internationally, they have specific funds,” McClain explained. “For domestic victims, we have a shortage of good, quality services.” She points to the dearth of therapy as an example. “This is where the healing begins,” she said. “We could use more trauma therapists who have expertise in trafficking. Recent graduates in counseling may not be suited for this.”

“It’s a question of quality versus quantity,” McClain added. “Not just how many kids are being served.”

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Shared Hope International’s Eliza Reock | Photo: Shared Hope

Shared Hope International tracks services for domestic minor sex-trafficking victims by analyzing laws state-by-state. Eliza Reock tells Opportunity Lives that the group’s Just Response program looks broadly at how services, systems and state statutes interconnect.

Reock says that states need to ensure that minor children are excluded from prostitution prosecution. “Law enforcement thinks that if they do not have additional resources at their disposal, then locking up a kid is one way of keeping them safe,” Reock says.

Reock says the problem with trafficking comes down to societal norms and the over sexualization of youth.

“If a teacher is having inappropriate contact with a child, there is not a question of guilt,” she explained. “The minute you introduce money into the equation, societal norms around commercial sex bring victimization into question.” Reock and other advocates believe this mindset needs to change in order to effectively combat the problem nationwide.

Anna Smith agrees. The executive director of Restore One in North Carolina says she would like to see more language in state laws identifying men and boys as victims.

Smith’s ministry is a faith-based residential recovery programs for American boys who are survivors of domestic minor sex trafficking. “The failure of some states to recognize male victims in trafficking has enormous policy implications,” Smith told Opportunity Lives. “Even training documents around trafficking issues do not include specifications for men and boys.”

While all of the advocates say awareness of domestic trafficking is growing, they’d like to see ordinary citizens play a larger role in combatting the problem in their own communities.

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Smith’s ministry Restore One pushes for more recognition of young men and boys as victims of human trafficking. | Photo: Anna Smith

Smith says simple gestures can make a difference. “We can all give a small part of every month,” she said. People can add victims to their prayer lists, share a Facebook or Twitter link, and even support an advocacy organization for $5 a month.

“Pay attention to the girls and boys at the bus stop. We need to be familiar with the signs of trafficking,” Smith added.

Rev. Stevens advocates a positive message and encourages ordinary citizens not to be overwhelmed by human injustices. She believes it is important to share the news that women can recover and that they should share their stories. “The biggest power is secrecy, so please share your story,” Stevens said.

Like Smith, McClain urges people to pay greater attention to the people around them. “If it doesn’t look right, then report it,” she said. “There are no more excuses. We have enough studies to know it is happening in every state. We simply cannot ignore it.”

From her perspective in Washington, D.C., Reock offered a blunt solution for how Americans can help combat trafficking.

“It’s simple,” she said. “Don’t buy sex. Also, make sure your elected officials know this is a priority.”

Cherylyn LeBon is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @HarleyLeBon.