By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
November 1, 2019
“A despicable crime that continues to plague the nation,” — that’s how Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), Intelligence and Counterterrorism subcommittee ranking member, described human trafficking in his opening comments Monday at a field hearing at the Old County Courthouse in Greensboro.
The purpose of the event, “Tackling Human Trafficking: Assessing Federal, State and Local Information Sharing Efforts,” was to highlight how agencies across the state are coordinating efforts, developing training, and partnering with victim service providers. It also gave Walker and fellow congressman Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who chairs the subcommittee, insight into what lawmakers can do to combat what Walker called an “international affliction.”
What they learned from those on the frontline is that human trafficking is a complex crime that requires multi-faceted solutions from legal, health and human service agencies; that law enforcement cannot free victims or capture traffickers without help from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and that increased punishments are needed for “johns,” who drive the demand for sex-trafficking.
“Sadly, human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing crimes within the U.S.,” Walker announced in his opening statement. “Our major highway system, our agricultural economy, and a growing number of criminal gangs have increased the prevalence of human trafficking within North Carolina, with some cases reported in my district.”
Christine Shaw Long, executive director of the North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission, told the congressmen that the state continues to see cases of human trafficking crossing all demographic lines and that the opioid epidemic has complicated the issue.
Nearly 11,000 human trafficking cases were reported through the national hotline last year, including 287 in North Carolina, ranking the state 10th in the nation.
It’s a stat that Carl Wall, special agent in charge of the State Bureau of Investigation’s Human Trafficking Unit, hopes to help change, although he told the subcommittee that reports of the crime should go up as more people across the state become educated about trafficking.
“Over the past 15 months, the SBI has conducted more than 20 trainings across 15 counties with more scheduled,” Wall said.
“I have found the best way to relate to local law enforcement’s misunderstanding of human trafficking is to explain to them from my point of view as a previous drug investigator. Traffickers are like drug dealers. They are business people. Rather than selling narcotics, their commodity is another human being,” he said. “People are a commodity that they do not have to replenish. Their product doesn’t go away. When they sell it, they can profit over and over. During classes across the state, we make sure to show that trafficking is not just a problem in our most populated areas, as some assume. It is everywhere.”
Wall said the Fayetteville Police Department is the only one in the state with a full-time human-trafficking unit. The SBI hopes to have its own eight-member unit if the state Legislature approves the proposed budget.
Ronnie Martinez, special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations’ Charlotte Field Office, said his office works closely with task forces in Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Raleigh. He said that law enforcement is much better at identifying sex trafficking networks but that labor trafficking is just as serious a crime. He said it could be found in the agriculture and construction industries as well as among domestic workers and in massage parlors.
Even though undocumented immigrants are often victims of trafficking, Martinez cited cases involving victims that were U.S. citizens as well as longtime lawfully present immigrants.
“Traffickers will exploit anyone out of greed,” Martinez said, adding that they are also increasingly tech-savvy, finding new ways to conduct and conceal their activities.
“HSI is committed to staying on pace with cybercrime and the needed investigative strategies to combat trafficking,” he assured Rose and Walker.
The lawmakers also heard from Aundrea Azelton, chief deputy of the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office.
“Victims commonly come from backgrounds of poverty, domestic abuse, substance abuse, family dysfunction, or simple misfortune that has placed them in a position of vulnerability,” she said.
“When the term human trafficking is mentioned, most people picture a child or a young woman chained or physically restrained and locked in a basement. In actuality, many cases are much more complex and not as clearcut. Many times victims appear to be complicit in crimes.”
All four of the experts testified about the necessity of agencies working together and in lock-step with NGOs, which provide a safety net of services — from emergency and transitional housing to medical and mental health help.
“NGOs are key,” Azelton said. “Law enforcement must partner with NGOs, and it must be on the front end. Law enforcement cannot wait until they have an investigation underway to involve them.”
Long said NGOs are imperative in the fight against trafficking because they understand the trauma that victims are undergoing. Wall said it’s essential to have multi-discipline, rapid-response teams that include NGOs at the ready when law enforcement encounters a trafficking victim.
“We must all share our data and work hand-in-hand with NGO partners,” he said. “On average, it takes six encounters with law enforcement or NGOs to show a victim that their normal is not normal and to show them a better way.”
Rep. Walker asked the expert witnesses if stricter punishments for “johns” would help deter sex trafficking, another point they all agreed on.
Long said some states have recently begun making the second offense of criminal solicitation a felony.
Wall said there is no doubt in his mind that customers who solicit sex from online sites know that they are supporting trafficking.
“They have to know, even if they don’t want to believe it. A rational human being has to know that this person did not walk into this willingly,” he said.
Wall said large events across the state attract traffickers because demand is high.
“Seasonal events, the state fair, the furniture market, the NBA Allstar game — anywhere you have a large contingent of predominantly male individuals with excess money in a location away from home, you will see a spike in cases,” he said.
Rep. Rose asked the experts about the role of big business in trafficking and touted his support for legislation sponsored by fellow New Yorker, Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Her Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act would force large corporations — any company that makes more than $100 million a year — to tell Americans, every year, what measures that company has taken to identify and address conditions of forced labor, slavery, human trafficking, and child labor within that company’s supply chains.
Rep. Walker said he has made combatting human trafficking a priority and that he was proud to be the first freshman of the 114th class to pass a bill through the House.
“This bill, the Human Trafficking Detection Act of 2015, works to train and inform DHS personnel to better detect and intercept human traffickers and their victims, specific to their professional roles, as well as making the training curricula available to all state, local, and private sector partners,” Walker said.
Both lawmakers admitted there is much more that needs to be done to combat human trafficking and said that working together in a bipartisan fashion is the key to solving the complex problems related to the crime and to ensuring that those on the front lines have the tools they need.
Addendum to this article:
In 2011, North Carolina learned that it earned only a D on its report card from the Protected Innocence Challenge, a national study by the American Center for Law and Justice and Shared Hope International.
The Tar Heel state wasn’t alone in its poor performance. In fact, at that time, 26 states earned Fs, and only a handful managed to get a B or C; and no state was awarded an A.
In 2012, the Christian Action League spearheaded the first piece of legislation, SB 910 – Sale of a Minor/Felony Offense, to change the state’s poor rating.
“There’s still a lot to do, but the League was a major contributor to getting North Carolina on the right track,” said Rev. Mark Creech, executive director. In 2018, Shared Hope International reported that the Tar Heel state had raised its grade level to an A.”