Courtney Dunkerton, Executive Director of Alamance For Freedom, speaks about the status of human trafficking in North Carolina.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Today, we are going to be discussing the status of human trafficking in North Carolina and how a variety of groups are stepping up to address this dreadful activity. Our guest today is Courtney Dunkerton, Executive Director of Alamance for Freedom, an anti-trafficking organization located right here in North Carolina. Alamance for Freedom works with government agencies, students, churches and service providers to confront and respond to human trafficking in Alamance County and to support the efforts of an anti-human trafficking network in North Carolina. Courtney, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.
COURTNEY DUNKERTON: Thank you for having me.
JOHN RUSTIN: Courtney, fortunately, the issue of human trafficking is getting more attention these days—I guess unfortunately that it is—but fortunate that we’re learning more about it and its prevalence in the state. But I think many of us are still very unaware of the true magnitude of this problem, especially here in North Carolina. As we begin our discussion today, would you please give us a lay of the land, if you will, of the current status of human trafficking in North Carolina?
COURTNEY DUNKERTON: Human trafficking is a crime that basically occurs all over the state. It’s going to occur in urban areas, rural areas, smaller cities and towns, military bases and tourist destinations. It’s basically going to occur wherever commercial sex exists, and wherever people who are in need of work are lured and trapped in jobs they can’t get out of. As you said, the awareness in North Carolina has really exploded the past few years, and because of that more people are learning to recognize the signs, learning how to report tips, law enforcement agencies are putting more resources into investigations, social workers and advocates are being trained to look for these cases. Because of this the reports of human trafficking are obviously increasing. However—and this is a problem we deal with regularly—there still lacks real data, there still lacks real numbers, because that’s what people want to know. How often is this occurring? How much is this occurring? How many victims have you seen in your area? One indicator that’s very, very helpful is the National Human Trafficking hotline. This is a project of the Polaris Project and each year they issue a national report and state-by-state report on hotline data. So from 2015 to 2016, the United States has seen a 35 percent jump in cases, reports to that call line, so that’s pretty significant. North Carolina is usually ranked somewhere between seven and ten, or seventh and tenth in the United States for calls to that hotline. In 2016 North Carolina saw 598 calls to that hotline, and 181 human trafficking cases reported. Compared to 2012, in which there were 430 total calls and 100 cases reported. So that’s a significant difference in North Carolina. The common venues that we would see here would be: Hotel- and motel-based sex trafficking; Commercial-front brothels such as nail salons or massage parlors; Online-based ads where sexual services are advertised and customers call in and set up appointments. Labor trafficking venues would be: in agriculture among migrant workers; landscaping and construction crews; restaurants; and in homes, in the form of domestic servants. Another that is sometimes surprising to people would include door-to-door magazine sales. Young people are conned into selling magazines for free trips or college tuition, and they’re basically paid nothing. They all stay together in hotels, move around from area to area, even state to state, so that’s something we’re seeing too.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s interesting and I think we hear about human trafficking and often think about it in the context of sex trafficking, but it also does take place with respect to labor, and as you’ve described, various types of labor. Who are the primary targets of those who operate human trafficking activities?
COURTNEY DUNKERTON: The primary targets are going to be anyone who needs a job, anyone who needs money, attention, relationship, protection. Traffickers use these things to lure and create a dependency. It’s going to include homeless youth who trade sex for food or shelter or drugs even, those who have suffered childhood trauma and abuse, and those people who are unaware of our laws, for instance, it is illegal for an employee to isolate and threaten an employee with deportation to keep them in bondage. It is illegal to force someone to pay off a debt. So ignorance of the law is one way traffickers can exploit victims.
JOHN RUSTIN: Talk a little bit about Alamance for Freedom, the organization that you’re directly involved with. What do you all do to serve in this effort? And talk about some of the similar organizations that you work with across the state and across the nation to address this issue.
COURTNEY DUNKERTON: I’ll start talking about North Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking. That’s a coalition in North Carolina and it is sort of the organizing body of various regional rapid response teams. And those were organized early on when very few people were either believing that human trafficking was happening in our area and there just were very little resources, even five years ago. So those rapid response teams were multi-disciplinary groups coming together to either investigate, discuss, or respond to victims. We would coordinate training and that kind of thing. So in the beginning, there were just a few of those. Now, there are more. We are a part of that network. So when we were learning how to serve our community, we got involved in the efforts that were already around us and we recognized there was a gap in Alamance County. So, we decided to begin in our area advocating for this issue and because we were connected to the greater network in North Carolina we were able to tap into those resources. So, what we’ve done is: awareness; service provider training; lots of outreach; and we do provide victims assistance. But we’re connected to that larger network.
JOHN RUSTIN: Courtney, what do you currently see as the weakest link in the chain to address the issue of human trafficking?
