Human Trafficking: Reading the signs

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part series examining the issue of human trafficking for National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Part 1 can be found in the Jan. 20 issue of The Sentinel or here.

When “Smallville” actress Allison Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy charges for her role in a sex trafficking scheme in 2019, it turned the public eye to an issue which too often creeps just below the surface.

The high-profile case highlighted that human trafficking can be found at nearly any stratum of society, garnering wide attention in no small part due to the status of the perpetrators.

Mack joined NXIVM, a purported self-help, multi-level marketing company offering personal and professional betterment seminars in 2006.

NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um) was formed in 1998 by Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman and by 2018 had been exposed as a recruitment platform for a cult-like group in which a harem of sexual “slaves” were branded with Raniere’s initials on their pelvises and coerced into having sex with him.

Mack was sentenced to three years in prison while Raniere was sentenced to 120 years for an array of crimes including racketeering, sex trafficking, conspiracy, forced labor, identity theft, sexual exploitation of a child and possession of child pornography.

In another high-profile case just last month, Ghislaine Maxwell, former socialite and companion to Jeffrey Epstein, was found guilty of child sex trafficking.

While these publicly conspicuous cases may turn heads, the reality is that perpetrators, whether living lavish lifestyles or not, need only the ability to manipulate a target’s vulnerabilities to effectively ensnare their victims into the world of human trafficking.

According to human trafficking prevention groups, some of the most vulnerable populations in the United States include indigenous communities, LGBTQ individuals, those with disabilities, undocumented migrants, temporary guest-workers and low-income individuals.

Local nonprofit Looking Glass works with runaway and homeless youth in Lane County, who happen to be a prime vulnerable demographic of the human trafficking market.

Though the nonprofit specializes in care for youth, many of the dangers, impacts and warning signs ring true for older victims as well.

The Sentinel spoke with a staff member from the nonprofit who requested their name and title remain anonymous to protect clientele.

Warning Signs

Though human trafficking can be difficult to uncover due to the secrecy often involved, the staff member explained that an ability to spot the warning signs is an important first step in mitigation.

“My number one warning sign is multiple cell phones,” said the Looking Glass staff member. “If you’re seeing a youth with multiple cell phones, and they’re not able to explain why they have them, I get a little bit clued in and ask, ‘Why is that?’”

While not a telltale sign, it can be a red flag, they said.

On top of multiple phones, one might have multiple online identities to prevent being discovered.

The staff member noted that this practice of keeping separate identities also feeds a psychological need as it can be a way for a victim to dissociate from what is happening to them.

Multiple health problems may also be a warning sign.

“A lot of the times they won’t allow a youth to go seek out healthcare until they know that the youth is going to give the ‘correct’ version of the story,” the staff member said. “So, they may end up with multiple STDs or bitemarks or nasty infections until they’re ‘ready’ to provide a story that’s not going to trigger a nurse or a doctor to think this is a youth who’s being trafficked.”

For youths in particular, unexplained missing periods of time from school may be a sign. Victims may even still be attending school, but have trouble staying awake due to being forced to work nights.

“And then I think the big one is tattooing and branding,” said the staff member. “Tattooing a name as like a form of ownership over someone. Or burn marks. Burn marks, I think, are pretty common because it’s much easier to burn someone with a cigarette than it is to put a tattoo on them.”

Human trafficking prevention groups also point to several other possible indications that someone may be a victim such as appearing malnourished, avoiding eye contact or social interaction, lacking identification documents, using slang such as “daddy” to refer to boyfriends or appearing to adhere to scripted speech in social interactions.

Impact and Recovery

Unsurprisingly, the industry is rife with danger.

“People die. People die on a regular basis,” said the staff member. “You could end up with HIV. Or you could end up pregnant and then the trafficker doesn’t want people to know that you’re having a baby, so you end up having to have the baby at home. And that can be dangerous for both the victim and the child.”

Keeping a victim compliant may also involve supplying them regularly with narcotics, which adds the danger of overdosing to the list.

For survivors of these conditions, the long-term impact can be lasting.

Physical and psychological abuse can often lead to serious mental or emotional health issues, including feelings of severe guilt, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorders.

“And depending on the right circumstances, could lead to suicide,” added the staff member.

Getting survivors into the right recovery programs can be a challenge, too.

“There is no set way that someone recovers from this,” said the staff member. “Some people might be able to bounce back immediately or in phases and then there’s some people who might take years.”

Looking Glass itself provides counseling programs for adjudicated and homeless youth and its staff train heavily in crisis communication.

However, the staff member lamented that there are few local resources which target the distinct needs of trafficking survivors or those still being victimized.

“There are plenty of resources for people to seek out. They’re just not that specific for trafficking,” said the staff member.

Still, programs which address basic needs can mitigate risk factors for vulnerable groups. 

Cottage Grove is home to a sizeable Spanish-speaking migrant population. A large subset of this population is a Guatemalan community which speaks an indigenous Mayan language called Mam.

Family Resource Center Coordinator Ana Maria Dudley works closely with members of these communities in Cottage Grove and notes that the number of barriers they face may open them up to exploitation.

“The language barrier, the community norm barriers, or when you don’t know how a legal system functions in a new country – that’s a barrier,” she said. “So, this is something that the (Family Resource) center is very good at: facilitating and breaking down those barriers.”

The Family Resource Center is run through the South Lane School District and has been operating as a resource and referral group for 33 years.

“Through the Family Resource Center, we have always had bilingual, bicultural staff. So, by default, that makes us a port of entry for all. And we’re open to everyone in the community,” said Dudley.

The service aims to be not only an information resource, but a pillar of support.

“It’s about creating relationships,” Dudley said. “So when the families arrive, they feel that they can build a relationship with us at the center and they have that support.”

The center brings in experts in various fields, provides legal aid and connects families to other area resources such as Rural Organizing Project, South Lane Mental Health, Community Sharing and local churches.

“To have a continuity of care speaks highly of what the school district does and, for everybody in the community, we make sure that we know who they are and they know who we are,” Dudley explained.

Dudley said that, in her work with what could potentially be a vulnerable population, she has not seen any indications that migrants are falling victim to human trafficking practices in Cottage Grove.

“I think it’s because we have such a strong support network for the families,” she said. “All they have to do is walk into the center and they will be connected to the system that will take care of [their needs].”

Without this strong network, she said, exploitation would likely be more of an issue.

The Looking Glass staff member pointed to services such as this as providing foundational solutions to the issue. Programs which close the gaps of access to resources for survivors are critical, they said.

The staff member also encouraged people to educate themselves on ways in which specific populations are disadvantaged and to support local organizations which do the work of breaking down barriers.

“When we’re addressing the needs of our most vulnerable populations, we need to be using approaches that acknowledge that trauma and work to minimize the lasting impacts,” they said. “These populations are diverse and one-size-fits-all approaches are not going to lead to successful prevention and intervention. So, providing youth in the community with resources is crucial, but also building safe and healthy relationships between them and trusted adults is extremely impactful.”

The Polaris Project and its National Human Trafficking Resource Center and Innocents at Risk nonprofit can be useful resources at the national level. The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888 or by texting BEFREE.

Locally, individuals can access the Family Resource Center through any South Lane School District school or by calling 541-942-4967.

The Looking Glass 24-hour crisis hotline is 541-689-3111.

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