Most of us can push aside the distant catastrophes and horrors we hear about.
That is, until it hits close to home. Then, we’re forced to consider this could happen to us, or to the people we love.
Well, it’s here–it’s been here. Trafficking is happening in my hometown, and chances are, if you’re reading this, it’s happening in your hometown too. As a refresher, human trafficking is any activity where human beings are treated as possessions to be exploited or controlled using fraud, force, or coercion–usually for labor or sex.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a local event on understanding sex trafficking in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I gained many valuable insights I’d like to share with you.
Human trafficking exists because there’s a demand for it.
That was the first thing I heard after I walked into the Grand Rapids Kroc Center and found a seat. City commissioner Senita Lenear and GR Police Chief Eric Payne introduced the event and the panel of experts prepared to educate us.
We first watched a short video entitled “Romeo,” by the Manasseh Project. The film was actually a social experiment, and it revealed how easy it is for a pimp or recruiter to befriend an unsuspecting teenager for nefarious purposes. This is called “grooming.” The recruiter will find a vulnerable person, start up a conversation, and find a point of commonality. Maybe the girl thinks her parents are too strict, or a boy in her class broke her heart. The recruiter might use those negative things as a “coincidence,” and say, “oh, that happened to me too!” They make their victim feel comfortable talking about anything, and so begins the relationship.
“First, they’ll befriend your child, then they’ll sell your child.”
This was the experience of Leslie King, a sex trafficking survivor from Grand Rapids. The conference room was quiet as we watched her tell her story on screen. Leslie grew up on South Division. Her dad was an alcoholic, her mom was a workaholic, and she was molested by a cousin at the age of eight. When she was fifteen, a pimp befriended her, bought her gifts, took her to restaurants, and introduced her to his friends. He was a very caring person–or so she thought. Then he sold her to his friends, and she was trapped for twenty years in a lifestyle of prostitution, drugs, and violence.
Today, she is free, and she has started an organization right here in Grand Rapids called Sacred Beginnings, a safe haven for those trying to escape prostitution and trafficking. She wants everyone to know that education is key. In order to fight human trafficking, we must know and understand the warning signs. She says, “I want people to be aware, but not afraid.”
What are the warning signs?
You may have seen my previous post on recognizing a victim, but at the conference I learned more red flags to watch out for. They are the following:
- Evidence of physical abuse, such as burns or bruises
- Starts dressing more inappropriately
- Sleepy in class, or unexplained absences
- Depressed and withdrawn
- Multiple cell phones, multiple hotel keys in purse
- An older boyfriend
- Sexualized behavior, such as a child drawing inappropriate figures
- Wears or displays expensive items
Let’s set aside our fears of white vans and kidnappers. Hannah Blair, a survivor of sex trafficking, says the signs of human trafficking are different than most people think. “Everybody is looking for the strange guy that follows you in Walmart, or the creepy looking van. So people aren’t seeing what’s right in front of them.”
A trafficker rarely takes away a child by force. The most common way is to first befriend the target, which is why these people are known as “romeo pimps.” It’s a gradual relationship as trust is built and the victim is slowly turned away from friends and family and isolated from those who truly care about him or her.
Who are these men and women who commit such base crimes?
There is no “typical trafficker,” because they come from every walk of life. They can be rich, poor, young, old, married with children, homeowners, and have good jobs. Clergy, law enforcement, professors, and factory workers have been among those arrested in America for trafficking.
As for the “johns” (men who buy sex), you would think that these perpetrators are “losers who can’t find sex any other way.” This is not the case, however. The vast majority are either married or in a committed relationship. Sometimes, a couple will team up and run a trafficking business from their home.
In October of 2019, twelve were arrested in Genesee Country, Michigan, in connection with human trafficking. The occupations of some of these men included supervisor, mechanic, painter, and college student. In December of 2019, forty-six were arrested near metro Detroit in connection with trafficking. The ages of these men and women ranged from 18 to 59, and they were from all over the state.
What makes Michigan appealing to traffickers?
Rebecca McDonald, founder of Women at Risk, International, sheds some light on the matter. First, we are on an international border. Pimps tend to travel in circuits, moving their victims from place to place to avoid detection. Also, prostitution is legal in Canada, which makes exploitation and trafficking much easier. Second, Michigan has one of the highest migrant farming communities. The cultural and language barriers make immigrants more susceptible to traffickers’ scams. Third, Michigan is one of the nation’s most corrupt states. Where government officials and law enforcement turn a blind eye…that’s where modern slavery thrives.
What does trafficking look like in Michigan?
According to the Michigan state report of the Polaris Project, in 2018 there were 863 victims, 251 traffickers, and 147 trafficking businesses identified. Of course, these were only the ones reported, and a lack of awareness on human trafficking can lead to significant underreporting. The bulk of these cases were reported near Detroit, but Grand Rapids is one of the other hotspots. In 2017, there were an estimated 1000 victims of online sex trafficking in Grand Rapids alone.
At the conference before mentioned, GR Police Chief Eric Payne told us that in 2019 there was a significant case investigated in Grand Rapids, but could not yet give us information on it. Chief Nowicki, who serves as the chief of police at the GR Ford Airport, told us that there have been several complex trafficking cases here in Grand Rapids that had to be turned over to the FBI.
About a year ago, I had the opportunity to meet with a Grand Rapids police officer who was on an FBI task force that dealt with violent crimes against children. One thing he told me I’ll never forget: “when I see the signs hanging up in the doctor’s office on how to spot trafficking, I look at the signs and have a story for each one. I’ve seen the tattoos, the bruises, the hotel key cards…” It could be on our streets, in our hotels, at our truck stops, in our massage parlors, and it’s most definitely online and connected with our smartphone apps.
Since this problem is so pervasive, and law enforcement can’t be omnipresent, we have to be the eyes.
How vulnerable are Christian schools and communities?
Grand Rapids is known to be a more conservative city, so I put this question to the officer with whom I spoke. He told me that since Christian communities are more insulated, they are not as vulnerable to traffickers, but they also have their guard down. If a pimp or recruiter targeted kids and teens in the right place, the parents might not notice, and their level of trust is higher so they wouldn’t expect it.
The other problem is that when there are victims in Christian communities, they’re afraid to speak up. Maybe because “nice girls don’t talk about that,” or maybe they made some questionable choices along the way, or maybe it involves family members or those well-known in the community. But silent victims give the perpetrators power and create opportunities for them to hurt someone else. So, please, my dear wounded one, if you’ve been abused in any way, share the truth!
As a parent, how can you protect your children?
One important thing is know your child’s friends. Make your home the place to be when it comes to hangouts and sleepovers. Know what they’re doing on the internet. It’s common for the younger generation to add friends or chat with people on social media that they don’t truly know. This makes it much easier to become a target.
You don’t have to be kidnapped to be trafficked; a girl can be trafficked from home. Maybe she met a guy online who turned out to be a pimp. She can go to school during the day and experience living horror at night.
Be aware, but not afraid.
Even though there’s darkness hidden in our neighborhoods and hotels and churches, all is not lost. I’m not sharing these things to stir up fear. Satan knows he has a short time to stir up as much evil and suffering as possible. Our time is short too–too short to fear. And how many times has our God told us not to fear?
In order to effectively fight human trafficking, we have to know what it actually looks like. Sometimes, this means we have to smell the swamp, and dealing with this issue really stinks, honestly. But if we refuse to tell others where the swamp is, someone is going to fall in.