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Human trafficking report released, highlighting areas for improvement

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A young person sits on a cement sidewalk under a bridge.

A recent report brought attention to the issue of human trafficking in Michigan, focusing on state efforts made in 2020 to raise awareness and training opportunities for agencies that are on the front lines of seeing victims.

Rural areas have unique challenges in dealing with this crime that some people see as a big-city problem according to experts. Too many people think it doesn’t happen in small towns. Victims can be difficult to identify and help… social media only fuels misinformation.

 

“It is a hidden crime. We just don’t see it because we don’t always recognize it,” Jane White, Executive Director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force said.

 

It is a topic that does not often come up in conversation, but much of the discussion that does occur is myth-based leading to widespread misconceptions of what human trafficking is, how it looks, and where it happens.

 

Sexual exploitation is not the only means by which trafficking can happen.

 

“If we're looking at labor trafficking, rural areas in Michigan are where it happens because our second industry in the state of Michigan is agriculture,” White said. “And who is it that plants our crops, watches the crops, and then harvests and that's generally people who come from other countries that we bring into the state of Michigan because we don't have Michigan residents that want to do that.”

 

White said people agree to this work under the guise of great wages however that can change upon their arrival. For example, she said accommodations that were once promised including free food, housing, and transportation may be deducted from a worker’s pay.

 

Human trafficking seldom occurs in real life like it does in movies. According to White, about 2% of the time someone is kidnapped in broad daylight or taken amid random circumstances. This misinformation has spiraled into the belief that trafficking is something that begins unwillingly.

“Victims both in labor and sexual exploitation do often go in of their own free will,” White said. “But when I say free will, someone has manipulated them into believing that they’re the finest thing that ever was.”

Nonetheless, in-state training is offered to help people identify the signs of trafficking, but it’s only required in one profession: healthcare. Debi Cain, the Director of the Division of Victims Services with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said healthcare workers are trained on how to identify and report these signs.

 

“One of the thing that we have that MDHHS has done is really look at how we can do a better job of making sure that when somebody does come into an emergency room or healthcare provider, that the people who are servicing that person as medical people are not just looking at the medical issues but they can better identify is this a case where there might be trafficking and who would they then refer the victim to for help,” she said.

 

Cain said they observe aspects including who the patient is accompanied by, if the story matches the reason for being there, and how the patient is dressed and looks to some extent.

 

Since healthcare workers are the only one’s legally mandated to receive trafficking training, law enforcement agencies are left to educate themselves. Some departments have integrated such instruction, but many have not.

 

“Atleast 40% of police officers in Michigan have never been trained in human trafficking and they’re the primary agency for identification,” White said.

 

Even if law officers are educated, the small size of a rural agency can hinder their ability to act. 

 

According to a 2018 report by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, three-quarters of the state’s population lives on about 6% of the land. The remaining one-quarter, about two-and-a-half million people, occupy over 93% of  the land in Michigan equating to about one person every 23 acres.

 

“When it’s discovered that there is trafficking, what does a 3-person police department do?” Jane said, begging a question. “Are they able to investigate? What social services are available? Do they have mental health services? Do they have people who are trained in trafficking?”

 

White said human trafficking victims often enter situations willingly only to find out it’s a one-way door and they are forced to stay. If help presents itself, they may even refuse. Some for fear of retaliation from their captors, others for fear of being criminalized.

 

Cain said after years of filing prostitution and other charges against human trafficking victims, prosecutors are beginning to focus on the real perpetrator.

 

“We’re beginning to identify trafficking as something that is generally not voluntary but almost always, there is somebody who is monetarily benefiting by using this person to their purposes and somebody’s buying those services when they shouldn’t be and yet the person who traditionally has gotten charged would be the person who’s the one actually being trafficked,” she said.

 

The nature of the crime explains why it is notoriously underreported, yet organizations are still working to improve outreach.

 

In 2019, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported more than eleven-thousand cases that involved more than 20,000 individual survivors. Created in 2007, the hotline was established to support victims who call in. Though they do track some numbers, that is incidental. Hotline officials said they only have space to store data from the past five years, so older information is cleared. As a result, long term data trends cannot be recorded.

 

Michigan has been criticized for the lack of a robust data collection system. White with the Human Trafficking task force says a statewide database is critical to bring about policy change.

 

“We got to have people talk to their legislature, talk to their congress people and say we have to have data collection information,” she said. “You can imagine at times we’re whistling in the dark because the impact of not being able to do numbers, trends, all those kinds of things that are done is so significant.”

 

White said if a database is not established within the next two to three years “that would be almost criminal. We just have to have it.”

 

You don’t have to be a doctor, police officer or data collector, however, to help out those in need.

 

Cain with MDHHS said there are a number of ways the average person can help prevent human trafficking as some services rely heavily on volunteers.

 

“Nonprofits rely on community members caring and helping both directly sometimes with victims but also being on their board of directors or helping with fundraising or helping do outreach in the community, let people know what’s available with the trafficking program that they have.”

 

Cain said she works to educate people that the crime is real… and the need is great.

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