‘It’s really close to home’

By on January 25, 2020

Michael Lewis acknowledges that with trafficking victims, there may be more failures than successes. (Michelle Wagner/file photo)

Local experts discuss battle against human trafficking

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, North Carolina ranked eighth in the nation in the number of human trafficking cases in 2019, with 92 of the 132 cases reported involving sex trafficking. This year, perhaps in response to growing concern over its prevalence, the N.C. General Assembly mandated that all employees in North Carolina schools be trained in reporting and preventing child sex trafficking.

And while local experts say they don’t have definitive numbers when it comes to trafficking in Dare and Currituck counties, one thing is certain. It is happening.  Tina Pennington has seen this firsthand since opening the doors of the Currituck-based anti-trafficking organization, Beloved Haven, five years ago.

“The majority of the girls we have worked with in the last five years have been out of either Dare County, Currituck County, or Elizabeth City, so it’s really close to home,” she said during a Jan. 18 “Trafficking in my Backyard” training session sponsored by her organization, Outer Banks Hotline and the Currituck County Sheriff’s Office.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Pennington and other experts at the Jan. 18 training said predators often use social media as a tool for “grooming” individuals, often middle-school and high school-aged children, as victims.

The Jan. 18 training session came a few weeks after a 13-year-old Currituck County girl went missing, triggering extensive law enforcement efforts that located her several days later in Georgia. That proved not to be a trafficking case, but the local girl had been lured away from home by another teen girl she met online.

The age of the missing girl in that case should not come as a surprise, experts say. Pennington noted that when it comes to online exchanges between a child and predator, the average age for victims – both girls and boys – being lured into such a situation is 13.

Pennington, whose organization recently opened a drop-in center for sex trafficking victims in Elizabeth City, said that the crime in Dare and Currituck counties looks different than in Elizabeth City, where street prostitution isn’t uncommon.

“Here, we find that it is all done online and runs under an escort” on sites such as ‘Skip the Games,’” she told the group of about 30 participants. “Every day, you will go on and see about ten or fifteen listings and you will see where that girl is located, and you will be floored when you find out it is here.”

“Don’t take my word for it,” asserted Pennington. “You can actually research it and find out it is happening here in our communities.”

Pennington said that traffickers connect with young people online and pretend to be the one who understands them, who is going to make it alright during a volatile time of childhood. She said the men, or their recruiters who are sometimes other girls, often groom victims online to build a relationship and make them believe they care about them.

She added that Beloved Haven is often contacted by parents who have discovered concerning content on their daughters’ phones.

“We’ve had to go to the sheriff’s department on several [occasions] on just texting…young girls texting with guys they think are sixteen-years old and we find out it’s a forty-five-year-old man in Missouri who’s just about go her to agree to meet him. It’s just really important to know what your kids are doing on social media, and who they’re talking to. It’s hard, I know, to monitor and to also allow that privacy.”

She added: “We don’t want to scare kids to death or make them afraid to even go outside because a white van might drive by and throw them in the back. Please don’t think that’s what trafficking looks like, because it doesn’t.”

For his part, Currituck Sheriff Matthew Beickert asserted that there is always the possibility of a trafficking situation. “A lot of times, these things are similarly going on and they don’t turn out bad – someone will meet someone who they believe is their own age and they turn out they are. But it’s just a matter of time before someone is fooled.”

Beickert noted that his department has a task force assigned to internet crimes against children and officers are trained annually on trafficking, adding that his staff works closely with the SBI and FBI on potential trafficking cases. He also said that he hopes to incorporate education regarding healthy relationships into the high school freshman orientation.

Outer Banks Hotline Executive Director Michael Lewis said that while the N.C. General Assembly mandated training in schools, it didn’t say how that training should look. Lewis said his group, along with Beloved Haven and Albemarle Hopeline, are going to partner to develop a program on what human trafficking looks like – not only for staff, but also for students and parents.

Lewis said that while the General Assembly didn’t indicate how much training the employees had to have, he hoped Outer Banks Hotline would be in the schools on a monthly or quarterly basis.

In response to a question about the vulnerability of foreign students coming to work on the Outer Banks, Lewis said: “We’ve had some information that some of your foreign students… have been victims of trafficking. We haven’t had any come forward to say that they’re victims.”

Pennington said that Beloved Haven’s drop-in center in Elizabeth City, which opened in July, provides victims with a safe place to go. Its mission is to make connections with trafficking victims to help them begin to take the next steps to leave that situation.

“The drop-in center allows us to prepare them to be ready to leave, and hopefully have a plan,” she said. “We knew there was this huge gap between rescue and success.”

Recalling a victim in Ocracoke who reached out to the National Human Trafficking Hotline for help, was transported to the Outer Banks Hospital and then to a medical center in Greenville only to leave again, Lewis said the task of helping these victims is complex and involves many agencies.

“There are some successes and some failures,” explained Lewis. “You are going to have more failures, but if we can just save one, that’s what we are here for.”


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