Church, Community Join to Abolish Human Trafficking

‘This Is What Happens on the Real Streets’
By PAT JOHNSON | Jan 30, 2019
Photo by: Pat Johnson CHALLENGING ISSUE: The Rev. Mandy Bristol-Leverett, founder of Church and Community Abolition Network, speaks at New Life Church in Little Egg Harbor on Saturday, Jan. 26.

“It takes everyone’s eyes to find what is hidden in plain sight,” said the Rev. Mandy Bristol-Leverett, founder and CEO of the Church and Community Abolition Network. On Saturday, Jan. 26, Bristol-Leverett drew parallels between the African-American slavery abolitionist movement and her organization’s efforts to abolish modern-day slavery: slavery in the form of sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

According to the organization’s literature, a victim might be any age, gender or ethnicity and from any socio-economic or educational background. “In the USA, 83 percent of the victims of human trafficking are our own citizens. The typical age range when it starts is between the ages of 11 to 14.

“The greatest weapon to combat trafficking is you,” she told a crowd of parents, educators, and members of the New Life Community Church in Little Egg Harbor.

The church pastor, the Rev. Dan McKillop, prefaced the subject matter by saying it would be challenging for those in attendance, but it could be life-saving for others.

“We’re going to hear from a young woman from Tuckerton who was trafficked in 1992 and has written a book about it. The book has language in it that may be challenging, but this is what happens on the real streets,” he cautioned.

McKillop gave out some copies of Walking Prey: How America’s Youth Are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery. Author Holly Austin Smith had donated the books. Later, she would talk by Skype from her home in California.

Little Egg Harbor Township Committeewoman Lisa Stevens said she had received intensive training when she worked for the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services. “Atlantic City was one of five cities selected for the training, and it really opened my eyes,” said Stevens. “Be the eyes and ears for your teen. If your teen or foster child suddenly has a brand new $100 pair of sneakers, or a Coach bag, and you know you didn’t pay for it – ask where they got it. It happens anywhere, not just in the cities. It could be happening just down the street.

“And we do not call anyone under the age of 18 a child prostitute,” she continued. “These are commercially exploited children. And it starts at a young age.

“When I worked for DYFS, it was normal for us to pick up runaway youngsters at bus stops and truck stops. New Jersey has six major highways connecting New York, Boston, Washington and Florida,” she pointed out.

Stevens then presented the church with a proclamation from the Little Egg Harbor mayor and Township Committee for its efforts to bring the issue to light. In part it read, “It’s a crime that exists underground,” and “Even one enslaved person is one too many.”

Little Egg Harbor Police Sgt. Sean Crotty had brought his Police Explorers unit to help with visitor parking. The young men stayed for the presentation.

“If you saw a map of the (pre-Civil War) Underground Railroad in New Jersey, you would see the many churches and community members’ homes that participated in taking in those (slaves) who were brave enough to run,” said Bristol-Leverett. “It was life threatening; it was a crime to run. And what if that church or community member didn’t show up to help? What if once those slaves were in ‘the land of the free,’ there were no employment opportunities?

“We need all of these resources, plus prevention tools, to abolish modern-day slavery. It’s an ugly fact. But we can empower you to do anti-trafficking with our action plans.”

One of the most effective strategies is to give bars of soap to national hotel chains that contain the help number 888-373-7888 on the back. One year this was done during Super Bowl weekend because that is when hotels and motels generally see an increase in customers, and an increase in demand for sex-for-pay services. Three children called the hotline and were rescued.

This year, volunteers will be fanning out to 1,000 hotels in five locations in the state over Father’s Day weekend. Donations for this effort can be dedicated in the name of a protective dad.

Another way the Community Abolition Network (CAN) combats trafficking is by enlisting truckers. “We have a group called Truckers Against Trafficking. They take pictures of license plates of those who drop off kids at truck stops.”

Truck stops, strip joints, massage parlors, movie theaters, schools, spas, and internet bulletin boards such as Back Page are likely places where children and adults are trafficked. Pornography addiction fuels the problem, said Bristol-Leverett, by treating people as objects. Legislation has been proposed in New Jersey that would require all digital devices to filter out pornography with only a password by the adult owner to remove the filter.

And human trafficking is not always about money. It can be an exchange for goods or services, said Bristol-Leverett. “There could be a single mom who needs a place to stay, so she allows her boyfriend to sell her children.”

