Berrien County ranks in top 15 for human trafficking in Michigan

Published 1:48 pm Thursday, May 9, 2013

to Leader Publications

While Texas ranks No. 1 in the country for frequency of human trafficking, Michigan is not far behind — ranking seventh in the nature, according to Sarah Moore of the Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, a group that aims to create awareness about this form of slavery.

It is the I-94 corridor that has made the state such a hotbed for this crime, another activist, Cathy Knauf, founder of the Southwest Michigan Human Trafficking Taskforce, told a crowd of about 60 people last week at St. Johns United Church of Christ in Three Oaks.

The newly formed task force is in the developing stages of organizing but aims to get a network created to keep people informed and to aid law enforcement agencies in the area.

“Berrien County currently ranks 15th out of the 83 counties in Michigan for trafficking victims,” Knauf said.

“Human trafficking occurs with the exploitation of a victim and is nothing more than modern-day slavery,” said Moore, explaining there are two types of traffickers.

Guerilla traffickers will use food, shelter or the chance of employment to entice a victim and then use force to make them submit to their will.  The finesse trafficker will use grooming tactics. He may start as a boyfriend — usually much older than his victim — and will use elaborate methods of seduction, often utilizing the Internet to make his approach.

The average age of a person being groomed in America by a finesse trafficker is a 13-year-old girl. Prosecuting the traffickers is usually difficult because it is a hidden crime often occurring in plain sight but onlookers are unaware of what to look for and the victims are unwilling to press charges.

“Unfortunately, quite often the victims are prosecuted while the pimp remains free because he is not there when the arrest is made and the victims are afraid to speak up or press charges because they fear reprisal,” Moore said.
Michigan State Tpr. agreed Rob Herbstreith agreed with Moore during his presentation to the Three Oaks crowd.
“This is an unseen crime, these girls are in plain sight,” he said.

“This is an unseen crime, these girls are in plain sight,” said Herbstreith, explaining that law enforcement has some catching up to do.

“Law enforcement in Michigan is spreading the word through seminars and training sessions, letting local officers know the signs to look for and we are developing task forces to better understand and combat the problem,” he said.

However, Moore pointed out that human trafficking will end only with community awareness.

“Every two minutes, a child is being victimized somewhere in the world and, when I hear about a 13 year-old-girl being raped repeatedly all day long, the least that I can do is stand up and have a voice for them,” Moore said.

During the question-and-answer portion of the presentation some of the audience members expressed concerns over the hold a trafficker might have over a victim and wanted to know more.

“There are a variety of methods used and they range from actual restraint to physical abuse or even just hunger; it could be as simple as that.

“Also 80 percent of the victims already have a history of sexual abuse prior to being trafficked, some of the victims are throw-away kids with nowhere to go and some of them are runaways. In fact, one in three runaways will be approached or solicited within the first 48 hours on the street, and there are some of these victims who are even being trafficked by their own family,” Herbstreith said.

With 76 percent of the victims originating from the Internet, social media has begun to play a large role in the trafficking industry.

“On any given night, there are hundreds of girls for sale on Craigslist right here in Michigan and quite often their profiles will feature code words such as ‘sweet,’ which means that the girl is underage,” according to Moore.

Recently, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette formed The Michigan Commission on Human Trafficking to combat the growing problem.
Local politicians, such as state Sen. John Proos, also  are working to bring awareness to this issue and pass legislation that will increase penalties and aid the victims.
“This is an all hands on deck situation and a human rights problem for Michigan and our nation. Human trafficking extorts an incredible cost for the victims and their families and, with a bipartisan effort in both the senate and the house along with the help of Attorney General Schuette, we are going to introduce legislation to do something about it,” he said.

According to Moore, many people have encountered a trafficking victim and may not have been aware or had suspicions but were unsure of what to do. During the Three Oaks discussion Moore strongly advised anyone who suspects that someone was being trafficked to call the Trafficking Hotline, (888) 373-7888.
Contact this number to connect with local agencies involved with anti-trafficking services if you wish to set up training for an organization.

If you would like to become involved locally the organization Planting Hope In Michigan will be hosting a fundraiser to raise money for the victims of trafficking and to raise community awareness of this crime. The event called Planting Hope will be held on May 11th   at the Lemon Creek Winery located at 533 East Lemon Creek Road in Berrien Springs Michigan from 10am to 6pm. Co-hosted by the Stonehouse Nursery, the event will feature a plant sale, raffle and will include the goods and services of other local vendors who have helped to sponsor the event. Their will also be presentations and guest speakers from law enforcement and groups that are members of the Anti-Trafficking Coalition such as The Hope Project and Hope for the Voiceless that work to aid the victims.

Signs of the modern-day slave trade

— Signs of stress or depression, bruises or other signs of physical abuse, if the person in question seems to be submissive or appears to be controlled by someone, if they are deprived of basic life necessities, appear to be isolated from friends or family,
— If the person is a minor and they are in a relationship with someone who is much older and is controlling. They may not be allowed to be in public alone, or if the person lacks proper identification and if they are a minor who is engaged in any form of commercial sexual activity.
— Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at (888) 373-7888 to report suspicious activity.

— Niles Daily Star