Monday, June 17, 2024

Part Five: Here’s how Wilmington’s sex trafficking problem is being addressed

Domestic sex trafficking is disturbingly common and yet exceedingly hard to spot. And that's only part of the problem. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)
Domestic sex trafficking is being addressed in a vareity of ways. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)

WILMINGTON — Sex trafficking did not become an issue overnight and it is unlikely the problem will be solved quickly. But there are efforts being made to combat trafficking, as well as to protect victims, as well as those who are vulnerable before they are taken advantage of by traffickers.

Those efforts can be broken down into law-enforcement, education, legislative, and non-governmental programs.

Law enforcement

The Wilmington Police Department responded to two different incidents of gun violence last night (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
Wilmington Police Department officers will be receiving training on recognizing the signs of human trafficking early next year. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

The Wilmington Police Department (WPD) has taken pro-active steps to help improve the ability of its officers to recognize sex trafficking situations. Like Detective Allison Jahreis, who knew little about sex trafficking when she came across her first case five years ago, many officers aren’t familiar with the signs of a trafficking victim.

The WPD has invited Bill Woolf, founder of the anti-trafficking non-profit Just Ask, for a training session in early February of next year with police officers, as well as New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) deputies and staff from the District Attorney’s office.

Woolf, a 15-year veteran of the Fairfax County Police Department, was a detective in an anti-gang unit when, in 2010, he stumbled onto his first trafficking case. As Woolf described on a recent episode of WHQR’s Coastline dedicated to human trafficking, he was initially completely unaware of what trafficking really was.

This year, Woolf was awarded the Presidential Medal for his efforts to combat trafficking, including efforts to provide ongoing education for law enforcement agencies.

Local law enforcement has also seen assistance for federal partners. The Federal Bureau of investigation has stepped up its efforts to help assist in sex trafficking cases, bring on New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Detective William Campbell to a task force in 2016.

As a federal law enforcement agency, the FBI focuses largely on interstate crimes, more human trafficking than local sex trafficking.

According to FBI spokesperson Shelley Lynch, “We have a human trafficking task force in Wilmington with federal and local partners actively investigating the crime. We are working closely not only with law enforcement, but with our non-government agency partners as well to be proactive and get the victims of human trafficking the help they need.”

As discussed in previous installments, the opioid epidemic has put a strain on the resources of both law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office. While few in local law enforcement have disagreed with putting resources towards the region’s drug problem, including gang activity, representatives from WPD, NHSCO, and court system have all affirmed that – given additional resources – they could definitely make more trafficking arrests.


In 2015, Senate Bill 279 became state law, requiring North Carolina schools to incorporate education on sex trafficking into curriculums.

According to Jayne Emma, New Hanover County Schools’ Healthful Living Coordinator, “The Family Life Dept was aware of SB 279 prior to it being finalized in 2015. Our team of educators consulted with a local attorney, who was also one of the bill sponsors, as well as representatives from A Safe Place and law enforcement to guide us in being prepared to roll out Human Sex Trafficking instruction as soon as the bill was signed.”

The schools’ curriculum addresses the issue incrementally, Emma said. In seventh grade, students are introduced to the basic definition of sex trafficking. The following year, eighth graders review that definition and concepts of “prevention, risk factors, and warning signs.”

Eighth graders also watch and discuss “Chosen: The Story of America’s Trafficked Teens,” a documentary produced by Shared Hope International, a non-profit that focuses on sex trafficking.

According to Emma, NHCS’ high school curriculum also includes instruction on human trafficking.


According to Jessica Peck, doctor and chair of the Alliance for Children in Trafficking, 87 percent of human trafficking victims come in contact with a medical professional who doesn’t recognize them as a victim.

While the level of awareness at individual practitioners varies, New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) has taken several steps to address the issue, according to spokesperson Julian March.

“NHRMC has a forensic program with a focus on sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. We currently have seven adult and adolescent Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) and four pediatric SANE nurses,” March said, noting that SANE staff receive annual training including how to respond to suspected cases of trafficking.

Other NHRMC staff also receive training and are on the lookout for signs of abuse and potential trafficking.

“Nurses complete sexual assault exams at NHRMC’s three emergency departments and are consulted in other areas of the hospital when there are suspicions of abuse or trafficking. Each patient that presents to the emergency department is screened for domestic violence and the ED nurses receive annual training to identify signs of domestic abuse. Social workers can also connect anyone affected by human trafficking with safety resources, counseling, and continued access to health care. NHRMC Company Police officers have received training on human trafficking,” March said.

