A woman's neck bears a bar code tattoo, a possible sign that she's been trafficked. Used by permission of the N.C. Department of Public Safety

In 2015, a national hotline widely publicized in North Carolina to report suspected human trafficking identified 110 human trafficking cases involving 925 potential victims.

Yet, at the same time, few arrests were made and few criminal cases prosecuted.

Human trafficking absolutely exists in the state, including Western North Carolina, according to those who have met and worked with the victims. But the full picture, and the reason traffickers are rarely charged and prosecuted, is much more complex.

Understanding human trafficking

Experts say Hollywood paints an image of human trafficking that is widely accepted by the general public. It involves large groups of migrant workers locked in a basement, or women being shipped from other countries to engage in commercial sex.

“It does happen, yes,” said Angelica Wind, executive director of Our Voice, a nonprofit which serves survivors of sexual violence in Buncombe County. “But victims of trafficking can be individuals that are U.S. born citizens. It can be men. It can be children.”

The United States Department of Justice defines human trafficking as “the act of compelling or coercing a person’s labor, services or commercial sex acts.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) lists four categories under which human trafficking cases generally fall:

  • Domestic Sex Trafficking of Adults: People engage in commercial sex acts due to force, fraud or coercion.
  • Sex Trafficking of International Adults and Children: Foreign-born adults or children engage in commercial sex acts due to force, fraud or coercion.
  • Forced Labor: Domestic or foreign nationals are compelled to work through force or coercion.
  • Domestic Servitude: Domestic or foreign nationals engage in domestic work for families or households through force or coercion.

While the term “trafficking” invokes images of victims being moved from location to location, that is also not always true, according to Karen Arias, who leads the Western North Carolina Human Trafficking Rapid Response Team.

“Sometimes there’s just one victim, and the victim doesn’t have to go anywhere,” she said.

Wind shared an example. Imagine a boyfriend and girlfriend in a consensual relationship where both become addicted to drugs. The money runs out, and the boyfriend asks the girlfriend to have sex with individuals to pay for the drug habit. Or, the boyfriend gets the girlfriend high and subsequently allows her to be raped in exchange for drugs or money. Both instances, Wind said, fall under the category of human trafficking.

“The typical trafficker is not who people think it is,” Arias said.

Labor trafficking is equally complex and equally prevalent, according to Caitlin Ryland, supervising attorney with the Farmworker Unit at Legal Aid of North Carolina.

“We are not seeing labor-trafficking cases identified where national numbers indicate that’s the majority of trafficking,” Ryland said.

Labor trafficking can occur, for example, when farm workers migrate legally to North Carolina and begin working on a farm under an H-2A agricultural work visa, which allows employers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor under a seasonal or temporary agreement.

Ryland said the owner or farm manager can then take away the workers’ visas and passports as a form of control over the workers. Over time, the workers’ visas can even expire, thus trapping them in the United States illegally.

The numbers – or lack thereof

A 2013 Governor’s Crime Commission report discussed the issue of human trafficking at the international, national and state level in detail, but provided no North Carolina statistics.

The report noted that, even at the international level, estimates of the number of people victimized annually by human trafficking range as high as 26 million and as low as 600,000, highlighting the difficulty in pinpointing the actual scope of the problem.

The U.S. Attorney’s office said it has not prosecuted any human trafficking cases in Western North Carolina, though it also can’t discuss open cases that might exist.

In 2013, the FBI began collecting human-trafficking statistics as part of its Uniform Crime Report, according to Shelley Lynch, a spokesperson for the FBI’s Charlotte office. As with all types of crimes, local law enforcement voluntarily provide the FBI with these statistics, she said. When the FBI published its 2014 state-by-state statistics on human trafficking, North Carolina was not included.

Tiffany Cohn, an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation assigned to the Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAAC), said North Carolina is one of many states that doesn’t report human trafficking cases to the FBI. Cohn said no statewide database for human trafficking statistics currently exists.

