This article was written by Nancy Curry, Director of Student Support Services, and Sonia Moticha, Student Support Specialist, New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), on behalf of the NJDOE Human Trafficking Collaborative.
In a 2001 news report on human trafficking, CNN profiled two young women who arrived in New Jersey from Africa as preteens, with a promise of an American education. Instead, their identification was taken, they were held against their will, and they were forced to work every day in hair salons while every dollar they earned was taken by their captors. The young women described how this continued for years, until police finally arrested the traffickers.
Then the camera turned to the reporter walking through the tree-lined neighborhood where the girls were housed. “Just look at it,” the correspondent said incredulously, waving her hands. “Manicured lawns, nice houses. It looks like any neighborhood in America. And it definitely doesn’t look like a place where you’d expect to find slavery.”
The CNN video, which is posted on the homepage for the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking, delivers a crucial message: While people often believe human trafficking occurs in other communities or other countries, the reality is that youth across New Jersey and the United States find themselves victim to this modern-day form of slavery. No community is immune.
Human trafficking is exploiting a person for forced sex or labor. Sex trafficking can occur in places like escort services, the porn industry, strip clubs, casinos, truck stops and massage parlors. Labor trafficking—which is forced or coerced labor—is most commonly seen in street sales, magazine crews, the hospitality industry, nursing homes, hair and nail salons, child and home care, construction, and farms or agricultural businesses. It is important to be sensitive to the terminology, as youth involved in these crimes are considered victims and not prostitutes or offenders. The latter hints that being trafficked is a voluntary and conscious decision, whereas victim suggests the child does not have a choice in the matter.
The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines a victim of human trafficking as a “person induced to perform labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion.” The law includes specific language regarding minors, stating that “Any person under age 18 who performs a commercial sex act is considered a victim of human trafficking, regardless of whether force, fraud or coercion was present.”
In addition to federal legislation, progress has been made at the state level. New Jersey law (N.J.S.A. 2C:13-8), passed in April of 2005 and amended in 2013, declares human trafficking to be a first-degree crime that carries a prison sentence of 10 years to life. The state legislature’s passage of the Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act in May 2013 also established a Commission on Human Trafficking and the Human Trafficking Survivor’s Assistance Fund.
Local leaders are making headway, as well. For instance, in November 2015, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities encouraged local officials to highlight the issue of human trafficking, and dozens of municipalities have since passed proclamations doing so. In March 2016, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) formed a collaborative called the NJDOE Human Trafficking Collaborative. Its members include the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, the state Attorney General’s Office, the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts, Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey, the Gloucester Township Police Department, Jefferson Township High School, the Atlantic County Department of Human Services, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, NJEA, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, and the New Jersey School Boards Association.
The focus on human trafficking has continued throughout this fall and winter, as numerous school staff registered to attend three regional symposiums sponsored by the Human Trafficking Collaborative.
It is clear: Anyone can be a victim of human trafficking. Regardless of socioeconomic status or family background, individuals of any age, race, gender or nationality may be subjected to this horrific crime.
However, some youth are at greater risk. Vulnerable populations often include runaways, the homeless, LGBTQ, victims of abuse, youth with low self-esteem, undocumented immigrants, and young people who dropped out of school or feel disconnected from the education system. Some other risk factors among young people include a lack of regard for personal safety, feelings of isolation from family or friends, family dysfunction, substance abuse, mental illness, learning disabilities and a general lack of social support.
There is no set profile for a trafficker. He or she can be any age, race or nationality. Traffickers can be family members, pimps or madams, gang members, labor brokers, employers of domestic servants, or business owners. Common recruiting grounds are bus or train stations, shelters, concerts, malls, within school zones, internet social networking sites and any other areas where youth often congregate.
Youth who voluntarily share nude digital images or videos of themselves also put themselves in danger. Traffickers who obtain these media files blackmail victims by threatening to show the pictures or videos to the victim’s family and friends if he or she does not cooperate.
Young people can fall victim to this crime before they can fully process what has occurred. One reason for this is that traffickers will frequently groom their victims, meaning the relationship will start off seemingly loving and caring to establish a base of trust and dependence. Sometimes, other minors can groom their peers for the “manager” or pimp.
The trafficker often buys the victim material things, and the unknowing target may even refer to the perpetrator as his or her boyfriend or girlfriend. Traffickers may then isolate the victim and limit his or her contact with others; withhold personal identification documents; threaten the victim or his or her family with imprisonment, deportation or violence; threaten to shame or expose the victim to his or her family; and control the victim’s earnings.
New Jersey is considered particularly vulnerable to the proliferation of human trafficking due to its dense population and location along the I-95 corridor.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security considers human trafficking the second most profitable transnational crime industry, after drug dealing. The U.S. State Department has estimated that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year. New Jersey is considered particularly vulnerable to the proliferation of human trafficking due to its dense population and location along the I-95 corridor between major cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.
