“When people are struggling with their finances, struggling with poverty, loss of work, childhood trauma and abuse, homeless or a young person who’s not safe at home and ends up on the streets or couch surfing,” said New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force project director Rebecca Ayling, “all those things can lead to you being exploited by a trafficker – and those people are in every town.”
While human – and child – trafficking are very real issues in New Hampshire and elsewhere, a recent surge in social media misinformation is making it more difficult to identify and fight.
Elisa Johnson, local director of the New Hampshire Traffick-Free Coalition, a faith-based anti-trafficking organization based out of Stratham, said that human trafficking doesn’t usually look like it does in the movies or in social media conspiracy theories.
“I think a lot of the time, people think of the movie Taken,” Johnson said, referencing the film series where Liam Neeson rescues his daughter from a gang of armed home invaders/kidnappers. “Those types of situations do exist, but far, far, far more often, human trafficking is existing right in our own communities and often through relationships that are already existing. … It’s not always this dramatic kidnapping.”
Of the 29,000 trafficking cases investigated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children last year, just 1 percent were found to be non-family abductions.
So what does human trafficking look like? Sometimes, it’s labor exploitation, where traffickers target day laborers in fields like landscaping, tree removal or construction and force them into servitude. Other times, it’s sexual exploitation, where subjects are forced into non-consensual sex by someone who might have started as a family friend, significant other, or drug supplier.
Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention Executive Director Robin Christopherson has been with the organization, which deals with domestic violence, “power-based violence,” and human trafficking, since 1999. Christopherson said many of the sex trafficking cases she’s dealt with over the years have involved “mail-order brides,” women hoping to escape a foreign country for the promise of a better life.
“They were either suffering oppression or had limited opportunities,” Christopherson said. “Once they got here, it was a vastly different scenario than what was promised for them, and then they are stuck, they are afraid to come forward because they could be sent home.”
Legal and undocumented immigrants are at high risk for trafficking; they often have limited resources and connections and fear what could happen if their immigration status is questioned. But they’re far from the only high-risk population.
“Anywhere there is already increased marginalization, vulnerability for human trafficking also increases,” Johnson said. That can mean children growing up in state care or foster families, people with untreated mental health issues, people dependent on drugs – anyone who might find themselves in desperate circumstances and looking for an easy solution.
“We don’t see a lot of kidnapping,” Ayling said. “We see people who are in really tough situations and traffickers provide an answer for that – whether or not it’s real.”
The lack of social support systems and resources helps perpetuate environments where traffickers prey, and that same issue makes it more difficult for victims to get out of their dangerous situation and stay out. Regardless of how much abuse people may receive, the alternative is stepping out onto the street with no money, no access to health care and nowhere to sleep at night.
“We don’t have socialized medicine,” Ayling said. “We don’t have any sort of net. A lot of these people are walking out to homelessness or emergency shelter living.”
Drug addiction creates another obstacle to escaping an abusive situation.
“For folks who are dealing with an addiction, whether it was prior to their trafficking or not, a lot of times their trafficker was also their dealer and now they have no access to drugs,” Ayling said. “If they can’t get immediately into treatment when they walk out of their trafficking situation, that’s life-threatening or just super scary.”
But some current victims of human trafficking exist in plain sight, walking freely in public while bound to their exploiters by threats of violence or by the “invisible chain” of drug addiction.
“Rural or sleepy New England towns are a perfect front for human sex trafficking,” Christopherson said.
Telltale signs include showing signs of physical or sexual abuse, having a burner cell phone, malnourishment, scars, mutilations, chronic pain, substance abuse or not being in control of one’s own money or identification.
If you suspect someone may be a victim of human trafficking, the best thing to do is call the local police, Ayling said. If you have a previously established relationship with someone and have the chance to speak to them alone, ask them if they are all right, Ayling said, but if you don’t know them or they are accompanied by someone else, approaching them can be dangerous for both the victim and yourself. Beyond calling the police, there are a number of hotlines and crisis centers (contact information available at the end of this article).