She said the SBI’s statistics come from a group called the Polaris Project, which operates a national hotline for human trafficking through the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. The group’s statistics, Lynch said, were the only numbers that existed up until 2013, and include calls to the hotline which may or may not be reported to law enforcement and investigated.

Jenna Novak, a regional specialist with the Polaris Project, shared those numbers for 2015.

Novak said Polaris has a strong working relationship with North Carolina, noting that the national hotline number is the number North Carolina has chosen to promote as its primary contact number for victims of human trafficking and those wishing to make reports of suspected activity.

In 2015, North Carolina had the 10th-highest call volume in the United States, Novak said. She suggested that is due in large part to the fact that the hotline number is well-publicized in the state.

But North Carolina has also grown to become the 9th most populous state, so the volume could primarily be an indicator of the state’s size without reflecting as much on how pervasive human trafficking is.

In total, 463 calls were received in 2015, which can cover multiple calls related to the same case. Trained call center workers identified 110 potential trafficking cases, with 925 potential victims, according to Novak. Nationally, 5,500 cases were reported in 2015 with 6,700 victims identified, she said.

The majority of North Carolina cases, 78, involved sex trafficking, Novak said.

WNC challenges

A number of factors make WNC ripe for human trafficking, yet many also add to the challenge in identifying it.

“In areas where there is an airport, in areas where there is an interstate highway, in areas where there is tourism – all of those really make for a recipe for human trafficking,” Wind said.

Major interstates and easy access to multiple state lines make it easy to come and go, she said.

The landscape itself adds to the complexity. Large, isolated areas at the top of a mountain or the end of a dirt road are convenient locations where victims can be kept and no one may drive by for weeks or months, Arias said.

Agriculture being a big part of the economy means labor trafficking may be more prevalent as well, Ryland noted.

Arias has seen and talked with victims, but also notes that all of these complexities make it difficult to know how many victims are out there, and whether it’s better or worse in WNC versus any other part of the state.

Identifying human trafficking when it does show its face poses another challenge.

Jill Westmoreland Rose, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, said sex trafficking is often hidden by other crimes, such as drug crimes, domestic violence, extortion and prostitution.

Sometimes, a victim is so traumatized, evidence of sex trafficking doesn’t present itself right away. The victim’s basic needs such as medical, health, housing and food assistance must be met before they can even begin to think about cooperating with law enforcement, she said.

It’s often the case that sex trafficking victims initially deny the full scope of their experience, Rose said. That may be because of trauma, fear or shame. In other cases, the victims don’t self-identify as sex trafficking victims, she said.

Sex trafficking can be a transient crime as well, she pointed out. Locating the victim or victims, the trafficker, and witnesses willing to corroborate the story can be challenging.

Even when victims are identified, it doesn’t mean criminal charges are the immediate next step.

The national human-trafficking hotline can connect victims with law enforcement, but that’s often not what victims want.

“What we’re trying to identify is what that individual needs in the moment,” Novak said.

For farm workers, that may simply be back pay. Victims may need shelter, transportation or connections to services for physical and emotional support, she said.

The hotline is confidential and victims are under no obligation to report their situation to law enforcement, Novak said.

In many cases, the victims may never want to report to law enforcement, Arias said.

The rapid response team she coordinates is one of six across the state. A team of people from different agencies – victim advocates, the Department of Social Services, law enforcement and others – work together to aid victims of human trafficking.

The number one concern, Arias said, is the victim’s safety. They’ll coordinate with the victim to help find shelter, food, medical care, even clothes.

From there, what victims want to do is left up to them, Arias said.

In too many cases, victims don’t want to go to law enforcement because they’ve been arrested in the past, perhaps for prostitution, even though in reality they were victims of trafficking. “More often than not, these victims have been victimized again by being arrested,” she said.

Finally, there is simply fear, Arias said.

“We do not know how to measure fear,” she said. “You don’t really understand the fear a person feels when you get told every day that someone’s going to kill you – you know that’s coming.”