Gangs such as M-13, Crips and Bloods are perhaps the most heinous traffickers of women. Some may be branded by their trafficker.

New Jersey, along with Washington state, is leading the nation with the toughest laws against human trafficking, she said. “But without you seeing and reporting your suspicions, it can’t be enforced. We rely on tips and info you give us. We work in partnership with law enforcement, but we stay in our lane – we are not law enforcement.”

Tips may be sent anonymously.

“Reach out to law enforcement. They prefer you share your suspicions; it could become part of an ongoing investigation.”

Parental Prevention

At the Start

Bristol-Leverett suggests that parents talk to their children, starting at age 10, about trafficking. “You can use tools like ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch.’ Our children, with social media, are being targeted on every side. Education is essential.”

She said some children become indoctrinated by their handlers through force, fraud and coercion using a system of abuse and then kindness. “It’s a weird, twisted love; abuse, abuse, abuse, then a moment of kindness. They can be sleep-deprived, starved. Say you are starving, and then your handler buys you a hamburger. It’s a twisted co-dependency.

“Sometimes the victim will return and then they are beaten, sometimes to death.”

In 2013, New Jersey passed a law that requires all law enforcement to be trained in how to talk and react to youngsters caught up in the sex trade.

Handlers might also supply them with drugs; addiction also is a chemical restraint. Bristol-Leverett, instrumental in setting up the state’s first residential survivor home, found 85 percent of the clients who go there have some form of addiction.

Detective Melissa Rose from the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office is the liaison for human trafficking; she investigates cases of sexual assault and missing and exploited children. Rose spoke to the audience about both sex and labor trafficking. Undocumented workers are the most prone to abuses of labor trafficking, and those with passports often have them confiscated by their abuser, or they are threatened that something will happen to their family member.

According to Rose, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime in 2018 found a 40 percent increase in human trafficking worldwide: 22 percent were girls under the age of 18, and 8 percent were boys. Men who are trafficked are promised work and then used for labor, but never paid. Some of the red flags to look for in a work site are unexplained injuries or signs of abuse. The person may appear malnourished; have a prolonged or untreated illness or disease; show signs of physical and/or sexual abuse; be living or working in an area with high security measures. He or she avoids eye contact, has few or no personal possessions, is not in control of his or her money or documentation, is not allowed to speak for themselves, does not know what city they are in.

Ocean County has yet to prosecute anyone for human trafficking; however, Bristol-Leverett said just because there has yet to be a prosecuted case in Ocean County does not mean human trafficking is not happening here.

“There are definitely victims in every county in New Jersey. Most victims won’t prosecute because they still have threats against them. But just because a victim doesn’t prosecute doesn’t mean there isn’t a case. They (handlers) can be arrested for endangering the welfare of a child, but there is not enough evidence for the charge of trafficking. Or they may be arrested in another state.”

A tip line for this offense is 732-929-2027 or mrose@co.ocean.nj.us.

A Survivor's Story

The last speaker of the morning was Holly Austin (Smith) Gibbs, author and survivor, who told her story to a rapt audience.

In 1992 she was 14, living with her family in Tuckerton and transitioning from junior high to senior high school. It was a fearful time for her, she explained. Her best friend had a new boyfriend and was making new friends, and Holly felt left behind.

“I had just graduated eighth grade when I met my trafficker at the Hamilton Mall” in Atlantic County.

“In middle school, the most important thing is to hang out with friends. And my friends were dating, and I couldn’t find a steady boyfriend. Also, I got grounded a lot. And I could see my best friend drifting away from me.

“Traffickers prey on vulnerability: anyone who looks left out, or is struggling with addiction or family members. So I was at the mall, walking with my friends. And he was on the pay phone. I later found out he was just scanning the crowd, looking for vulnerable girls.

“That day, he pointed at me and called me over to him. I knew I didn’t know him. But the fact that he pointed at me, in the midst of my friends, made me feel special. At first I thought he was pointing at someone else, so I looked behind me. Then he motioned to me to come over, and I shook my head ‘no.’ But then I walked over and we exchanged phone numbers. ‘Greg’ started calling me at home on my teen line.

“I was always in my bedroom talking to someone. We all had three-way lines, so it wasn’t a strange thing that a guy should be talking to me. He seemed to really care. He’d ask me questions and when I answered, he didn’t make fun of me. He made me feel it was safe.

“He told me glamorous things. He had a red Corvette that I could drive, that he went to dance clubs where famous people hung out.