According to March, NHRMC also works with local law enforcement, as well as local organizations like Coastal Horizons Rape Crisis Center, the Carousel Center, A Safe Place, Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, the Department of Social Services, and are actively involved in the New Hanover County Sexual Assault Response Team.

Non-governmental organizations

As March said, there is a network of services that work together to aid the victims of sex trafficking, which also include the region’s drug detox and recovery services. However, the main resources specifically for the survivors of sex trafficking is A Safe Place.

According to director Dawn Ferrer, A Safe Place has served of 500 victims since opening in 2012, 141 in the last year alone.

A Safe Place maintains a transitional housing program, an outreach program – including relationships with law enforcement and local hotels and motels, and a pilot program for deferred prosecution.

“We work with community resources for substance abuse services, housing for minors, employment etc. but we are the only trafficking organization in the area that provides complete case management, a jail outreach program, an emergency shelter, transitional housing, and training,” Ferrer said.

The organization also offers a toll-free and anonymous hotline: 855-723-7521.

There’s also Missio, a Wilmington-based salon products company that is working to help spread awareness of the signs of trafficking. Husband and wife co-founders Kyle and Lorin Van Zandt donate proceeds of their non-profit to A Safe Place, but hold seminars, teach-ins, and distribute a “salon guide.”

As the Van Zandt’s told Port City Daily last year, traffickers commonly take victims to salons – either as a “reward” for obedience or before “dates.” Learning to spot victims can give stylists an opportunity to help victims; as the Van Zandt’s put it, stylists often have a unique relationship with clients, and the privacy at a salon might allow a victim to reach out for help. You can find out more about Missio here.

Governmental and Legislative

The North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy NCGA)
The North Carolina General Assembly has passed several pieces of legislation addressing human trafficking. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy NCGA)

Wilmington City Councilman Neil Anderson pointed to efforts like District Attorney Ben David’s Market Street corridor injunctions, aimed at reducing both drug and prostitution activity. He also pointed to non-profits like Step Up Wilmington, formerly Phoenix Hometown Hires.

“They often work with folks, primarily young women, that have been trafficked, but are now trying to escape that world and make a new start. [They] help them with proper clothes, interviewing practice…help gaining real employment,” Anderson said.

New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White said the local officials are aware of the issue, but have largely deferred to law enforcement and recovery groups.

“Yes, the issue is on the radar of most folks around here, due to the increases we have seen over the last few years. Personally, I consider that more of a law enforcement issue, however, relative to data and numbers, and efforts to stem it from happening. Aggressive law enforcement and prosecution are the best antidotes to this type of problem, and as for the victims, I know that we support nonprofits in their efforts to address it as well,” White said.

At the state level, several pieces of legislation have been passed to address the issue.

In addition to the 2015 law requiring sex trafficking education in North Carolina schools, the state has also passed a 2013 law that increased penalties for sex traffickers and Johns; the law also created some opportunities for those convicted of prostitution charges to expunge their records.

However, these opportunities were hemmed in by numerous caveats, including that the victim has no other pending charges or convictions – essentially limited the expungement to a single offense, whereas many victims of trafficking have multiple offenses.

Signed in June of this year, Senate Bill 162, increased protections for women who were forced to assist their trafficker by recruiting or transporting women, or otherwise aiding in trafficking. Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan said the law would have little impact in the Wilmington area, as the District Attorney’s policy is already not to pursue these charges against victims of trafficking; still, the law could be instrumental in protecting women in jurisdictions with less progressive policies.

Signed a month later, Senate Bill 548 tightened restrictions on massage parlors and increased penalties for traffickers.

The last two years have also seen a slew of congressional bills aimed at the issue. According to Danielle Smotkin, spokeswoman for Congressman David Rouzer, there have been 24 bills filed, four of which have been signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Smotkin provided the following list and summaries:

534 — Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 (Signed into law)

  •     Extends the mandatory reporting requirements of child abuse to national governing bodies, like USA Gymnastics, and affiliated amateur sports organizations, to ensure that reports are immediately made to local or federal law enforcement authorities.

H.R. 1865 – Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (Signed into law)

  •     Gives states and victims the power to sue websites that support and facilitate human trafficking.
  1. 1532 – No Human Trafficking on Our Roads Act (Signed into law)
  •     Will permanently ban any individual from commercial vehicle operation if their vehicle is found to have been used in trafficking people.
  1. 1536 – Combating Human Trafficking in Commercial Vehicles Act (Signed into law)
  •     Will require the Department of Transportation to designate an official to coordinate human trafficking prevention efforts across DOT and other federal agencies and take into account the unique challenges of combating human trafficking within different transportation modes.

