Charlevoix event to explore human trafficking

Feb. 20—TRAVERSE CITY — A panel of 10 experts will discuss the growing problem of human trafficking in Michigan.

Sponsored by the Charlevoix Area Zonta Club, the free event starts at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Charlevoix Cinema.

The evening will feature a screening of "Ring of Silence," a 2019 movie about a teenage girl who is lured into human sex trafficking.

Following the movie, panelists from the fields of law enforcement, health care, psychology and law will answer questions about the sensitive topic. Panelists will include: FBI Special Agent Garrett Croon; Angela Dudley, GHOST Victim Advocate and co-chair of the Genesee County Human Trafficking Task Force; Michigan State Police Officer Corey Hebner; Charlevoix Police Chief City Jill McDonnell; Charlevoix Police Officer Barb Orban; Detective Cody Wheat of the Charlevoix County Sheriff's Office; Jennifer Standfest, Chief of Nursing for Munson Healthcare; Registered Nurse Sarah McCafferty; Psychologist Elizabeth Simpson; and Jen Rashleigh-Houser, Crime Victim Rights Advocate/Witness Coordinator, Charlevoix County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

"We'll address how people get lured into human trafficking, as well as how to get out of it," said Charlevoix attorney Maura Snabes, who helped organize the event.

Human traffickers prey on vulnerable people who often suffer from low self-confidence and loneliness, she added.

"They use a variety of tactics, such as blackmail, illegal drugs and shame to control their victims, who may find it difficult to find a 'safe person' to talk to [about their situation]."

Film director Nicole Bowers Wallace emphasized that human trafficking is a modern form of slavery with devastating consequences.

"You can sell a T-shirt once [but] a human can be sold 20 times every night," Wallace said.

Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing crimes in America, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. At the federal level, such cases soared 49% from 2011 to 2021. During that same period, the number of people prosecuted for human trafficking doubled. Defendants were charged with crimes ranging from peonage and slavery to forced labor and sex trafficking.

Statistics show that Michigan isn't immune to that trend, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In 2021, authorities identified 429 victims this state. About 89 percent of those cases involved sex trafficking, sometimes called forced or captive prostitution. The remaining 11 percent of cases involved forced or unpaid labor, sometimes in combination with sexual exploitation.

NHTH data said the most common venues for sex trafficking in Michigan are: Hotels and motels — 13 percent; residential settings — 11 percent; pornography — 8 percent; illicit massage parlors or "spa" businesses — 8 percent; online ad venues (not specified) — 6 percent; strip clubs and hostess bars — 1 percent; other / unknown — 53 percent.

About 90 percent of Michigan victims identified are female and 10 percent male, NHTH data shows. Approximately 70 percent were U.S. citizens (born here or naturalized) and 30 percent were citizens of another country.

Three categories account for most of trafficking crimes in the United States, according to the FBI: sex trafficking, forced labor, and domestic servitude. Forced participation in pornography is another notable example.

Runaway teens are particularly vulnerable. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, about one in six runaways reported to the organization were likely victims of sex trafficking.

Other vulnerable groups include people with substance abuse and/or mental health issues, immigrants and those without a strong familial or social support group.

To report a case of suspected human trafficking, safely and confidentially, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center toll-free at 1-888-373-7888, or send a text to 233733. This hotline is available to answer calls, texts, and chats from anywhere in the country, 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, every day of the year. If you prefer, you may also contact local law enforcement.

Another way to ask for help is by using the distress hand symbol, by trapping the thumb with the other fingers to represent someone who is being trafficked, trapped, abused, hurt or confined against one's will.