Human trafficking victims can be anywhere

The girl looked out from my computer screen with big round eyes and a sad face. She was maybe 12 years old, an ordinary looking white girl with long straight hair.  Behind her was a featureless background should. Text below her picture invited me to converse.

I had stumbled on this website by accident, and I was shocked. My first instinct was to protect my computer so I clicked off. Moments later, I realized I had lost the connection to what probably was a trafficked child – only because I’ve seen this very thing on TV’s “Law and Order: SVU.”

When I tried to find that website again, I couldn’t get back to it.

I called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children but admitted that my information was probably too minimal to be helpful. If I’d been thinking faster, I might have saved details or taken a screenshot of the girl to pass on to law enforcement.

On other occasions, when teenagers came to my door selling candy or other items at absurdly inflated prices, I thought it was probably a scam but not that I might be looking at trafficked children. Traveling sales crews, as they are called, are another form of exploitation.  While sex trafficking is the best known, labor trafficking also occurs, involving both minors and adults.

If you see something suspicious, there’s now a national phone number with a specific mandate: National Human Trafficking Hotline, phone number 1(888) 373-7888, website humantraffickinghotline.org. You can contact the hotline by phone, text message, email, chat, etc. The instructions are on the website. If you think you’re seeing an emergency, you can also call your local police or 911.

The hotline is operated by a private organization called Polaris, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other sources.

New Mexico has a multi-agency Human Trafficking Task Force, with the attorney general’s office as the lead agency. The task force consists of  local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies, prosecutorial agencies, and service providers from around the state. Its purposes include both prosecuting traffickers and providing services to victims.

The hotline reports that nationally, it has handled about 52,000 cases since 2007. In New Mexico, there were 70 cases reported in 2018.

The national statistics of reported cases show that trafficked individuals were about 7 to 1 female to male. There were about twice as many adults as children.

Sex trafficking was the biggest reported type, but there were also many reports of labor trafficking, including domestic work, agriculture, traveling sales crews, restaurants, construction and illicit activities. Sex trafficking victims were found in illicit massage businesses, residence-based commercial sex, hotels and motels, truck stops, pornography, and online advertising.  Some victims may be persons from other countries who were forcibly detained so that they overstayed their visas and now they’re here illegally.

A speaker at a recent meeting – – who asked me not to publish her name for security reasons — said the hotline receives more calls from witnesses than from victims. Some of those witnesses may be casual observers who see something that doesn’t look right.

There has been, as one example, educational outreach to tattoo artists.  Sometimes the handlers use tattooing to literally mark their property.

Prostitutes and other people doing illegal or suspicious activities may be victims rather than criminals. Our speaker said public awareness of this has been growing.

Not all cases are considered trafficking because, for example, an adult prostitute could be acting voluntarily.  But where the person is underage, every case is considered trafficking because minors can’t legally give consent.

As with many kinds of crime, you can’t predict when you’ll come across the opportunity to take action, possibly saving a life.  It’s just a phone call. Next time, I will be better prepared and hope you will be, also.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2019

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