Jillian Mourning, like many teens, aspired to be a model. She had no idea that within months of beginning a modeling career at the age of 19, the fulfillment of her dream would lead to a real-life nightmare of rape and sexual enslavement.
Alex Trice was just three years old when a British woman approached her mother and offered to adopt her. The woman promised an education and luxuries Trice’s mother could not provide. After her mother agreed, Trice was forced into child labor and regularly beaten and abused until she was rescued at age 15.
Mourning and Trice are both survivors of human trafficking – modern-day slavery that occurs right here in North Carolina.
Battling human trafficking domestically and internationally
The United Nations estimates that almost every country in the world has been affected by human trafficking. In the U.S., there are currently six government agencies working to fight against this growing problem. These agencies are: the FBI, Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, the State Department and the Department of Labor.
Human trafficking appears to be growing in North Carolina, the eighth largest hub for human trafficking in the United States. During the first nine months of 2012, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline received 361 calls from North Carolina alone. In 2011, the agency received a total of 326 calls, up from the 190 calls received in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“It’s a been problem for a long time,” said Sandra Johnson, founder and president of Triad Ladder of Hope, a North Carolina faith-based non-profit organization whose mission is to eradicate human enslavement. “Law enforcement and nonprofit organizations in Charlotte are working to stop human trafficking, but it’s not under control in the U.S., much less in Charlotte.”
According to the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, an average of 21.5 human trafficking chargers were processed each year between the years 2008 and 2012.
Experts say North Carolina is a prominent place for human trafficking because of its strategic location on the East Coast, the number of major interstate highways crossing the state, the transient military population, the large agricultural economy, the number of ports, the major airports in Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte and the fact that many events that cater to men, such as NASCAR races, are held in the state.
Human trafficking is modern-day slavery. It is defined by the U.S. Department of State as being the recruitment, transportation, transferring, harboring or receiving of individuals by means of threat, coercion, abduction, fraud, deceit, deception or abuse of power in order to exploit this individual through prostitution, pornography, sexual acts, forced labor, involuntary servitude, debt bondage or slavery.
“It’s not a cycle that’s easy to break,” Johnson said. “These people did not choose to become a victim. Their choices were taken away from them and they don’t have the choice to walk out. Occasionally someone may be able to escape, but most of the time their trafficker is watching them, they know where they’re at and they know how to get to them. These victims are too afraid to escape because they think they will be killed.”
Many people simply do not know that human trafficking exists in the U.S.
“I always saw it as more of an ‘over there’ problem, but then it happened to me,” said Mourning, who went on to found All We Want is Love, a non-profit organization that aims to fight the injustice of modern-day slavery through education and liberation. “I realized that it was happening in the States, too. It’s actually happening here and nobody knows about it. That’s part of the problem. I’m just flabbergasted by the amount of people who don’t know it exists. I know that people don’t know about human trafficking in the U.S. because if they did, how could they continue to look the other way?”
The story of Jillian Mourning:
What happened to Mourning could have happened to any teenage girl. And that, Mourning says, is what makes human trafficking so relevant and so frightening.
Mourning’s story starts out as a typical dream come true for many young women. The brown-haired beauty had finally begun making a name for herself in the modeling world after creating a profile on Model Mayhem, a site where young women try to launch modeling careers by connecting with agents. She thought she had it made when a man representing himself as an agent took an interest in her. Together they began traveling the country, booking legitimate gigs. But after about five months, when they were on a modeling job in Arizona, the unthinkable happened.
Mourning’s life was forever changed after the man posing as her agent and two other men entered her hotel room uninvited and forced sex on her. Her rape was filmed and photographed, which led to blackmail, and she was forced into a black hole of helplessness and despair working as a sex slave.
Unfortunately, Mourning is not alone.
The largest portion of human trafficking today is found in the sex trade, according to The United States Department of Health and Human Services. People of all ages, races and statuses are sold for sex for the extreme profit of traffickers and their beneficiaries.
