Jan 24, 2022

Human trafficking victims bound by fear

Posted Jan 24, 2022 9:30 PM

The Polaris National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.

Hays Post

Sex trafficking victims are not what many people may think they are. They are not people bound and tied in basements. They are children and adults walking among us who need help.

Jennifer White, executive director of the anti-human trafficking organization ICTSOS, and Tina Peck, founder of the Hope Medical Forensics Services in Wichita, spoke to two groups in Hays Wednesday about human trafficking. The event was sponsored by the HaysMed Foundation.

White  and Peck explained some of the misconceptions about human trafficking.

"When in reality they're not tied up," Peck said. "They are walking amongst us in Walmart or Target or going to sporting events. Jen stated a couple of examples about the kids who go to school every day. They are bound by fear."

Defining trafficking

Many people think that human trafficking is moving people from one place to another or from one country to another. This is not the case, White said.

Any time a person is being taken advantage of for value, this is human trafficking. This does not just have to mean money, it could mean drugs, shelter, food, clothes, technology, hair appointments, or manicures and pedicure.

Labor trafficking can include a person being forced, tricked or threatened to work for little or no pay, in unsafe conditions or unfair hours.

The definitions for sex trafficking differ for adults and minors. Any minor who trades any sexual act for something of value is considered a sex trafficking victim. No one younger than 18, not 16 the age of sexual consent in Kansas, can consent to prostitution, pornography or stripping, White said.

For adults sex must be forced or obtained through fraud or coercion to be considered trafficking.

The average age of entry into prostitution in this area is 14 to 17. However, the national average is 12 to 14.

The majority of sex trafficking has moved online. With this, the locations where trafficking takes place has become much broader.

"With so much of this being facilitated online, as sick as it is, you can order a person like you order a pizza," White said.

Who does a victim, trafficker, buyer look like?

Pimps are not what many people might also imagine. White said she has seen multiple cases where the trafficker had family ties and was a mom, uncle or older brother.

ICTSOS has seen trafficking victims from all walks of life and all races, genders and sexual orientations. Victims can come from all economic classes, as well, White said.

Research done at one of the Wichita hospitals found mental issues were common among trafficked victims. Predators may use that vulnerability to take advantage of their victims.

Predators tend to look for vulnerabilities in their victims and attempt to fill those needs. For some that can be needs on the lower part of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, such as food or shelter. 

They can also be needs for love, acceptance and achievement.

White described a scenario of victim, who was an educated, beautiful women from a good home. She was drawn into sex trafficking by a man who ran a modeling agency. He promised her access to connections in the modeling profession, but he was forcing her to have sex with other people.

"We do see this a lot in our homeless and runaway and kids in the foster care system, but really its people who are lacking a safety net," she said, "that don't have good support around them for whatever reason."

Traffickers also come from all backgrounds, genders and races.

Sex buyers tend to be exclusively male, mostly middle-age white men

"The buyer tends to be the person with the most power and control in the situation," White said. "They tend to have the resources. They think they are going to walk into the situation, pay for it and be done."

ICTSOS has had cases in which buyers were bankers, farmers, teachers, married men and men with children.

Online dangers for kids

U.S. children's almost universal access to the internet puts them at risk from predators, White said.

• 13 percent of second and third graders report they've used the internet to talk to people they don't know.
• 11 percent report having been asked to describe things about their body
• 10 percent have been exposed to private things about someone else's body

"You wouldn't throw your keys to the car to your 16-year-old and say, 'Good luck,' but we give our kids access to the internet without any safety net or conversation about it a lot of times," White said.

When the COVID shutdown happened in March 2020, the national reporting of child pornography almost tripled from 379,107 in a week to 944,706 in a week. That number has stayed very high over the last two years, White said.

"With more of us working from home and being online, kids doing schooling online ... because there are more people in those spaces, that's where predators have moved to."

Reporting of trafficking has increased substantially in the last 10 years. The Kansas Attorney General's office reported two cases of human trafficking in 2009, and 503 in 2020.

Indicators of trafficking

"This is very hard on someone long term, as you can image," White said. "This is very hard on your body. A lot of times survivors may have long-term issues with nutrition, hygiene or dental health because they haven't had access to services."

White said many of the victims are dealing with substance abuse. Victims may have been caught up in trafficking because of their addiction, their traffickers may have used drugs or alcohol as a means to control their victims or victims may be using alcohol or drugs to deal with the past or present trauma.

White said professionals know victims stay in trafficking situations for many of the same reasons domestic violence victims stay with their abusers. A trafficker may have positioned himself as a boyfriend or husband. The victim may have children with her trafficker.

Victims often have distrust of the systems that are put in place to help them, including law enforcement and medical professionals, White said.

"A lot of survivors have either had bad experiences with law enforcement or they've been told if you go tell somebody, you're going to get in trouble," White said. "You're the one that's breaking the law. They're going to take you to jail. They aren't going to help you."

 Many of victims don't realize what's happening to them is  a crime, White said. They often blame themselves. Eighty to 90 percent of trafficking victims have a previous history of sexual abuse.

White reiterated victims don't have to be moved around to be considered trafficked. She gave the example of a girl who was being trafficked out of her own home by her brother.

The girl was going to school every day. She looked like all of the other girls. She turned in her homework on time. But her brother was taking her out at night and offering her for sex to his friends.

The case was discovered when one of the girl's friends attended a trafficking education session at school, and the friend brought her suspicions to the attention of authorities.

Traffickers will move victims to stay ahead of law enforcement, they also move victims to areas where there is more demand, like a business moving product, White said.

Interstate 70 and Interstate 35 are both considered corridors for traffickers. Wichita is often a city of origin for victims, White said.

"This happens in every community across the country," White said.

Helping victims

Victims can self report, but that doesn't happen very often, White said. Referrals to ICTSOS often come from medical professionals, as well as social services and law enforcement.

An audience member asked what he could do if he suspects someone is being trafficked. White suggested trying to make an excuse to get the person away from their suspected trafficker and simply ask them if they are safe and if they are OK. She said it's a means to open the conversation in a non-threatening way.

Peck and White both said having empathy toward and believing victims when they disclose trafficking is the most important thing both lay people and professionals can do to help victims.

ICTSOS gives Fresh Start bags to victims. These include a fresh set of clothes, hygiene items, a fast-food gift card, journal and pen for adults and teens and storybook and toy for children. There's no strings attached to the bags. Adults don't have to accept assistance to receive the bags, but it often has led victims to return for services, White said.

Peck spoke on some of the medical considerations concerns surrounding trafficking. The HaysMed Foundation offered a separate session presented by the two women specifically geared toward medical providers.

Peck worked for many years as a forensic nurse in a hospital setting. She said the hospitals have come a long way in terms of offering privacy and confidentiality to sexual violence and trafficking victims. When she started as a nurse, victims were often only separated by a curtain from other patients in the ER.

Working in a hospital and with law enforcement, she learned many victims never report or seek medical care because they've had a bad experience in a hospital setting.

Peck said she also learned medical documentation ways heavily in the ability of law enforcement's ability to charge cases.

This two factors prompted her to open her private clinic. She utilizes victim assistance programs, as well as fundraising so she doesn't have to bill victims for her services.

Health care professionals are in a unique position identify and offer resources to human trafficking victims, but most providers have not received training on identifying or assisting victims, Peck said.

Peck said a provider is doing more harm if they identify a victim and do not have a plan to refer the victim to the appropriate resources.