Smithfield Herald

New group hopes to help human trafficking victims in Johnston County

Jazmin Colón reads about a person who was the victim of human trafficking. A senior at South Johnston High School, Colón is researching and raising awareness about human trafficking for her senior project.
Jazmin Colón reads about a person who was the victim of human trafficking. A senior at South Johnston High School, Colón is researching and raising awareness about human trafficking for her senior project.

A group is trying a stem a little-known tide in Johnston County – human trafficking.

Earlier this month, a new task force here held its first event designed to raise awareness of human trafficking. The presentation was designed with young people in mind; instead, it drew mostly adults, including church groups.

“If you learn nothing else today, know that human trafficking is happening in North Carolina,” Jessica Porta, an educator with the Salvation Army in Wake County, told the 20 or so people gathered for the event.

Andrew Tatum is a member of the task force. “Once you know about (human trafficking), you feel like you have to do something about it because it’s a serious problem,” he said.

Tatum, the youth minister at Smithfield’s Centenary United Methodist Church, said he first learned of human trafficking in North Carolina through a church event. What he learned surprised him, and he felt compelled to act.

Human trafficking is when a person is traded as property – for slave labor, prostitution or for their organs and tissue. It happens to both U.S. citizens and those brought here illegally.

By the numbers

Anyone can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center to report suspected human trafficking. Last year, the group received 623 calls in North Carolina, the 12th highest total in the country, and identified 98 likely cases. The Triangle and Johnston County are highlighted on the group’s map of North Carolina.

Ellen Blair does outreach for Partners Against Trafficking Humans, a North Carolina group. “Prevention and collaboration,” she said, “that’s really the way we’re going to get out of it.”

Blair’s group says North Carolina is home to human trafficking for three main reasons: its major highways, agriculture and military bases. The highways, including north-south and east-west interstates, make it easy to transport people to and through North Carolina. Agriculture needs cheap labor, and people are sometimes brought against their will to farm the fields. Prostitution ring leaders meet the demand for sex at military bases by trafficking people to nearby bars.

Porta said victims of human trafficking are often given lose-lose choices and choose the lesser of two evils. The Salvation Army, she said, sees no bad clients, just people in bad situations.

“It’s not too hard to get into,” Porta said of falling into human trafficking. “It’s very hard to get out.”

Since mid-2011, the Salvation Army has helped 93 people escape trafficking, receive medical care, including therapy, and then get back on their feet.

Porta said Salvation Army case managers always see trauma in the people they help. Ages have ranged from 13 to 63.

Real-life cases

During the event, the 20 attendees walked through real-life cases of human trafficking. Organizers lined a number of tables with cards describing actual victims. Each person would pick up a card and read about the victim. The reader would then have to make a choice that determined what happened next.

One victim was a young man living in South America. Called Marcus, his family needed money because his little sister was sick. In one scenario, he tried to enter the United States illegally and almost died crossing a desert. In another, he was able to get a visa. But either way, his destination was a work camp.

The cardholder then had a choice to make. If Marcus stayed in the labor camp, it took one year to be rescued, a year in which he was unable to check on his family, send them money or find out if his sister was still alive. If Marcus escaped, he was forced into prostitution and rescued a year later.

As people talked about the scenarios afterward, a major theme emerged: They tried to make the best decision possible, but it still ended in horrible consequences. Often, the situations were lose-lose. In other cases, good decisions led to bad situations.

In another case, a man approached an American teenager in the mall, saying she looked beautiful and could have a career in modeling. When she arrived for photos, he pressured her to pose nude and then posted the photos on child-pornography websites.

Tatum said he hopes more people, both youth and adults, will get involved in the task force’s efforts.