Say “prostitute” and the word often conjures up certain images, along with many assumptions about the individual.
“We’re quick to judge what we see, but we have no idea of their back story,” said Nikeidra Battle-DeBarge, coordinator of the Manasseh Project, an outreach program of Wedgwood Christian Services working to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Language is important, and that is why Battle-DeBarge prefers the term “human trafficking” when talking about the multi-billion-dollar sex industry that, she said, is second only to drugs. It’s a low-risk business with high rewards, a pimp once told her.
“Calling anyone a prostitute perpetuates violence against them,” said Battle-DeBarge. “They were locked into this life early. Something happened to them at some point that (led them to believe) this is their only option or the only thing they can do to survive.”
Battle-DeBarge spoke Jan. 10 at a professional development seminar at Greenville High School, sponsored by the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District (MAISD) and attended by nearly 150 school employees from districts throughout Montcalm County and participants from a variety of community service agencies.
“Human trafficking is happening across this country, not only in our largest cities but also in our small rural communities. The more we learn, and the more we understand, the greater our opportunities to protect people from its dangers,” said Penny Dora, director of communications/administrative services for the MAISD. “From a school perspective, the highest risk age groups are school-aged children, so this presentation was especially important for us to host.”
Human trafficking includes both labor trafficking, a form of “modern-day slavery,” and sex trafficking, Battle-DeBarge said. Her presentation focused on the latter, especially the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), which involves sexual abuse or exploitation of a child for money, food, shelter, drugs or protection.
SEX TRAFFICKING DEFINED
Most people’s assumptions about CSEC are incorrect, according to Ionia County Sheriff’s Det. Sgt. Phillip Hesche, who works with the West Michigan Based Child Exploitation Task Force (WEBCHEX), which was launched by the FBI in 2014.
“The idea that someone is going to snatch a kid out of a parking lot at Meijer, throw them into a trunk, change them into a dress and sell them into forced sex trafficking is actually incorrect,” Hesche said. “What’s actually going to happen is you’re going to find a kid on the fringe that’s going to make a new friend, and the next thing you know they’re going to be outselling themselves for drugs or money or whatever — but there’s invariably drugs involved.”
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person forced to perform such as act is under the age of 18 years.”
Bringing minors into commercial sex is considered human trafficking, regardless of whether there is force, fraud or coercion, Battle-DeBarge noted.
“A lot of kids are trafficked by parents or family members,” she said, adding that this can be a result of an addiction to drugs or to pornography.
Others are recruited, either guerrilla-style through physical violence or threats of harm to themselves, family members or friends; or, more frequently, through grooming. In what is referred to as “Romeo pimping,” someone presents themselves as a boyfriend or girlfriend and offers affection, gifts, drugs and alcohol. Over time, the grooming leads to trafficking.
Traffickers usually target pre-adolescents because of the insecurities that come with that stage of life, and especially those affected by abuse or neglect, bullying, family dysfunction or other trauma, said Battle-DeBarge.
“The big one is a low level of adult supervision. The pimps end up filling this void, making them feel special, making them feel they’re in love,” said Hesche. “They’ll tell you their pimp is their boyfriend.”
Of the clients the Manasseh Project works with, 100 percent of the girls have been sexually abused. Runaways and homeless youth are the most at risk of being sex trafficked.
“For someone who has nothing, and you offer them something, they’re probably going to take the better deal,” Battle-DeBarge said. “It’s the same with emotional poverty. (Traffickers) look for a connection, spend time with them, and tell them how important they are.”
Another at-risk group is LGBTQ youth, according to Lori Kirkhoff, executive director of the Ionia Montcalm Secure and Friendly Environment (IM SAFE) Child Advocacy Center (CAC) based in Fenwick, which serves victims of child abuse in Ionia and Montcalm counties.
“A lot of kids leave home making decisions that aren’t the best because they don’t have those supports in place,” Kirkhoff said. “They’re going online and trying to make connections with other people.”
Social media also has given traffickers access to children’s vulnerabilities, said Battle-DeBarge. When a child posts about a fight at home or an incident at school, traffickers use that information to build a relationship.
“‘I saw on (whatever social media platform) you hate your mom or dad. Let me take you out,’” she said, imitating a trafficker. “They’ll inbox them and connect them to the pimp. It’s done systematically.”
As sexual content has become normalized in music, media and language, the lines between what is appropriate and inappropriate have become increasingly blurred, said Battle-DeBarge.
“They think it’s normal,” said Battle-DeBarge. “Sex sells.”
IT’S HAPPENING LOCALLY, BUT HOW MUCH?
Battle-DeBarge doesn’t like to quote statistics on human trafficking, because the numbers reported are only the tip of the iceberg. But it’s everywhere, including in Ionia and Montcalm counties.