COURTNEY DUNKERTON: It’s easy to just point to the pimp or the trafficker as the bad guy. But who’s employing these people who are being exploited? Employers need to pay fair wages to their employees and they need to make sure that their employees are not being exploited by crew bosses. Also, who’s buying sex—and let’s include porn in that? Who’s contributing to it? Who’s creating the demand? If there was no demand, these girls and boys and human beings would not be sold. So, we have to think of it as a supply and demand issue. The only other thing I would say besides that, I think a key aspect in this whole discussion is the lack of safe supportive homes for children, where children are not being nurtured in a safe supportive home—and that can either mean a foster home or group home or just their biological family. Children run away from these homes, where they’re snatched up by traffickers. Children develop these traumatic responses to their homes and they grow up and they are very, very vulnerable to exploitation and further abuse. So, I think the lack of safe supportive homes for children in North Carolina is absolutely crucial to this entire discussion. So when people say, “How can I fight human trafficking?” You do not have to start a “safe home.” Raise your children. If you see abuse or domestic violence, learn how to report it. Let’s work hard for our children. And that’s everybody. Everybody can do that.
JOHN RUSTIN: I do know Courtney that the North Carolina General Assembly has already passed some legislation to crack down on human trafficking in North Carolina, and there is certainly more that needs to be done and can be done. How have these recent changes that the General Assembly has enacted helped? And what else do you think needs to be done, if you were to prioritize the needs?
COURTNEY DUNKERTON: I just want to say the state’s harbor laws in North Carolina have been huge in this, where a 16-year-old girl is not going to be arrested for prostituting. First of all, a child cannot prostitute. They are prostituted. So, that’s been huge in this effort. And when you hear, as I hear at times, older police officers say, “You know my mindset has really changed, because back in the day, we would just lock these girls up and charge them, etc. etc. And now, we’re looking at them as victims and hearing their stories, and understanding how they got to where they are. And we’re changing our minds—our mindsets are changing about this population.” And for me, that’s very powerful. That is success to me. So, we’re not looking at this adolescent or this teenager as this throwaway kid. We’re saying, what’s your story? How did she get here? What can we do to help?
JOHN RUSTIN: Courtney, as we conclude our conversation, what can parents and even siblings do to help protect children, brothers and sisters from falling victim to human trafficking in our state?
COURTNEY DUNKERTON: That is a great question. I’ve sort of said this before, or alluded to it. We know that a lot of victims, they will have trauma histories, so keeping our homes safe from abuse and violence is very important. And giving the children the opportunity to report that abuse, giving them opportunities to say, “My home is not safe.” And also, for us to learn how to report abuse so that it’s responded to appropriately. Second, if children in our homes are engaging in behaviors that concern us, it’s really important that we don’t kick them out of our homes. When they run away from home, they are at real risk for being trafficked and particularly LGBTQ kids. These are kids that are very, very vulnerable. Sometimes, they run away from home. They don’t feel accepted or they’re kicked out. But if there’s something your children are engaging in behavior and it’s just, you don’t know what to do, let’s be responsible parents and provide what we need for our kids so that does not happen. The other thing that’s really important is that—and this is gonna be no surprise—is that we monitor online use with our kids, especially online gaming. We tell our kids, “Don’t talk to strangers,” but these days, what’s a stranger, when you’ve been playing “Call of Duty” with them for a month and now you’re texting every night? So we have to think about our kids becoming familiar with strangers through online gaming or social media. So we really have to stay vigilant with that.
JOHN RUSTIN: Great. We will encourage our listeners to get involved, be aware, be intentional about identifying things that oftentimes just don’t seem right with individuals and families that may live in your neighborhood. And if you find something that kind of fits the profile of what we’ve talked about today, please get involved and get engaged and let the authorities know that there’s questionable activity that may be going on. Because it may really help to get an individual, a child out of a very harmful situation and do some good in helping eradicate human trafficking from our state.
COURTNEY DUNKERTON: And I would say one more thing: People will sometimes tell me about things that they see or things that they are seeing and I think, “Well, call law enforcement!” “Oh, I don’t want to do that because I’m not sure it’s happening.” Or call the National Human Trafficking hotline number! [They say,] “Well, I’m not positive.” That doesn’t matter! If you see something that you know is not right, make a report. You don’t have to be correct. You’re not going to get in trouble by doing that. In fact, what I tell people, you might be the ninth person that has called about that home, or has called about that restaurant, and your information might be the very thing law enforcement might need to finally check it out or go further in their investigation. So if you see something, say something! And know the [phone] numbers, have the hotline number in your cellphone, call the local law enforcement. And that’s really a huge thing—something we all can definitely do.
JOHN RUSTIN: Courtney, where can our listeners go to learn more about Alamance for Freedom and your efforts?
COURTNEY DUNKERTON: We have a website, but I would also say look at Project No Rest, the website for North Carolina’s project out of UNC Chapel Hill School of Social Work. They’re doing a lot of great things. We’re connected with that project, North Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Polaris Project is a fantastic resource. I use it constantly. I would say, go there and then they have a directory for all the anti-human trafficking organizations in the country. They have a good database for those efforts as well as those organizations.
JOHN RUSTIN: Great, we will encourage our listeners to get involved. And with that, Courtney Dunkerton, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters, and for your important work on the issue of human trafficking here in North Carolina.
COURTNEY DUNKERTON: Thank you so much.
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