The trauma victims may face in abuse from pimps and the people with whom victims are forced to have sex doesn’t lend itself to victims wanting to pursue criminal charges when their ordeal is over, Arias said.

Or, a trafficker may intimidate foreign nationals by threatening to hurt their family back home.

“They can’t protect their family in another country if they decide to testify,” Arias said. “We have laws that provide for family to come here, but that doesn’t happen immediately.”

The youngest victims – sex trafficking can begin as early with early teens or even younger children – can’t rationalize what’s happened to them or understand that there are laws to protect them. Many have been brainwashed or experienced severe trauma.

“That’s why we don’t hear about it as much,” Arias said. “Very few people get past the safety issues to talk about it publicly.”

A changing tide

Efforts to better identify human trafficking and assist the victims are taking place on several fronts in both WNC and across the state.

Ryland noted statutes on trafficking are relatively new and changing. Even labeling some of the practices as human trafficking is new, she noted.

“There’s a lot of education that needs to happen,” she said.

Often, law enforcement and the public are looking for clear-cut examples of sex or labor trafficking, but lines are often blurred, Ryland noted.

“Some have elements of both,” she said.

Novak agreed, noting three of the 110 confirmed cases that came through the hotline last year involved both sex and labor trafficking.

What may be particularly impactful this year, Ryland said, is a mandate by the state of North Carolina that all members of law enforcement statewide participate in two hours of mandatory training on human trafficking.

“I think we’ll start to see more cases identified,” she said.

Both Wind and Arias agree, law enforcement isn’t necessarily trained to ask the right questions when they encounter a victim.

“The victim doesn’t identify themselves as a victim, they just identify as being in a really bad situation,” Arias said.

In a case where a drug dealer is forcing a woman to have sex with other men, it can look like prostitution or domestic violence, when in reality, it is trafficking, Arias said.

Similar circumstances can exist where a migrant worker is forced to work the fields, or a woman is forced to work at a restaurant every day without regular breaks or fair compensation, she said.

“Sometimes you really have to dig in deeper to figure out abuse from trafficking,” she said.

Arias, who is also a victim advocate and training specialist for the 30th Judicial District Alliance for Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault in Waynesville, said her organization has changed the questions it asks on its in-take forms to better screen victims for human trafficking.

She also does training and education for groups such as law enforcement, churches, realtors and others who may come in contact with human trafficking so they will better understand the signs to look for. A realtor, for example, may be up on that rural road showing a house, and notice that people only come and go from a home at night – a sign Arias said may indicate human trafficking.

Our Voice recently received a grant from the Women for Women Giving Circle that will allow the organization to form its own rapid-response team, including hiring a human-trafficking coordinator to facilitate the development of the team. They’ll also perform outreach and education initiatives to better educate the the community about human trafficking, Wind said.

Engaging the public

Last year, Novak said 55 calls to the national hotline came from victims and survivors themselves, meaning the other calls received came from those who suspected trafficking activity.

It’s part of why Arias, Wind and others are training groups to recognize the signs of human trafficking.

The most basic way to recognize trafficking occurs when an individual is not free to come and go as he or she wishes, Novak said.

If a woman can’t leave a hotel, or seems to have a pimp; if a person is working excessive hours with no breaks; if an individual can’t speak for themselves or seem fearful – all are possible indicators of human trafficking, Novak said.

Victims may also have few or no possessions, aren’t in control of their finances or passport, or may appear to even not know where they are, she added.

The national hotline provides a safe place for people to call if they suspect human trafficking, Novak said. Call-center workers are trained to assess the situation, or in some emergency situations, to call law enforcement immediately.

Arias added it’s important to consider safety first – both that of the person who suspects trafficking and that of the victim.

“Don’t be a hero and try to rescue someone,” she said.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center operates a 24-hour hotline to report suspected human trafficking activity. Call 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733.

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Lea Hart is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at lea.hart@gmail.com.

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