“Those areas where we think it can’t happen is where it’s happening because we’re not paying attention,” she said.
In 2018, 10,949 cases of human trafficking were reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline involving 23,078 individual survivors, 5,859 potential traffickers and 1,905 trafficking businesses. In Michigan in 2018, again according to the hotline, there were 383 trafficking cases reported.
But the website, polarisproject.org, also offers this caveat: “Human trafficking is notoriously underreported. Shocking as these numbers are, they are likely only a fraction of the actual problem.”
Many don’t self-identify as trafficking victims and so don’t report, said Battle-DeBarge. Also, not every case is substantiated.
The way cases are tracked is another factor in underreporting. Relief After Violent Encounter (RAVE) Ionia/Montcalm staff work with sexual assault and human trafficking survivors but separate them for tracking, said RAVE Executive Director Jennifer Butler.
“I can’t necessarily speak to specific stats, however, we have seen an increase in adults who have stated they have been victims of human sex trafficking,” Butler said.
Kirkhoff said she thinks sex trafficking is more prevalent in Ionia and Montcalm counties than most people think, but not as prevalent as criminal sexual conduct is.
“I think that’s more prevalent because of all the familial relationships,” she added.
Under Michigan law, criminal sexual conduct, or CSC, describes a range of sexual contact, levels of force or intimidation and other circumstances, including between an adult and a child.
Since the CAC opened in 2015, 1,290 children have been forensically interviewed there. The number is beyond what Kirkhoff ever imagined.
“We are seeing a slow increase, she said. “I don’t know if it’s happening more often or people are reporting it a lot more because of the Me Too movement.”
Kirkhoff said the CAC had three cases of sex trafficking in 2019, and one so far this year. The Michigan State Police and Ionia County Sheriff’s Office both reported zero cases of sex trafficking in 2019. This illustrates another reason the numbers reported don’t reflect the magnitude of the trafficking: If the case is charged as CSC, statistically it is counted that way, according to Kirkhoff.
The prosecutor decides on how to charge a crime, said Kirkhoff, who previously worked as chief assistant prosecutor in Ionia County. Since sentencing guidelines assist the court in determining a sentence, and not all of a defendant’s crimes will count toward scoring time, the prosecutor will generally choose the “bigger ones” to craft a longer sentence, she said.
Kirkhoff recalls a case with a child younger than 13 years old who had sex with men in their cars for money. Under the statute, that’s a 20-year maximum sentence as trafficking.
But because the child was younger than 13, the adult could be charged with first-degree CSC — a possible life offense. With a victim younger than 13, that makes it a mandatory 25-year minimum sentence. Multiple charges can be sentenced consecutively rather than concurrently.
“You’re going to go, as a prosecutor, for that mandatory 25-year, where human trafficking doesn’t have a mandatory,” said Kirkhoff. “CSC is also easier to prove than trafficking, where there are extra steps and elements you have to prove.”
The best way to prevent trafficking, said Hesche, is early intervention with the children who are the most likely to fall into it.
“When these kids are victimized as children, it flips a switch in their head. They’re more prone to fall into it,” he said. “We see the same child at the CAC with different (perpetrators).
Kirkhoff offered some tips to parents and guardians on how to help prevent their children from becoming victims of sex trafficking:
• Educate your children. Make sure you’re talking to them about how grooming for trafficking works.
• Be vigilant. When they’re talking with their friends through texting or on the video games they’re playing, that’s where a lot of grooming takes place.
• Talk about who they’re talking to. Ask questions. Look at their phones and texts with whomever they’re talking with.
• Watch their screen time.
• Be open with them and have those conversations. “The more you make it commonplace to talk about it, the more if something does happen with your child or their friends, they’ll feel they can come talk to you,” Kirkhoff said.
• Talk about body parts using the correct terminology. Some families use pet names for body parts, like butterfly or biscuit. But when a child then tries to disclose to a teacher that, “This person touched my butterfly,” nobody knows what they are referring to, said Kirkhoff.
Things to watch out for, said Battle-DeBarge, are changes in behavior at school and at home, changes in peers, like dating an older and controlling man or woman, emotional changes and changes in lifestyle, like unexplained money, clothing or jewelry, branding or tattoos indicating ownership, hotel room keys or an abundance of condoms, lubricants and wipes.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HUMAN TRAFFICKING
For more information about human trafficking, visit www.manassehproject.org, stopthistraffic.org, www.wedgwood.org, polarisproject.org, endslaveryandtrafficking.org.
To report suspected trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or visit humantraffickinghotline.org.
RAVE’s comprehensive services are available 24/7/365 to victims of human sex trafficking. For services, call RAVE at 1-800-720-7233 or visit www.raveim.org.
To report a case of suspected child abuse, call 855-444-3911 or visit imsafecac.org.