Sunday, March 3, 2024

Part Two: Who are the victims of sex trafficking? ‘Look around,’ experts say, they’re everywhere

Who are the victims of domestic sex trafficking? Ask law enforcement and they'll tell you --- the victims are all around you. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Who are the victims of domestic sex trafficking? Ask law enforcement and they’ll tell you — the victims are all around you. (Port City Daily photo / File)

WILMINGTON — The majority of sex trafficking victims may never be identified, but those cases that do get the attention of law enforcement and advocacy groups are diverse, reaching all racial, economic, geographic, and – disturbingly – age groups.

“Look around. It could be anyone,” according to Detective William Campbell, a New Hanover County Sheriff’s deputy who sits on the FBI sex trafficking task force.

“We’ve had high school students, we’ve had women in their 40s. We’ve had children, women, we’ve had men. Age, race, it doesn’t matter,” Campbell said.

Related: Part One — We have a sex-trafficking problem. The numbers don’t begin to tell the story

Despite that diversity, there are some common factors, including childhood abuse, substance use, and a dependent relationship between the victims and their traffickers. In this installment, we look at a number of those issues. We’ve also included the story of one victim who is now in recovery.

Who are the victims of sex trafficking?

The common factors binding the victims of sex trafficking are mental health issues, substance use problems, an early history of abuse, and the lasting stigma of commercial sex work.

These are factors that are similar in cases nationwide, according to Jessica Peck, a doctor and chair of the Alliance for Children in Trafficking.

According to Peck, 80 percent of the victims are female, many are teen runaways – Peck said that one in three minors who run away from home will become a target for recruitment by a trafficker. Around 40 percent of the teen population is LGBTQ, Peck said, adding that in many cases this has caused them to be isolated from their families.

Socio-economic disadvantage is also a factor, as it allows traffickers to use cash, gifts, and resources to groom victims to be trafficked. Mental health is also a common factor, with 30 percent of victims showing sign of major depression; survivors of sex trafficking frequently experience post-traumatic stress disorders.

The foster care system is also an issue, Peck said.

“We’ve seen some people abuse that system, becoming foster parents simply to traffick children,” Peck said.

Victims in the Cape Fear region

Conversations with the New Hanover County District Attorney’s Office, Wilmington Police Department, New Hanover County Sherriff’s Office, and several outreach and advocacy groups confirmed that Peck’s common factors are all prevalent in victims in the Cape Fear area.

While men are trafficked, in New Hanover County, the majority of victims of identified victims are female, according to Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan.

According to Dawn Ferrer, director of A Safe Place, the age range for victims is between 14 and 60; most victims were in the 20 to 30 age range by the time A Safe Place was able to help them.

Across the Cape Fear, Allysa McKenzie, founder and executive director of Stand Against Trafficking, has seen even younger victims. McKenzie, who started her non-profit in 2009, has seen hundreds of victims.

“We’ve seen them as young as five – it’s devastating. We see many who were recruited between eleven and thirteen years old,” McKenzie said.

In the last year, McKenzie’s organization has worked with 83 women — all of them were mothers. In many cases, McKenzie said, the victims could not be sure who the father of their children was.

Also, both McKenzie and Jordan cited examples of multi-generational sex trafficking, where both mother and daughter became victims.

(Editor’s note: Most of the victims of sex trafficking also have substance use problems, more on that in the next installment, which will look at the relationship between trafficking and the opioid epidemic.)

Asian massage parlors

Victims who are forced to work in “massage parlors” face different challenges, and the issue – while it overlaps with domestic sex trafficking – also include human trafficking and labor trafficking (where victims are forcibly relocated and made to work for substandard or no compensation).

There are many legitimate massage practices, as immigration lawyer Helen Tarokic noted on a recent episode of WHQR’s Coastline; many of them, as Tarokic pointed out, display signs asking customers “not to embarrass themselves” by pursuing the mistaken belief that all parlors are fronts for illegal commercial sex operations. Even these legitimate parlors, however, may be the scene of labor issues exacerbated by the victims’ immigration status.

There are, however, parlors that are essentially prisons for the victims of sex-trafficking. These parlors advertise their sexual services online, and – according to Tarokic – often feature advertisements for “all new girls.” As Tarokic put it, if a customer was looking for a therapeutic massage, why would they be looking for a “new girl” instead of a seasoned professional?

Both the Wilmington Police Department and the 5th District Attorney’s office have seen some sex trafficking cases as massage parlors, but they’re difficult to investigate and prosecute.

