Traffickers seek out victims from every background, pursuing any physical body, man, woman, teen, or child, that produces a profit. There are hundreds of thousands of trafficking victims in the United States alone, with millions of people victimized by traffickers globally.
"Traffickers are utilizing technology to target victims. Because we have virtual identities and so much of our lives are public on social media, traffickers take advantage of that access to vulnerable people. Traffickers spend much of their time and resources searching for targets and building relationships to groom young people through private messages and apps," author and trafficking survivor Sandy Storm told me.
Since 2009, Sandy, a survivor of trafficking, has been assisting the fight against traffickers. She said, "I heard about human trafficking at a church meeting and thought, as a Christian, I could not simply give a donation or say a rubber band prayer once I learned people were being bought and sold as slaves in our modern society. Since that day, I have been working to end human trafficking in what I refer to as the "Justice Movement" for over a decade. I did this initially as a volunteer working to bring awareness to the issue, then networked with law enforcement, educators, nonprofit organizations and the general public to plug the right people into the right places to effectively use their experience and individual gifts in the fight."
How did Sandy become a trafficking victim? Sandy said, "When I was 16, the 31-year-old trafficker sat outside of the community swimming pool in our small town and saw me from a distance. He sent an 18-year-old boy who I knew from high school to offer me drugs and alcohol and invite me to leave the park to go party with them. I was so desperate for attention and had such low self-esteem from all of the abuse that I had endured, I was an easy target." Sandy is no longer a victim, she is a survivor, and is fighting traffickers.
In the past few years, there has been a change to trafficking investigations from targeting the trafficker to seeking out the victim first, prosecution later. According to the DOJ, "In a victim-centered approach, the victim's wishes, safety, and well-being take priority in all matters and procedures." A victim-centered approach focuses on the victim's needs, ensuring their concerns are met in an empathetic way.
The government also provides victim assistance after they rescue the victims. The FBI told me, "The FBI's Victim Services Division has 171 victim specialists assigned throughout the United States in each of the FBI's 56 field offices who work closely with our special agents. These victim specialists are available to advise victims of their rights and assure that their short-and-long-term needs are met, including immediate medical requirements, legal and repatriation services, immigration relief, housing, employment, education, job training, child care, and more."
Nonprofit organizations have stepped up to help victims as well. Sandy has begun to work with countertrafficking organization DeliverFund to help fellow survivors. Sandy told me, "Many nonprofits exist that work to provide victims with food, clothing, shelter, and counseling. Some wonderful charities work hard to offer services to trafficking survivors, but the most effective way for the public to partner with a group that is truly making a difference is to support organizations that go after the root of the issue, the trafficker. DeliverFund is revolutionary in this aspect and our partnership with law enforcement reflects our belief that solutions to human trafficking should be scalable, repeatable, and sustainable. Public engagement can be in the form of financial support, sharing information about DeliverFund through social media, and educating others about the work we are doing to end trafficking."
How can traffickers be put out of business? Sandy Storm said, "Arresting human traffickers is the ultimate form of prevention. The arrest of a trafficker starts the path to healing for the victims. Law enforcement agencies desiring to help victims will start by using their authority to arrest and ultimately prosecute traffickers. When trafficking becomes riskier and is no longer profitable, fewer victims will be exploited by traffickers."
Sandy is a survivor and is doing everything she can to stop trafficking. Sandy told me, "I call myself an abolitionist because I truly believe we will see an end to the trafficking of humans in our time. My goal is to use my story of overcoming as inspiration for people to challenge themselves to make a difference in the world while educating about the truth of trafficking and bringing true societal change."
Victims may fear seeking help. There is hope for victims, the government, nongovernment agencies, nonprofits, even everyday citizens, who are ready and able to help. Do you need help? Seen something? The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be contacted by calling 888-373-7888 or texting 233733.
Dr. Jason Piccolo (@DRJasonPiccolo) is a former Border Patrol agent, ICE special agent, and DHS supervisor. He is a former U.S. Army Captain (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and author of the recently released book Out of the Shadows: A Government Whistleblower's Firsthand Account of How the Protection Of Migrant Children Became A Political Firestorm.