Advocates: Look for human trafficking, child sex abuse in familiar places

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jim bronnert
Community leader Jim Bronnert speaks with (from left) Teresa Hinkle, Becky Yates, Shay Harger and Dare Spicer. (photo by Jordan Green)

In Season 1, Episode 2 of the legendary HBO series “The Wire,” a Baltimore port officer stumbles on a gruesome cargo: the bodies of more than a dozen young women from Eastern Europe in a shipping container that slipped past inspection thanks to a payoff from a shady smuggler to the stevedores’ union.

In reality, human trafficking — essentially any situation where someone is profiting from another person’s sex or keeping a person in a position of servitude — is typically far more banal than television and movies portray.

“We had one [victim] in the office a couple months ago [who] had no clue,” said Dare Spicer, executive director of Family Crisis Center of Randolph County. “Had sex for rent. Not being able to do anything but work in that facility and have her rent paid and not being able to do anything else — was trafficking. Had no clue.”

Spicer provided another example that doesn’t comport to the transnational-smuggling narrative: “A mother, for lack of a better word, pimping out her daughter. This is their work…. It’s not necessarily the truck full of undocumented folks or the people doing your nails on Saturday morning that we have been led to believe this is what human trafficking looks like. There’s a lot more to it.”

Spicer participated in a panel discussion on human trafficking, domestic violence and child sex abuse with three other area nonprofit service professionals at Oak View Recreation Center in High Point on Monday.

Human trafficking is not new — nor, for that matter, is domestic violence or child sex abuse — but Shay Harger, the director of victim services at Family Service of the Piedmont, observed that the offense is considered “kind of an emerging trend right now.”

Family Service of the Piedmont, which serves Guilford County, is adding a new position in October for a human-trafficking advocate, who will work in the field to assist victims.

Caring Services, a local agency that provides substance-abuse treatment to people who lack insurance, is similarly expanding to assist those who have been involved in domestic violence and sexual abuse. Caring Services will launch Healing and Exploring Trauma, a six-week pilot program for both victims and perpetrators, in August.

Teresa Hinkle, a social worker with Caring Services, said 40 to 60 percent of women who are in a relationship where substances are being used or abused are likely to have been victims of domestic violence.

“There’s also a little bit of a chicken-and-an-egg thing going on here,” she said. “A lot of times domestic violence will cause substance abuse, and a lot of times substance use leads to domestic violence…. You get on this pattern where you are being victimized, and then you’re using, and then you’re opening yourself up to more victimization.”

Domestic-violence fatalities disproportionately affect women of color, Harger said. Victims of human trafficking “tend to be marginalized young women” who are attracted to offers of companionship and nice things like jewelry and clothes, she said.

“When I say ‘marginalized,’ they could be marginalized for any number of reasons, whether it’s parents that don’t pay attention or parents that are unavailable,” Harger said. “Marginalized because they might look different. Marginalized because of race. Marginalized because of a personality quirk. I mean, you name it. That makes this person, this child, this teenager vulnerable to that type of advance.”

Spicer said she wants to spend the next couple years doing community education to prevent human trafficking.

“When it rains, when you see five or six teenagers take off from high school, you know why they’re doing that?” Spicer asked. “Because they have appointments with construction workers who are also not working that day.”

Another potential sign of human trafficking might be seeing several teenage girls in a car with a man who doesn’t look like their father, Spicer added.

Hinkle mentioned “hand-offs,” where girls are seen moving from one car to another in a large parking lot without going into a store as a red flag. Spicer added that trafficked girls tend to wear backpacks so they can carry a change of clothes, as opposed to purses.

A teenage girl doing her makeup in a McDonald’s bathroom at 6 a.m. would be another tell, Spicer said.

But child sex abuse is often perpetrated by someone within the family unit, Harger said.

“Let’s just talk about it like it is: It’s usually — not necessarily in this order — but it’s usually a parent, a step-parent, a grandparent or someone the child knows,” she said. “It’s usually contained within family units, and there’s typically a history of child sex abuse. When we talk about that, the road to healing can be quite long because the family may not be supportive…. Sometimes parents don’t want to believe their husband, their new boyfriend did this to their family member. It can get incredibly complicated for a family, and sometimes the allegiance is to the new boyfriend instead of the child.”

The reality is that people are typically more than willing to talk about domestic violence and child sex abuse when it’s someone else’s problem, but get uncomfortable when it affects someone they know.

Spicer urged the audience at the Oak View Recreation Center to summon the courage to confront a family member if something doesn’t seem right.

“You need to be courageous enough to risk a relationship or risk someone being upset with you,” Spicer said. “Call ’em out. Which is difficult. But we need to be okay with someone being upset with us because we are concerned about a person’s safety and well-being.”

All three panelists agreed that it’s important for advocates to remain supportive of victims of domestic violence, even when they continually go back to their abuser.

“When you [call someone out], you have to do it with love and you have to do it with kindness, or they will not receive the information,” Spicer said. “When you’re challenging them, you have to be soft to a degree, but you have to get your point across as well or they’re not gonna receive it.”

Hinkle added that it helps to know in advance what community resources are available.

“Once you have the conversation, knowing how to help someone or get help is important,” she said. “And giving people the space to get help is really important.”

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