Detective Allison Jahreis said she had seen several cases working with the Wilmington Police Department, but didn’t have the investigative tools; Jahreis said she hands cases like these off to federal agencies with more reach. Jordan said the District Attorney’s office faced hurdles even greater than domestic sex trafficking cases – already notoriously hard cases – including linguistic and cultural barriers between caseworkers and victims, most of whom had been trafficked from southeast Asia.

It’s equally difficult for recovery groups like a Safe Place to reach out to survivors of sex trafficking through these parlors.

Ferrer said A Safe Place has received calls about several Wilmington-area parlors, but “[the vicitms] are gone quickly, as soon as some asks about it. They catch the Flushing bus,” Ferrer said, referring to Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, New York City, where many southeast Asian immigrants first come to the U.S.

Still, A Safe Place is working on outreach efforts.

“Well…not yet. It’s something that’s on our radar. And I do have a Mandarin-speaking person I can work with. We did one outreach and it did not go well – they wouldn’t even let us past the door,” Ferrer said. “So, we need to figure out how to get past the door.”

Romeos, gorillas, and ‘Stockhold syndrome’

Victims of sex trafficking often pass through hair salons. Mission, a Wilmington-based company, distributes this 'salon checklist' to help recognize the signs of trafficking. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Victims of sex trafficking often pass through hair salons. Missio, a Wilmington-based company, distributes this ‘salon checklist’ to help recognize the signs of trafficking. (Port City Daily photo / File)

Meanwhile, victims of domestic sex trafficking have something else in common, and that’s the relationship that brings them into the industry. Victims often end up in violent, controlling relationships — but they don’t start that way.

Around 90 percent of victims initially have a romantic relationship with their traffickers, according to Peck’s research. Much of the local data is anecdotal, but it does match up with Peck’s assessment.

That doesn’t mean these are healthy relationships that have gone very wrong. On the contrary, traffickers know what they’re doing from the beginning. Often, that means when people advertise their emotionally vulnerable state of Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets.

“The victims of human trafficking, they’re vulnerable — they have problems at home, or they’ve had a romantic break up, and all of that is on social media. They’re very vulnerable that way, you might get someone messaging them on Facebook saying, ‘hey, I’m a 14-year-old boy in your town.’ And they respond to that,” Peck said.

Related: Former Topsail coach, teaching assistant facing another human trafficking charge

The relationships don’t change overnight, either.

“A pimp or a recruiter will court them, groom them for months, and when they’re going through something emotionally – and putting it on social media – they’ll say, ‘I think you’re great, I think you’re beautiful, I think you’re special,” Peck said.

Peck said parents and be on the lookout for children who receive unexplained gifts — especially smartphones, but also new clothing that is more revealing than something the child would normally wear; it’s a sign that local law enforcement and recovery groups also frequently point to. (Note: For more information on potential warning signs, and how to contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline, click here.)

Despite the gifts, over time this illusory emotional support becomes a tool.

“We call them finesse pimps, or Romeo pimps. It starts with someone in an emotionally vulnerable place, and the pimp will tell them, ‘I love you.’ …. Over time, the pimps withdraw and the victims find themselves almost desperate to whatever they have to, to try and get back to that original kind of affection,” Peck said.

This emotional attachment the victim has for the trafficker is sometimes labeled a type of Stockholm Syndrome; Peck calls it a “trauma bond.” The bonds can be strong, stronger than self-preservation, and often so strong that law enforcement and prosecutors struggle to break these bonds and allow the victim to testify against their traffickers.

It’s important to note that in many cases the trafficker also resorts to violence.

“There are gorilla pimps, who literally beat them into submission — one tactic we’ve seen is beating a victim whenever they touch a door handle, to train them into not being able to really move on their own,” Peck said.

While debilitating and often brutal, these tactics also provide law enforcement, healthcare workers, and other an opportunity to spot the victims, who often seem unable to make eye contact, flinch from physical touch, have bruises around their arms and necks, and speak below a normal volume, Peck said.

Related: New Wilmington business has a surprising way to fight human trafficking

According to both law enforcement and recovery agencies, it’s common for victims to have a handler when in public — a hair salon, a grocery store, a hospital. This handler isn’t always the pimp, or a man, and will frequently control both the conversation and the money.

(Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more on efforts to spread awareness on the potential signs of a trafficking case, from law enforcement to health care to hair salons.)

‘She’s just a street whore’ – the stigma of sex trafficking

Escaping the world of sex trafficking doesn’t mean the end of the struggle: survivors are left with PTSD, criminal records, and something else — shame.

There’s been a great deal of work over the last several years to destigmatize substance use disorders, work that’s still ongoing, but the stigma of sex trafficking is even more intense. (Editor’s note: More on efforts to combat this stigma later this week.)

