NEW BUFFALO — Those attending the April 10 Human Trafficking 101 community forum at New Buffalo High School learned about many of the warning signs from Cathy Knauf of the Southwest Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.
Knauf said many people’s “truth” about the issue involves Hollywood movie tales such as “Pretty Woman” or “Taken,” but the reality is far different.
She said human trafficking is different from smuggling (the physical movement of people from one country to another) because it is a crime against a person that can occur in a home or business.
Knauf asked how many people attending the forum feel they have supported human trafficking in the last 24 hours, proceeding to have people stand if they had consumed pineapple, chocolate or coffee, worn gold or silver or cotton, driven a car, used a computer or a cell phone.”
“If you’ve done any of those things you’ve contributed to human trafficking ... It’s not just sex trafficking, it’s also labor trafficking,” she said.
A fact sheet offered at the event said federal law defines human trafficking as either sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perofrm such act has not attained 18 years of age; or the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or servces, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.
School social workers Shannon Woerdehoff (New Buffalo) and Liz Kickert (River Valley) were credited with helping to organize the forum (sponsored by The Pokagon Fund).
Kickert said another session for elementary age parents will take place in the fall.
Woerdehoff said human trafficking happens everywhere, including here, and the goal in having forums is to raise awareness.
Knauf said anyone under 18 who has sex in return for anything of value (food, jewelry, $5) is being trafficked even if they say they want to. She said human trafficking is modern-day slavery and also is the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world behind only illegal drugs.
And she expects trafficking to surpass even drugs because a person can be sold over and over.
Knauf said some human traffickers treat their victims roughly, others act like their best friend.
“There are all kinds of psychological and emotional holds they can use.”
She said once victims feel beholden to their captors (or threatened enough) they won’t go to the law or seek escape because of the mental, emotional and psychological chains holding them.
Knauf said most victims come from a vulnerable situation — something that could happen to most people if their home is destroyed by a fire or a tornado, the death of a loved on, or some other sort of sudden misfortune.
And she said traffickers will use such vulnerabilities to their advantage.
“You need a home? I have a home. You need food? I can feed you. You need clothing? Your clothed,” adding that it’s not really about sex, it’s about power, supply and demand.
She noted that many boys also are trafficked, especially when it comes to involuntary labor.
“Nobody ever woke up and said ‘You know what I want to be? I want to be abused, I want to be taken away from my family, I want to be threatened, I want to be branded, and I want to work as a child or I want to work for no pay,’” Knauf said.
She said in 2018 10,000 of the 13,000 children who went into the foster care system in Michigan had been the victims of abuse or neglect, and one out of six endangered runaways will be trafficked by predators.
Knauf said a high percentage of traffickers meet children online.
She said warning signs that an adult may be targeting a child include a high level of interest, buying them presents all the time, flattering the child, sharing interests, spending time alone and offering to take care of the child, showing them porn or inappropriate pictures and jokes. She said parents and teachers need to keep an eye out for such signs of “grooming” behavior and said it’s important to teach kids about good and bad touch.
Knauf and Elwyn W. Gonzalez held up a female mannequin made for the task force to illustrate some of the warning signs of human trafficking that she said is very valuable when doing training with medical personnel.
These include bruises, branding tattoos such as dollar signs and UPC symbols, rope burns on wrists, choke marks around the neck, a reluctance to look people (including police officers) in the eyes, cigarette burns, track marks from drugs, and bad teeth.
She urged parents to review their children’s online activity and to know who their kids’ friends are. Also, apps such as Secret Calculator (which hides things), Kik, Wickr, SnapChat and Tinder are not appropriate for younger children and can be used by predators to locate and recruit victims.