Are you asking the right questions?

Published 10:17 am Thursday, January 15, 2015

The male walks into the gas station wearing his sunglasses and an old jacket. He is accompanied by a girl half his age and her daughter. The girls go straight to the bathroom. The male wishes the clerk a Happy New Year and also continues to the bathroom. He is out first and stands next to the door, as he is not making any purchases, casually reading the newspapers on the stand.

The girls come out and pick out drinks from the cooler and start to approach the cash register. The man asks if the mom wants the little girl to go out to the car and get in the car seat or stay inside. The little girl says she will go outside and get into the car. Mom pays for the drinks and then also comes to the car. The driver then departs with the mom and daughter continuing on their way.

Does this sound suspicious to you? Was there a kidnapping or human trafficking issue happening?

Modern-day slavery and gross violations of human dignity go on around us every day. Human trafficking exploits victims psychologically and physically. Traffickers exploit children, men and women regardless of age, race, ethnicity, national origin, or socioeconomic status. How can we sit back when children are being sold for sex at truck stops and indentured servants are forced to clean hotel rooms because their legal documents are being held from them?

Human trafficking can be broken down into two categories: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Sex trafficking of adults is the commercial exploitation of a person for sexual activity through force, fraud or coercion. Sex trafficking of a minor doesn’t require force, fraud or coercion. Victims are often forced to engage in prostitution, exotic dancing and/or pornography.

Labor trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to exploit a person for labor services. Victims are often forced into domestic servitude, agricultural labor, restaurant work, or sweatshop factories. They are often found in poor or unsafe working conditions, compensation is minimal or non-existent, and housing can be forced and priced at exorbitant fees.

Estimates are that as many as 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year. This doesn’t include those that were trafficked within the country.

In 2007, the FBI, Michigan State Police and other local and county agencies formed the South East Michigan Crimes Against Children task force. In 2011, the Attorney General’s office assigned staff specifically to their human trafficking unit. In 2013, Gov. Rick Snyder launched a Commission on Human Trafficking. The commission’s findings showed several things including a need for raising public awareness of this atrocity and a desperate need for legislative and policy changes.

On Oct. 21, 2014, Gov. Snyder signed 21 new bills into law making Michigan one of the toughest states in the crackdown on human trafficking. It was the culmination of approximately 2 years of bipartisan work and stemmed from the commission’s suggestions.

So, let’s get back to the opening story. The male was me. The young ladies were my sister-in-law and niece-in-law. I was driving north to drop her off half way to Marquette after the New Year’s holiday. Once we got on the freeway, she relayed the rest of the story to me. After I walked out of the station the clerk asked my sister-in-law if I was her dad, she laughed and replied that I wasn’t. The clerk then asked where we were headed, where we came from, and where did each of us live. The clerk then looked around and whispered “are you safe?” Again my sister-in-law replied she was and ensured to the clerk that all was well.

I have contacted my counter-part for that gas station (as I still had another six hour drive and didn’t really want to turn around as I was on the freeway by the time the story was told to me) to contact that clerk and compliment her on her alertness. If you see or hear something suspicious or something doesn’t add up in a conversation, are you asking the right questions?

I urge you to educate yourself on this subject and get involved:

• Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force,

• Michigan Attorney General, “Human Trafficking”

• Polaris Project,

• The National Human Trafficking Hotline is (888) 373-7888.

(A special thanks to Trooper of the Year, Corey Hebner, Petosky Post for his contribution to this article.)


Rob Herbstreith is a trooper with the Michigan State Police Niles Post. Any questions or comments please contact me at or (269) 683-4411.