H.R. 1842 — Strengthening Children’s Safety Act *passed House

  •     This bill amends the federal criminal code to add violent state crimes to the list of violent offenses that trigger an additional five-year consecutive mandatory minimum prison term for a defendant who fails to comply with sex offender registration requirements and commits such offense. Additionally, it expands the prior military sex offense convictions that trigger an enhanced mandatory minimum prison term for a defendant who subsequently commits aggravated child sex abuse or certain child pornography offenses.

H.R. 1188 — Adam Walsh Reauthorization Act of 2017  *passed House

  •     A bill to reauthorize certain programs established by the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, and for other purposes. The Walsh Act organizes sex offenders into three tiers according to the crime committed, and mandates that Tier 3 offenders (the most serious tier) update their whereabouts every three months with lifetime registration requirements.

H.R. 883 – Targeting Child Predators Act *passed House

  •     This bill amends the federal criminal code to modify the process for issuing a nondisclosure requirement in connection with administrative subpoenas in four categories of investigations: health care offenses, child sexual exploitation or abuse, unregistered sex offenders, and imminent threats to an individual protected by the U.S. Secret Service. It lengthens the period of time during which a recipient of an administrative subpoena is prohibited from disclosure. The bill subjects a nondisclosure requirement to judicial review, requires the administrative subpoena to include notice of the availability of judicial review, and establishes a process for judicial review.

H.R. 2473 – Put Trafficking Victims First Act *passed House

  •     The bill directs the Attorney General to provide training for prosecutors on investigating and processing cases with a trauma-informed and victim-centered approach, and encourages states to provide appropriate services to victims of trafficking. The bill also requires reports on the implementation of state safe harbor provisions and on how to improve mandatory restitution procedures for victims of trafficking in federal courts.

H.R. 1808 – Improving Support for Missing and Exploited Children Act *passed House

  •     Encourages and increases public awareness of new and innovative ways to recover and protect missing and exploited children. Better protects the growing number of children who go missing from state care and those who are victims of sex trafficking. Improves assistance in identifying and locating abductors, criminal offenders, and missing children. Prevents children from becoming the victims of exploitation online. Provides transparency surrounding recovery and prevention efforts.

H.R. 1809 — The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017 *passed House

  •     Provides state and local leaders greater flexibility to meet the needs of delinquent youth in their communities and improve public safety. Helps at-risk youth avoid the juvenile justice system by improving support for prevention services. Prioritizes what works and focuses on evidence-based strategies with proven track records. Improves accountability and oversight to deliver positive outcomes for kids and protect taxpayers.

H.R. 2200 – The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act *passed House

  •     Reauthorizes $130 million to fund the prevention of human trafficking, protect victims, and prosecute traffickers.

H.R. 2052 – The PRIVATE Act *passed House

  •     Protects troops from non-consensual sharing of intimate media by other military members. Gives the military the tools to crack down on the perpetrators and prevent this behavior in the future by defining when private photo sharing is a military criminal act — which is not clear in current law — while protecting whistleblowers.

H.R. 1973 – Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act of 2017 *passed House

  •     This bill amends the Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990 to extend the duty to report suspected child abuse to adults who are authorized to interact with minor or amateur athletes at an amateur sports organization facility or at an event sanctioned by a national governing body (NGB) or member of an NGB.

H.R. 1761 – Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017 *passed House

  •     It would eliminate the requirement that a defendant had “specific intent” to create or distribute child pornography.

H.R. 2219- End Banking for Human Traffickers Act of 2018 *passed House

  •     This bill amends the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 to add the Secretary of the Treasury as a member of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking

H.R. 1862 – Global Child Protection Act of 2017 *passed House

  •     Combats global sex tourism by closing loopholes that allow child predators to go unpunished for their abuse of children overseas. Expands the conduct covered for child sexual exploitation cases that involve abuse occurring abroad to include sexual contact. Broadens the offenses covered in the recidivist enhancement provisions in current law to protect the youngest of child victims.

H.R. 2480 – Empowering Law Enforcement to Fight Sex Trafficking Demand Act *passed House

  •     Permits states and localities to receive grant funding for programs that combat human trafficking, including programs aimed at reducing demand for commercial sex.

Other recent bills related to human trafficking:

H.R.767 – SOAR to Health and Wellness Act of 2018 – passed House

H.R.2664 – Enhancing Detection of Human Trafficking Act – passed House

H.R.6069 – FIND Trafficking Act – passed House

H.R.6729 – Empowering Financial Institutions to Fight Human Trafficking Act of 2018 – passed House

S.1311 – Abolish Human Trafficking Act of 2017 – passed House

S.1312 – Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2017 – passed House

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

Related Articles