Stephanie Hepburn and Rita Simon, authors of “Hidden in Plain Sight: Human Trafficking in the United States,” report that persons who don’t meet quotas or who resist the pressure to perform sexually are beaten, raped, starved or threatened into submission.
After Mourning discovered an online article that called her manager figure a sexual predator and a trafficker, she overdosed on pills in an attempted suicide. However, she realized that she didn’t want to die. The nightmare finally ended after her so-called manager went to prison on other charges. After four years as a sex slave, Mourning had finally escaped.
She founded All We Want is Love in 2012 in order to help educate people about sex trafficking. The organization puts an emphasis on trafficking prevention rather than just survivor rehabilitation once the damage has already been done.
“I didn’t want to go through everything in vain. I did it to make a difference in other people’s lives,” Mourning said. “The timing of everything was impeccable and things started falling in place. I met a bunch of amazing people and I was like, ‘Wow, we should join forces and create a movement.’”
The Polaris Project reports that sex trafficking is found in a wide variety of venues of the overall sex industry. These venues include residential brothels, hostess clubs, online escort services, fake massage businesses, strip clubs and street prostitution.
“Until I was educated about trafficking, I really thought that girls got involved because of poor decisions they made,” said Carolyn Hudson, who is on the board of directors for All We Want is Love. “I thought it was due to poor decisions like the use of drugs or alcohol or becoming a stripper. But no girl dreams of being a stripper. We have to be more compassionate toward people. Often these victims are just like us – daughters, sisters, friends – who fell victim to their environment. We have to ask what’s really going on beneath the surface without judging one another.”
The story of Alex Trice:
Trice says one of the things she’s most concerned about is the lack of understanding.
“Whenever people find out somebody has been through abuse,” she said, “They ask, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you run away? Why didn’t you fight back?’ It bugs me to no end. You really cannot say anything to somebody unless you’ve experienced it yourself in that way. You have no idea what they’re going through and what sort of mental abuse they’ve been put through.”
Trice’s trafficker threatened to beat her within an inch of her life if she ever made a peep to anyone. She also used the fact that Trice and her non-biological sisters were illegal immigrants in the U.S. and told them if they tried to escape they would be deported.
“Another thing traffickers do well is keep you isolated,” she added. “We were not allowed to watch TV. We weren’t allowed to read newspapers. She didn’t want us to know anything about what was going on in the world. We weren’t allowed to talk to neighbors either. All of those things put together cause you to become so isolated. And you don’t know anybody. The only person you can depend on is your trafficker and you honestly feel like you have no choice and no options. If we ever tried to tell anybody, then we’d just get deported. I basically would have been a 12-year-old orphan.”
Although labor trafficking is often overshadowed by sex trafficking and clouded by the premise of illegal immigration, according to a 2012 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, labor and domestic trafficking make up more than 68 percent of the trafficked population worldwide.
Trice’s story is not uncommon. Hepburn and Simon report that it is children who are preferred to adults in this labor-intense industry. Children are considered to be easier to control, less expensive to house and maintain and not as likely to demand better working conditions or housing.
As child labor trafficking victims, Trice and her sisters were forced to wait on their trafficker hand and foot – no matter the time of day or night. When Trice, her sisters and her trafficker moved from Spain to North Carolina, the labor grew more intense. Trice’s trafficker purchased a house along with a few acres of land and soon filled that land with goats, sheep, rabbits, guinea pigs, pigeons and 300 chickens.
“I don’t think I need to tell you how much work it takes to keep up all those animals and to keep the house clean on top of that,” Trice said. “It was like shoveling snow while it was still snowing. There was always work to be done. I worked 18 to 20 hours every day. My trafficker would give us caffeine pills to stay awake and they would work for a while but then your body would just get so exhausted, night after night of doing this, that sometimes you just fell asleep right where you were. And if she found you asleep on a bale of hay or something, you would receive a huge thrashing.”
FBI agent John Price, eventually rescued Trice. He was investigating criminal civil rights violations for the Charlotte division of the FBI. These violations include human trafficking.
Struggling to define human trafficking
According to Price, trafficking is a politicized topic with many layers.