“I thought that was the goal in life. He offered to help me run away from home, become a musician or a model.

“I was afraid to go to high school. I was afraid I would get beat up, lose my friends. I just saw my life ending. I had low self-esteem. And he said I was pretty enough to be a model. ‘You’re too mature to go to high school,’ he told me.

“I had run away (from home) before, out of anger, where I would catch a ride with some friend for a night. This time I planned to run away. I packed a bag with my favorite zipper jeans. I got a ride to the Shore Mall (in Atlantic County), a different mall, where I was to wait for this guy. I was serious. The next time people saw me, I would be a model or on MTV.

“I later learned from police files that the guy I was talking to on the phone was a different guy from the guy I met, Greg. The guy on the phone was good at building rapport with girls, and Greg was better at spotting them.

“I could feel there was something different when Greg picked me up. I thought he was mad at me; he came across intimidating. We walked around the mall and he had me try on dresses. He bought me a $100 pair of sneakers. And that was a big deal, as my parents couldn’t afford clothes like suede boots that everyone had, (or) anything over $50. I thought, ‘He must think I’m special.’ Then we took a taxi to a motel room where I met a woman named Nicki. We were going to a dance club in Atlantic City. Nicki dyed my hair, did my makeup and put me in one of her dresses.

“Then Greg came back and stood over me. He said he had to go over the rules with me. I needed to bring him so much money a night. He gave me a new name and birth date and had me repeat it over and over. I had no time to process what was happening.

“He punched his fist into his hand in front of me! I was 14. And afraid of getting beat up. He said I was not to talk to police.

“I lacked the ability to stand up for myself; I was frozen. I did not think I was a victim of a crime; I only thought, ‘I’m so stupid.’ I thought it was up to me to deal with what I had gotten myself into.

“Nicki and I were dropped off on Pacific Avenue in front of the casinos. I was overwhelmed by the casino lights and the traffic. An old man passed and smiled at me and asked, ‘How much?’ Nicki told him $200 or $300. He took me to a glamorous hotel room.

“And that was the first time I was purchased for sex. The man told me I reminded him of his granddaughter.

“The thing is, the whole night, not one person treated me like I was a victim. We went to a pizza place and were served food. We went to a bar and I thought, ‘No way is this bartender going to serve me a beer,’ but he did.

“No one treated me like I was a victim. Why would I think I was? Nicki was always waiting for me when I walked out of the hotel room. This went on for two nights. And then I was arrested by law enforcement, and this was an extremely negative experience. He called me all kinds of names, and said Greg and Nicki were planning to take me to NYC the next day. It was all a negative experience, but the angry officer was the worst. I guess he was trying to scare me straight or something, but he made me feel awful. Yes, I was trafficked for commercial sex, but in fact I was more traumatized by the way the officer treated me. I mean, thank God I was arrested.

“Today, I am working in the healthcare field. I help people to understand what that kid may be thinking, and what happened that they wound up being trafficked.

“‘Greg’ was sentenced to a year and five months probation. He got really lucky with that.”

When asked how she was able to heal from the experience, Gibbs said it took a long time. “There were not a lot of resources in 1992 in New Jersey, or any state, specific to child trafficking. I struggled. Then in 2009, I was watching a documentary about sex trafficking in India, where a woman was sold by her brothers. And her story was similar to mine. I used to think, ‘I can’t be a victim of human trafficking; I’m an American.’ I was blown away by the idea that it had happened to other people, and was still happening.

“Then I met Tina Frundt.”

Frundt is founder and director of Courtney’s House In Washington, D.C., a support and resource place for survivors of sex trafficking.

“Meeting another survivor was life changing for me,” Gibbs said. “It was so validating; it helped me to shed the shame that had run my past. I’ve since met more survivors across the country.

“Anything that I can do to support them is healing.”

During a period for audience questions, Gibbs said education about sex trafficking would have been the only thing that would have made a difference in her story. She does not blame her parents or the schools of the time, but she prescribes it now.

Pastor McKillop closed the challenging workshop with a personal pledge: “I commit to each and everyone of you that I will protect your daughters (and sons) and you will protect mine. We are a community with children, and we need to help each other so that some child will not have this experience because of what we have learned.”

For more information on stopping human trafficking, go to canfreedom.org or #freedom for all. New Life Church is also in the process of “building a robust response to human trafficking throughout our community.” Call 609-296-2813.

patjohnson@thesandpaper.net

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