Human Trafficking is a crime that often goes unreported. It can be difficult for law enforcement to make a case and often times other charges more likely to yield a conviction are pursued. Delaware’s League of Women Voters sponsored a panel discussion last weekend in Sussex County to shed some light on this $150 billion worldwide industry, and its prevalence in the First State.
It’s a Saturday morning. State law enforcement, representatives from non-profits, university professors and victim services workers sit on a panel before a full room at a community center in Harrington. The topic is human trafficking--the harboring or recruitment of a person for a commercial sex act.
Yolanda Schlabach is among the speakers. She is the founder and CEO of Zoe Ministries—a Greenwood-based non-profit. She says human trafficking is modern-day slavery - and points out it exists in all 50 states, and occurs often in Delaware because of the state’s location along the I-95 corridor.
“Specifically coming down from New York, and because we’re such a small state, it’s very easy for traffickers to traffic their victims from New York through Pennsylvania or Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and make a pretty quick escape outside of our Delaware borders,” said Schlabach.
Schlabach says human trafficking can occur at residential brothels, truck stops, or hotels and motels. During her presentation, she displays an internet search yielding 84 advertisements for brothels in Delaware fronting as massage parlors. She says traffickers often target society’s most vulnerable, including runaway or homeless youth.
“Often times they are running away from abuse, and so what happens is their psyche then has been trained to believe that the person that will take care of them will also abuse them. So when they are running away from the abuse and they run into the hands of a trafficker, or a pimp or a predator, they’ve already been trained that whoever is going to take care of me is going to abuse me,” said Schlabach.
Traffickers often have strong psychological control over their victims - perhaps through a perceived romantic relationship, a series of lies or blackmail, or control over a victim’s drug addiction.
Delaware State Police Major Daniel Meadows says that’s why victims are often hesitant to cooperate with law enforcement when a case is made against their trafficker. He says this can make bringing in human trafficking charges difficult.
“Meadows: I think one of the greatest challenges for moving forward with a human trafficking case is the small window we have as law enforcement professionals in establishing trust and open communication with a potential human trafficking victim,” said Meadows.
Meadows says a 2014 law creating harsher penalties for offenders, and better protections for victims has helped - along with better training. State Police Director of Victim Services Debra Reed says law enforcement agencies are becoming more victim-centered in sex trafficking and prostitution cases.
“They’re now looking at the trauma. They’re looking at what has happened in this person’s life that brought them to this situation. I think the more education we have—the more knowledge we have—it makes us more able to recognize the victimization that’s involved in a lot of these crimes,” said Reed.
And other steps are being taken across the state. Wilmington University is offering courses on the subject, as well as setting up training programs for hotel workers to recognize the signs of people being held against their will. Delaware-based non-profits like Meet Me at the Well are working educate and give a fresh start to women sold into sex trafficking.
DelDOT’s Silvana Croope says the state transportation agency is in the early stages of an attempt to use infrared technology on roadways to spot vehicles transporting human cargo.
“A little bit by accident we were able to identify that there are some technologies that can actually be used to help with identifying victims of human trafficking inside commercial vehicles, particularly trucks,” said Croope.
And though it would require additional funding, Yolanda Schlabach’s group Zoe Ministries is advocating for long-term housing for victims of human sex trafficking.
“We can have the greatest trauma therapy, we can have fantastic trauma informed case management, we can have fantastic drug detox and substance abuse programs—mental health programs—but no matter how good our case management is, if that individual does not have safe housing long term, none of those other services really matter, if they don’t have a place to lay their head at night,” said Schlabach.
Schlabach is trying to build a partnership with the Salvation Army and local Rotary Clubs to create a long-term housing system in Delaware. She expects the Rotary to shift its focus to its human trafficking platform after the completion of its work with the polio vaccine next year.