“It depends on who you talk to and what advocacy group you happen to read from,” Price said. “You’re going to get a lot of different descriptions of what trafficking is. There’s a huge agenda behind it. There are the abolitionists, or the anti-sex worker groups, and the far other extreme is the pro-sex worker groups. Somewhere in the middle is the truth.”
Although the human trafficking agenda may be blurry for some, depending on advocacy opinions and extremes, one thing is for certain, it is a major problem in the U.S. and it will not just go away. It also cannot stay hidden.
“Perception is reality for a lot of people,” Mourning said. “But in truth, just because something is being pushed below the surface, doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. It’s important to get people to pay attention to what is around them every day. You must take a deeper look at your environment. ‘I didn’t know’ is not an acceptable excuse.”
Fighting to end human trafficking
Mourning’s and Trice’s stories are familiar ones to child prostitution investigator and FBI special agent Shawnda Drummond. She says pimps and other predators prey on young people in places like malls, libraries and the Internet.
“When I go to middle schools and talk to young people, I always talk about Internet safety – that’s often where the enemy is,” Drummond said. “Often times girls who are troubled and impressionable meet people online who groom them and make them feel good about themselves. Before you know it, a young girl is befriended by a person she’s never seen before. He becomes a Prince Charming to her, and eventually he can get her to do almost anything.”
According to Drummond, grooming is a big part of the human trafficking process. And predators can be found everywhere children are - even schools and bus stops.
Drummond says it’s common for her to talk to young girls who have been trafficked in North Carolina.
“Every girl I talk to mentions that she wished that someone had told her that she’s pretty. She wished that her father was around,” Drummond said. “Things that we take for granted, that we think are simple, really mean a lot to people who are growing up. They need positive things said to them from somebody who means it and who isn’t expecting anything in return.”
Drummond recommends telling children the truth about trafficking so that they can recognize the signs on their own and alert an adult.
“First and foremost you need to be honest with kids. You have to tell them what someone will say to them and how it will feel,” Drummond said. “Tell them it will feel good but that that feeling is only temporary. They need to understand what grooming looks like. The most important thing is for kids to be alert and aware, which sometimes means that kids need to know the evils of the world.”
Predators typically prey on vulnerable-looking children and women. Drummond explains that predators will go to a public place and hunt for girls who look sad or lonely. Unfortunately, vulnerability is something that cannot be hidden. However, there are steps that can be taken by both parents and children in order to avoid susceptibility.
“It’s important for young people to have activities that they’re involved in that increase their self-esteem as well as their feeling of self-worth,” she said. “Kids need to have good communication with trusted adults as well. Adults need to keep those lines of communication open and provide kids with positive feedback and helpful guidance. It’s important that kids feel good about themselves and feel like they have choices when they get older.”
Attempting to identify accurate statistics
It is challenging to identify victims of human trafficking and even more complicated to prosecute offenders. These obstacles make it difficult for accurate statistics to be reported. However, many reports imply that the human trafficking problem is getting worse in North Carolina as well as in the United States as a whole.
The 2013 Trafficking in Persons report released by the U.S. Department of State, estimates that more than 26 million individuals are enslaved worldwide through various forms of human trafficking. However, that same report also states that while an estimated 40,000 victims have been identified in the past year, this number is probably less than 1 percent of the total estimated number of people trafficked. There are often discrepancies in the estimated number of people trafficked both into and within the United States, the number of victims identified as trafficking victims and the number of people arrested for the actual crime of human trafficking.
Julie Cwikel and Elizabeth Hoban, authors of "Contentious Issues in Research on Trafficked Women Working in the Sex Industry,” report that the underground nature of trafficking makes it difficult to obtain a precise estimate of the number of people trafficked. Each agency has its own reporting standards and time periods. For example, the FBI separates adult and foreign child trafficking from domestic minor sex trafficking.
A key investigative challenge is that people being trafficked are under threat and fear coming forward, so law enforcement officials do not hear about trafficking cases or receive lead information.
