Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States. The prevalence of human trafficking in North Carolina is due to many factors, including the major highways that run through the state (40, 85, and 95), a large, transient military population surrounded by sexually oriented businesses, numerous rural agricultural areas with a high demand for cheap labor, and an increasing number of gangs. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in 2017, North Carolina had 221 reported human trafficking cases. This statistic puts North Carolina 8th among all 50 states, in terms of the number of reported human trafficking cases.
REACH of Macon County has stepped up to the plate locally to serve victims of human trafficking in the western region of the state.
REACH has been working with human trafficking survivors for many years but received a grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission in 2017 to expand capacity and focus more specifically on human trafficking efforts. Since that time, the agency has increased outreach, education, training, and increased capacity to record and track human trafficking survivors.
In 2019, REACH of Macon County served 44 human trafficking victims.
“We usually track human trafficking survivors as labor or sex trafficking,” explained Andrea Anderson, executive director of REACH. “As long as survivors meet the threshold for these definitions, they are recorded as human trafficking clients; however, it’s important to note that trafficking survivors may also be survivors of domestic violence and/or other forms of sexual trauma or abuse. Survivors may also be primary or secondary victims. For example, a child who is living in a home where their primary care giver is being trafficked but they are not. REACH primarily serves survivors of sex trafficking, however, we have also provided services to survivors of labor trafficking who had also experienced domestic or sexual violence. There is often an overlap of persons who have been labor trafficked and also have experienced domestic/sexual violence.”
According to Anderson, labor trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Labor trafficking includes situations of debt bondage, forced labor, and involuntary child labor.
Sex trafficking is human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation including sexual slavery. A victim is forced, in a variety of ways, into a situation of dependency on their trafficker and then used by said trafficker to give sexual services to customers.
The 44 victims helped by REACH in 2019 includes both primary and secondary victims and ranges in age from children to a 59 year old adult.
“Sadly, currently we are on track to serve more human trafficking victims this year than last,” said Anderson. “Primary victims have ranged from teenage to adult.”
Because the types of victims vary, the services REACH provides also vary. According to Anderson, the organization works to provide whatever services and resources they have at their disposal.
“Victims seek help initially for a variety of reasons. Some come specifically for shelter – whether local or through outside referrals,” said Anderson. “Some may reach out through our 24/7 crisis line to simply talk or seek support. Some may finally reach a point where it is possible for them to leave, so they seek support through the criminal justice system (i.e DVPO) or counseling and wrap around services. REACH works with partners throughout the region and state whose missions are also to work with survivors of trafficking. In some cases survivors need to be quickly moved so there are many partnerships and networks to make that happen. Also many agencies providing services and support to survivors of trafficking do not have a shelter, with our program and training we are able to help provide shelter for these survivors.”
With more human trafficking victims so far in 2020 compared to the same time last year, Anderson said unfortunately she sees the problem growing.
“There is certainly an intersectionality with trafficking that allows the problem to grow exponentially within local communities,” said Anderson. “The rise of social media and the accessibility of technology also creates new avenues for traffickers to identify new victims. With community outreach and expansion of service providers for survivors, trafficking is becoming more recognizable and services are being utilized more often.”
As much as REACH works to provide services to victims of human trafficking, the agency also works to educate the community in attempt to combat it. North Carolina passed legislation, GS. 115C-81 that requires local Boards of Education to address sex trafficking awareness and prevention in schools, something REACH seeks to do during programs they implement in the school systems.
“REACH continues to provide outreach, education and training for community members, local school systems, and other professionals,” said Anderson. “REACH implements trafficking into our prevention programming (as is age appropriate), and is constantly working to ensure that information is available to the community for victims and survivors. In fact, REACH anticipates rolling out a new text line which will offer an additional avenue for victims to seek help. It is often impossible to make a phone call, but sometimes you can more discreetly send a text. Our text line will help provide an initial resource to make a connection with an advocate to learn more about how to get help, victim’s rights, what resources are available, and to have someone to reach out to for support.”
Anderson said that awareness and education is a key component of addressing the issue.
“Trafficking can take on many different forms. It can be large, organized systems that cross state and international boundaries,” she said. “However it can also be local – many times vulnerable youth or family members are exploited by being coerced into a dependency of a living situation where they are forced and used for labor or sexual activities.”