As Grand Rapidians and Americans continue openly confronting the issues of COVID-19 and systemic racism, the issue of human trafficking rages on behind the scenes.
It’s an issue not disconnected from the pandemic’s impacts or centuries of racial oppression. Here in Grand Rapids, like much of the world, it’s evolving along with them.
What does human trafficking in Grand Rapids look like today? How has the pandemic altered the problem? Where do racial disparities within it now stand?
While a full picture may be impossible to find, a sketch can be gained through recent research and observations from local leaders in the fight to end this form of modern-day slavery.
Persistent challenges in tracking trafficking
Globally, the trafficking of humans for sexual or labor purposes is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry, with an estimated 40.3 million victims. Most of its victims are women and girls.
Victim estimates from organizations studying and fighting human trafficking, however, are what they are – just estimates.
A great challenge in combatting human trafficking is the lack of reliable, high-quality data. Victims don’t often self-report, whether because of fear of physical violence, psychological manipulation, or fear of being treated as a criminal. It’s a hurdle in Grand Rapids, during the pandemic and before it.
“Overall in our community, we’re not keeping track of trafficking victims,” said Rachel VerWys, Co-Founder of local nonprofit Solutions to End Exploitation (SEE). “And often trafficking victims don’t identify as such when they’re in the middle of the exploitation.”
SEE aims for a future free of human trafficking through research and fostering collaboration between area organizations sharing this goal. Mindful of self-reporting constraints, SEE’s research often looks at factors it knows contribute to human trafficking to better understand the problem’s scope. Among these factors are economic vulnerability, isolation, and immigration – all inflamed by COVID-19.
The discoveries of previously unidentified victims also point to the many more out there. Women at Risk, International (WAR, Intl.) is one local nonprofit sharing stories of eventual-rescues, for residents to grasp the issue’s probable scope.
“It’s rampant, and many don’t know,” said Rachel McDonald, WAR, Intl.’s Founder and President. “The last five girls we rescued all went to Sunday school. One of their mothers hunted at churches, got close to their nurseries and their families, so she could babysit. She ended up selling both her daughter and their kids.”
Digging through available data
Despite challenges in tracking human trafficking in Grand Rapids, some recent research is out there – particularly regarding sex trafficking. Among organizations collecting data are Wedgwood’s Manasseh Project, the “girls court” within Kent County’s 17th Circuit Court, SEE, and Sacred Beginnings.
Sacred Beginnings, a nonprofit rescuing trafficking victims, teamed up with SEE for a January 2018 report called The Data Project. The report measured the prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation on the streets of Grand Rapids and online.
For Sacred Beginning’s part, its Founder and President, Leslie King – a sex trafficking survivor – conducted 125 street interviews with individuals involved in the city’s commercial sex trade to identify how many were involved against their will. SEE, for its part, analyzed sex trafficking indicators through local online sex ads on Backpage.com.
King’s findings were recently updated on SEE’s website with 100 more interviews. Now, as of July 2020, 89% of the 242 individuals she’s interviewed reported being controlled by a trafficker, gang, or organized crime. 97.9% reported experiencing violence in the sex trade, with 91.2% claiming it at the hands of a pimp or trafficker.
SEE’s part of the 2018 report further informs. During the three months in late 2017 it studied Backpage’s escort section, 50% of the 171 unique ads logged for the area showed sex trafficking indicators. Averaged over 12 months, SEE’s find adds up to possibly 1,000 new victims being advertised online, every year. Backpage, shut down by U.S. authorities in 2018, was replaced by alternatives.
People of color disproportionately impacted
King’s street interviews also point to disparities by race – unlikely to have disappeared since her 2018 findings.
In King’s data, 60% engaging in the local sex trade were people of color – 46% Black, 12% Latinx, and 2% other. With 94% of interviewees reporting control by a trafficker, gang, or organized crime, the percentage of minorities being trafficked is likely similar to their percentage in the trade overall. Contrasting this, Grand Rapids’ population stands around 60% White, 20% Black, 15% Latinx, and 5% other.
A fuller picture comes into view when pairing this finding with others: 65% of minorities in the trade were listed as under the age of 23; significantly younger than the total average. Minorities were also almost twice as likely to show evidence of being transient than their White counterparts. Increasingly younger ages and transience are both often used as sex trafficking indicators.
Anti-trafficking advocates often link racial disproportions in U.S. trafficking to poverty, domestic violence, and immigration issues perpetuated by centuries of oppression and racism in the country. Additionally, a historical bias against Blacks in law enforcement often leads to suspicion of Black victims during anti-trafficking raids – viewing them as criminals, treating them as such, and reinforcing conditions that keep them in the cycle.