In the schools, teachers and other school staff play a vital role in creating a safe and supportive learning environment—which involves learning the indicators of possible trafficking and how to respond. When a student acts out in a particular way, something else is often occurring beneath the surface. Students displaying disruptive or oppositional behavior may do so because of abuse or trauma. Renowned psychologist Russell Barkley once noted, “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”
Victims of trafficking rarely seek help. Trafficked students often worry that other students will find out and tell their friends or school staff, which would put them in danger of receiving harsh treatment from the perpetrator. Students may also refuse to disclose the trafficking because of shame or stigma, strong cultural or religious beliefs, fear of bringing disgrace to one’s family and community, or feeling unworthy because of the hardships endured. Additionally, the silence may be due to the control the trafficker holds over the victim; loyalty to the trafficker as a result of trauma bonding (Stockholm syndrome); fear of deportation; or the child’s inability to identify as a victim.
School staff and parents may observe many “red flags” in potential trafficking victims. These signs could include sporadic attendance at school; poor physical health and malnutrition; physical or sexual abuse; an older or controlling “boyfriend” or “girlfriend;” new tattoos or branding meant to show he or she is “owned” (common examples include the trafficker’s street name, a number, barcode, or dollar sign); drug addiction; fearful, anxious or paranoid behavior; sudden changes in appearance, behavior or relationships; acquisition of expensive material possessions; and possession of a cellphone that was not provided by the young person’s family. While these behaviors may indicate other underlying issues, they could be warning signs of human trafficking.
School staff interact with students every day, and anyone in the school community has the ability to build trust with young people and identify potential victims. When working with children, school staff need to explain reporting obligations up-front to avoid damaging any established trust in the relationship.
However, although school staff can be integral players in helping trafficking victims, this is not a situation to be handled alone. Doing so could risk the safety of both the staff member and the victim. If you suspect potential trafficking, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advises against trying to confront a suspected trafficker directly or alerting the victim to any suspicions. If a student does self-disclose, speak to him or her in a place in the school where you and the student feel safe. Follow the board-approved protocol if your school district’s policy specifies procedures for this type of interaction. Immediately contact a hotline or entity where staff are trained to investigate these kinds of concerns (see Resources, Page 29). Ultimately, law enforcement is responsible for investigating reports of human trafficking.
In addition to being supportive adults who are watchful for suspicious activity, school staff can work together to understand how human trafficking can affect their school. You may collaborate with school administrators to develop policies, protocols, and community partnerships. When doing so, remember that language shapes perception—like the example of referring to young people embroiled in human trafficking as “victims” rather than “offenders.” Schools can promote change by increasing parent and student awareness of human trafficking, embed the topic into the curriculum, and make resources such as hotline numbers available to staff, students and parents.
This is an ideal time to start the conversation, as January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. School staff are in a unique position to serve as advocates for young people, to report possible cases of human trafficking, and to help free young victims from their positions of slavery.
To report suspected cases of human trafficking in New Jersey, call 1-877-NJABUSE for minors or the N.J. Human Trafficking Hotline at 855-END-NJ-HT for minors and/or adults. For more information, go to www.njhumantrafficking.gov.
Contact the toll-free 24/7 National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 888-373-7888 or text “help” or “info” to BeFree (233733). For more information, go to www.traffickingresourcecenter.org.
To request services for current or past victims, contact Dream Catcher Program’s Statewide Human Trafficking Services at 1-800-286-4184.
Information on prevention programming for youth can be obtained through Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey at 1-800-CHILDREN or www.preventchildabusenj.org.
New Jersey Coalition on Human Trafficking, www.njhumantrafficking.org
U.S. Department of Education: Human Trafficking in America’s Schools, 2015, bit.ly/usdoehtas2015
Polaris Project, polarisproject.org/victims-traffickers
Office of Trafficking in Persons, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.acf.hhs.gov/endtrafficking/trafficking
National Human Trafficking Resource Center, bit.ly/victimsnhtrc
Office for Victims of Crime, within the U.S. Department of Justice, ovc.ncjrs.gov/humantrafficking/about.html
National Institute of Justice, bit.ly/humantraffickingnij
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) – Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, bit.ly/ojjdpcsec
Blue Campaign – Human Trafficking 101 for School Administrators and Staff, bit.ly/dhsht101
The NJEA Human and Civil Rights Committee tracks issues of human trafficking. You may reach the committee through HCR Committee Chair Jackie Greadington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Project Stay Gold at Jefferson Township High School works to raise awareness of human trafficking and end it. The program was the 2014 recipient of the NJEA Martin Luther King Jr. Human and Civil Rights Award.