Once police and a local crisis center are alerted to a trafficking situation, social workers step in to communicate with the victims and create a safety plan for their escape. At MCVP, that means moving them to a secure location like a shelter or hotel. Normally, Christopherson said, MCVP can house 11 people at its shelter; under COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, that number was cut significantly.
“We’ve been hoteling all of the people we work with who need an immediate short-term place to go,” Christopherson said.
Even after someone successfully escapes a trafficking situation, the long-term effects of their abuse can linger for years, or a lifetime.
“Getting someone out, I’m not going to say that that’s easy,” Christopherson said, “but once they are out and safe and their trauma exposure starts to become obvious, how do we then provide longer-term mental health services that are trauma-informed and available and affordable?”
The journey from “victim to survivor to thriver,” Christopherson said, starts with the basics – clothing, housing, food, a job – and even those staples are hard to come by with today’s wage gap and housing costs. And once you’ve found the basics, finding mental health, trauma or substance use counseling or even basic medical care presents another set of financial roadblocks.
“There’s a lot of social change that needs to happen before the problem really gets solved,” Christopherson said
Over the past four years or so, the online misinformation campaign QAnon has co-opted the fight against human trafficking, with results that are confusing at best and dangerous at their worst. QAnon’s conspiracy theories about child trafficking began on internet message boards, where anonymous users claimed to have stumbled upon a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshipping child sex traffickers that only Donald Trump can stop. The conspiracy theory reared its head in public in 2016 when a North Carolina QAnon believer drove to Washington, D.C. and opened fire in a pizza shop that he believed was the epicenter of a child trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton. Since then, a number of QAnon-inspired incidents – from murder to terrorism to vigilante justice – have taken place around the country and even here in New Hampshire.
QAnon’s misinformation campaign has created a renewed interest in human trafficking, but has actually hindered the work done by groups dedicated to fighting it in reality. After misinformation spread claiming that furniture company Wayfair was trafficking children via its online store, the National Human Trafficking Hotline was overwhelmed with calls, rendering it unable to receive calls from people with actual human trafficking tips. And when people decide to take matters into their own hands instead of reporting trafficking situations to the proper authorities, it puts the victims in even more peril.
“When we insert our self as external white knights, it tends to make it more dangerous,” Ayling said. “We don’t want any kind of vigilante justice. We don’t need everyone to be a social worker or a police officer. If people really want to take action and get trained, they can go down that route.”
Ayling said the New Hampshire task force is planning a training session for Sept. 22.
At the local level, Christopherson said that one of MCVP’s flagship programs is a child sexual abuse prevention program.
“As someone that’s been working in a crisis center for over 20 years now,” Christopherson said, “I don’t need to create any conspiracy theories, I don’t need to feed into these fantastic stories, because the reality of what has happened to people is staggering enough. I don’t need to create anything that doesn’t exist – what already exists is bad enough.”
Experts interviewed for this article agreed that people should double-check any information they read on social media – regarding human trafficking or anything else – before believing it or sharing it with others.
“I would always encourage people when they see something on social media to follow it back to its source, identify the source and Google the name of that source to find out if it’s reliable and who says it’s reliable,” Ayling said.
■New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force: www.nhhumantraffickingtaskforce.com
■Mike Posanka, Homeland Security Investigations: 1-617-459-9001
■Polaris, National Hotline for TIPS and Help (not law enforcement): 1-888-373-7888 / www.humantraffickinghotline.org
■DCYF – child protection (mandated reporting in N.H.): 1-800-894-5533 or 1-603-271-6562
■N.H. Crisis Centers Hotline (statewide network): 1-800-277-5570 / 1-866-644-3574
■New Hampshire Traffick-Free Coalition: www.nhtfc.org, 1-888-3737-888
■MCVP: Crisis & Prevention Center: mcvprevention.org, 603-352-3782 (Keene) / toll-free 1-888-511-MCVP (6287) (N.H. only)