RALEIGH — The Salvation Army of Wake County says it has helped 69 victims of human trafficking in North Carolina in the last year, 15 of them in the Triangle, far more than expected.
The Salvation Army hired two people last year to help identify and care for human trafficking victims. The 69 people it has helped so far were involved in 37 cases, said spokeswoman Haven Sink.
“We expected to have 12 cases in 2 years,” Sink said. “The fact that we have seen 37 in just a year shows how much more of a problem it is than even we expected it was.”
Human trafficking is defined as forcing or coercing someone to work. It was recognized as a crime under federal law in 2000 and became a state crime in North Carolina in 2006.
The Wake County branch of the Salvation Army is the only organization in the state equipped to provide comprehensive case management to victims of trafficking, assisting them from the day they are rescued until they are able to function on their own again. The organization has not been able to keep up with demand and has been forced to turn away some people due to a lack of money, Sink said.
Despite the number of victims identified by the Salvation Army, only two people have been accused of the crime in the state this year, both in Cumberland County.
“Either victims weren’t willing to talk about it, or there wasn’t enough evidence to go through with prosecuting traffickers,” Raleigh police Captain Chris Carrigan said of the three cases in Raleigh.
Statewide, one person was convicted of human trafficking in 2011, in Durham County, and sentenced to eight years in prison. In that case, a man held a 15-year-old girl captive for 18 months and forced her to have sex with him starting in 2008.
Military bases, a busy tourism industry, a regular influx of immigrant and low-wage workers, and major highway connections to the rest of the East Coast combine to make North Carolina an attractive place for traffickers, according to the N.C. Coalition Against Human Trafficking, an association of law enforcement, legal and social services organizations, including the Salvation Army.
The industry causing the most concern for law enforcement agencies is escort services or prostitution, which often involve people under the age of 18.
“A lot of those girls will travel up and down interstates staying in motels for a week at a time, and are moving from one city to another,” Carrigan said.
Sink described one victim helped by the Salvation Army whose situation she said shocked everyone in the organization. “We found a 5-year-old boy being held in a cage,” Sink said. To protect the boy and his family, she said she could not disclose details about his case, including whether he or someone else in his family had been forced to work, but she said the boy was found in the Triangle.
Last Christmas, the Salvation Army was able to help provide him with medical attention and dental aid because every tooth in his mouth was rotten, Sink said.
“We were also able to give him his first toy,” she said.
Another man had been held captive in a home with dirt floors, no bed and no food, and forced to work in a field daily for 40 cents an hour, Sink said.
The Salvation Army of Wake County calls its initiative Project FIGHT, for Freeing Individuals Gripped by Human Trafficking. It has since hired a third person to focus on addressing sex trafficking of children.
It costs about $3,000 to take on an individual involved in human trafficking. The group finds victims through law enforcement officers and also through the national trafficking hotline operated by the non-profit Polaris Project. For each victims, the group provides a case manager, medical services, emergency housing and counseling.
The Salvation Army has been able to provide long-term care for 32 people, helping them get re-established into society, enrolled in school and set up with stable housing, income, and other long-term needs.
The Wake County branch is working to teach other Salvation Army branches about human trafficking and case management, in hopes that others will be able to help victims as well.
It is difficult to determine whether the number of human trafficking cases have increased in recent years, or if more attention to the issue has led more people to report it. Nationally, Polaris Project trafficking hotline reported it received 19,427 calls related to human trafficking in 2011, up from 7,637 two years earlier.