“Human trafficking is an often unseen violation of the law,” FBI special agent Price said. “I see it as an individual problem. It’s not like the wave of Internet scams that everyone sees and experiences. Everyone knows Internet scams are out there. Human trafficking is more individual. Just like how we deal with homicides and rapes individually, we deal with trafficking cases individually. When one comes up we deal with it.”
According to Drummond, dealing with the problem of human trafficking is easier said than done in most cases. She says that human trafficking is easily hidden and can take on many forms. It’s categorized as both organized crime and individual crime all depending on the type of trafficking and where it takes place.
“It really depends on the city,” Drummond said. “When thinking of organized crime, you typically think of cities, but some cities don’t actually have a huge organized crime problem. That’s when human trafficking would become an individual crime. The crime takes the shape of the environment it’s in. I’ve run into people who are trafficked by gang members, boyfriends, aunts and strangers. A wide variety of people prey on girls.”
Passing anti-human trafficking legislation
In the past year, 39 states have passed new laws combating human trafficking. North Carolina is one of the 39. On July 25, the North Carolina Legislature unanimously passed the Safe Harbor/Victims of Human Trafficking Act. It was signed into law July 29. This law seeks to eradicate sex trafficking of minors in North Carolina by increasing the penalties for those who engage in it as well as protecting victims and providing them with options and resources instead of prosecuting them.
According to Price, the Safe Harbor/Victims of Human Trafficking Act is a huge change for the state because now there is no defense for prostituting a minor and pimping is considered a felony offense.
Although law enforcement agencies in North Carolina and other states are making large strides in the fight to eradicate human trafficking, the world still has a long way to go.
Comparing the U.S. internationally
Cassandra DiRienzo, Elon University associate professor of economics, studies human trafficking. Earlier this year she co-authored an article about anti-human trafficking policies, which states that human trafficking is now the third-largest transnational crime. The number of victims increases with each passing year.
According to DiRienzo, the U.S. is ranked decently well compared to the other 119 countries her and her co-authors researched. However, the U.S. still isn’t doing as well as it could be. Nations such as Norway, Sweden and Finland rank much higher than the U.S. in combating human trafficking.
“We’re generally in the top 10 percent out of 119 countries, which isn’t awful,” DiRienzo said. “But the U.S. has such a high standard and it just isn’t rising to that standard. You would think that the U.S. would be number one or number two on the list of countries who have the least recorded cases of human trafficking, but we’re just not.”
In a worldwide effort to combat human trafficking, the United Nations created the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. While some countries have been very successful in complying with the Protocol, other countries, even though they signed and agreed to the Protocol policy, are struggling.
DiRienzo found that the degree of press freedom within a country significantly affects a country’s ability to comply with the Protocol. Freedom of the press allows the media to increase human trafficking public awareness, which sways public opinion and therefore calls on government officials to take action.
Taking action against trafficking
Mourning and Trice are just two examples of modern-day slaves. Human trafficking can take the form of the cleaning crew who cleans the office after dark, the nail salon worker, the guy bussing tables at a popular restaurant or even the nanny across the street.
“The fact that there are people, innocent people, living as slaves right here in our community and knowing that they are being treated so horribly, I had to take action,” Johnson said on what inspired her to found Triad Ladder of Hope.
Mourning says she believes a lot of people care about human trafficking; they just don’t know what to do about it or how to get involved.
Price advices to simply be aware and help educate others on what human trafficking is.
“Become aware of the signs and signals and what those might be for a victim. If you ever in your wildest dreams ran across someone who may be a victim, it’s important that you have two or three questions in your back pocket that you could ask them,” he said.
Price also believes that community involvement is important in the fight against modern-day slavery as well as raising awareness and volunteering at non-profit organizations.
“It took a few years to really accept the fact that there are genuinely good people in the world because I had never seen that before,” Trice said. “So I think now that I’ve seen that and now that I know there are people who devote their lives to helping others, never expecting anything in return, I am passionate about helping others the way I’ve been helped. I just have the most gratitude for the people who have helped me because I know that there is no way I would be here now if it weren’t for them. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say thank you enough but the best way I can show my gratitude is by passing it on to others who need it.”