Understandably, this stigma makes getting testimony from victims against their traffickers difficult. But it’s also a roadblock to treatment. At A Safe Place, Ferrer said she routinely sees victims who still believe they are to blame.

In Brunswick County, McKenzie said her organization “almost never sees a woman who doesn’t in some way believe they deserve to be where they are, there’s a lot of shame.”

The stigma reaches into the attitudes of law enforcement officers, too. Jordan said she’s seen it at th District Attorney’s office when working with local law enforcement to prosecute cases.

Ferrer, who works directly with both local and federal law enforcement, said the issue is getting better, but it hasn’t gone away.

“In the three years I’ve been here I have seen a change, a positive – but, but… but there is still a mentality, and I just heard it last year, ‘I know you consider them a victim – and he used air quotes – but she’s just a street whore,’” Ferrer said.

Detective Allison Jahreis said she’s seen in it in other officers and the public in general. Part of the issue: many victims have criminal histories, frequently including drug and larceny charges and, of course, prostitution charges.

“To some people the victims don’t appear to be victims, they have a hard time looking at it, because they say ‘they’re already involved in prostitution, they’re already involved in drug use, so how do I feel bad for them? They put themselves in this position,’ Jahreis said.

“It isn’t true, but it’s hard for people to see past that they are petty criminals,” Jahreis said.

(Editor’s note: Tomorrow we will explore the relationship between domestic sex trafficking and the opioid epidemic.)

A survivor’s story

Every story of sex trafficking is different. However, some of the recurring factors in sex trafficking are easily recognizable in this story of a survivor, now in her 40s.

The story was provided by A Safe Place; the survivor’s name has been removed to protect her.

As a young girl growing up in Asheville, NC, she remembers being sexually abused. This is where she learned to associate sex with love and learned she could use sex to get what she wanted. In her early 20s, she says she would use her sexuality to get drugs, money, or anything else she desired.

At 25 years old, she was getting high with the man she was dating. She refers to him as her first pimp. They would come off a long binge of drug use, broke and looking for the next high. Her “boyfriend” suggested that they visit some Hispanic men that he knew. There were four of them, each willing to pay her for sex. She recalls that in those days, she received $50 per guy. This is what she considers her first experience “in the life”.

For the next 5 years, there were times in which she posted her own ads, but others in which she worked for a pimp. Between the ages of 30-32, she met her “main pimp”. There were times that he was violent beating her on multiple occasions. However, she recalls he used drugs more often to keep her submissive, accompanied by a domineering personality.

She remembers getting away from him once and spent some time promoting herself on online websites such as Backpage.  One “John” continually called to set up meetings, but would cancel at the last minute, or would not show up. One day he offered to meet up in her hometown. This time, he did show up, and the “John” turned out to be her pimp.

After more than 15 years in the life, she was eventually arrested. This was not the first time, but her bond was high, and her pimp refused to bail her out. She did not know it then, but this was the best thing that could have ever happened. Several months later, she ended up being released from the New Hanover County Jail. She found the ASP hotline number off the local Street Sheet and reached out not knowing the area and having no idea where to go.

She had met a man outside of the jail and went to stay with him before coming to ASP. When she called our hotline, our caseworker advised her of our services and invited her to come to our Outreach Center to get clothes and other basic necessities. After finding several outfits, she decided to think about our shelter as an option and said she would continue to stay in contact while she made her decision. She had the choice between staying in Wilmington or returning to the Asheville area.

After several days, she decided to come to the ASP Emergency Shelter. Due to the need to detox and medication management for her PTSD and Bi-Polar diagnoses, she went to The Harbor for five days before being admitted to our shelter. She was hesitant at first to share all of her trauma,  but over 90 days, she opened up to our trauma therapist and began sharing more of her story with other victims. We refer to her as our free spirit with more energy and determination than the Energizer Bunny!

She began working full time within 30 days of her arrival to the shelter and continues to excel at her job. She was voted the best employee by the patrons and employee of the month by her supervisor. She continues to actively work toward her goal of owning her own business having graduated from the “Inmates to Entrepreneurs” program. She enjoys simple things in life like playing cribbage, reading, and going to the beach. She loves music, Harry Potter, yoga, coffee, and in general just going with the flow.

After completing our 90-day emergency shelter program, she was accepted as a member of our Phase 3 Transitional Housing Program. Today, she thrives in our community and has created meaningful connections with our staff, advocates, and other members. Our hope is for her to be a leader in our Victim, Survivor Leader program in order to show others how hard work and determination can help you attain your goals regardless of your past.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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