In a recent Reuters article, one trafficking expert highlighted that police in the U.S. often arrest Black victims for crimes they’d been forced to commit, such as prostitution.
“We know that Black victims … are pushed more into being criminals and not being offered services,” said Bridgette Carr, Director of the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic.
More recent data on trafficking disparities in Grand Rapids since the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t yet available. However, with anti-trafficking leaders warning of an increase in trafficking since March, and Blacks being hit harder by the pandemic, reasonable guesses can be made.
Concerns about increased trafficking
Since COVID-19 broke out across the U.S. in March, human trafficking risk factors such as economic vulnerability, isolation, and immigration issues have all been amplified. Leaders working with trafficking in Grand Rapids have been concerned about this likely increasing local trafficking activity, or have found signs of it already.
“With this pandemic, we’re worried about youth who are stuck in really abusive, traumatic homes and situations that might otherwise be discovered by them walking into our building, or by a teacher, a social worker,” said Ben Kaiser, Housing Director at Arbor Circle, a nonprofit with a shelter program for youth facing homelessness. “We’re concerned about what we don’t know.”
A local leader finding recent evidence of online predatorial activity increasing in Grand Rapids and across the nation is Warning Light’s Founder, Jenn Amo. Such activity can lead to youth being lured into sex trafficking.
“Based on my experiences during the pandemic, the risk for youth and young adults skyrocketed as the online predator activity was in full force,” Amo said. “The pandemic and stay-at-home gave online predators more time at home and more time to prey, which increased the activity of online predators to a new level. The increased risk was so high that the FBI actually sent a press release cautioning of the danger.”
SEE, the nonprofit researching online sex ads, also knows much about the illicit massage industry in Grand Rapids. Often, massage parlors can be fronts for sex and labor trafficking.
“Those businesses all closed during the pandemic, or were supposed to be closed,” said SEE’s VerWys. “So in some ways we saw a decrease there in exploitation in that type of trafficking,”
VerWys acknowledges, however, that the pandemic increased economic vulnerability and isolation. This has created huge barriers for those trapped in exploitive and abusive relationships, which may result in increased trafficking numbers being discovered down the road.
New constraints for anti-trafficking operations
The pandemic also created new hurdles for local organizations fighting trafficking through advocacy and victim aid. Money was lost and in-person outreach was scaled back.
An example is the Kent County Area Human Trafficking Coalition losing funds from the state of Michigan this year, in light of the state’s reprioritized efforts to combat COVID-19. The Kent County coalition facilitates cross-sector partnerships in the community to address sex and labor trafficking. Partners include nonprofits, medical professionals, police officers, teachers, prosecutors, and more.
“Unfortunately that money was lost because of the needed resources that the state needed to purchase PPE and address the emerging crisis,” said SEE’s VerWys. SEE acts as the fiduciary of the coalition, overseeing its operations.
“In some ways, that’s put a lot of constraint on our ability to collaborate right now,” VerWys continued. The funds would’ve not only went into the work of facilitating collaboration, but for direct service care for survivors and victims. “Things like housing vouchers and increasing shelter resources for victims. We have a very limited number of beds right now in our region.”
In-person outreach efforts were reduced in compliance with physical distancing and public health guidance. This impacted not only spreading awareness about sex trafficking, but labor trafficking as well. Migrant farmers coming into the Grand Rapids area for the growing season didn’t have as many points of contact to help prevent exploitation, VerWys noted.
Adjustments by anti-trafficking organizations
Despite pandemic-induced challenges for many of these organization’s operations, their shared mission has continued. Adjustments have been made to on-site work in their physical spaces and the ways outreach is conducted.
“Our shelters continue to be open,” said Arbor Circle’s Kaiser. “We definitely have extra protocols in place like youth having their own rooms and who can be in and out of the building, but we are open 365 days a year. We’ve done everything we can to make it safe, and so far so good. The pandemic’s not going to keep us from supporting youth.”
The Kent County Area Human Trafficking Coalition was able to adapt its outreach in a couple ways. One of them was bringing Michigan State University and Movimiento Cosecha GR together to do an online training in Spanish on internet safety for youth. Another was Migrant Legal Aid, Chair of the coalition’s Labor Trafficking Impact Group, creating trafficking awareness materials in Spanish that were handed out at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan’s food distribution days. These food distribution days served over 1,000 different households facing hardships because of COVID-19.
Like the fights against COVID-19 and racism, the fight against human trafficking benefits through residents becoming informed and informing others. Knowing the indicators of human trafficking, discovering what can be done about the issue, and sharing this with others are key to defending those at risk.
“Protection comes by shining light on this dark crime through acknowledging it exists, being bold enough to talk about it, and taking action to become educated on the lures and signs,” said Warning Lights’ Amo.
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