Local Organization Aims To Promote Human Trafficking Awareness

March 30, 2022

If you think of human trafficking as a problem that only exists in underdeveloped countries, you might miss warning signs of this crisis that is a problem in Kent County.

Solutions to End Exploitation (SEE), an organization focused on helping solve Kent County’s human trafficking problem, is working to educate schools, teachers, and students.

Human Trafficking is defined as recruiting, facilitating, arranging, transporting, or coercing a person into sexual acts or exploiting them for labor in exchange for anything of value.

“For years no one would let us talk about human trafficking in schools,” Alisha Meneely, community outreach director at SEE said. “Parents didn’t want it, teachers didn’t want it, administrators didn’t want it, because they thought it would cause issues and because they whole-heartedly believed that trafficking doesn’t happen in Kent County anyways, so we shouldn’t be talking about it. Well, it does happen in Kent County. We have proof of that. We have kids younger than 16 that we are saving that are being trafficked.” 

SEE was among the eight organizations in the country recently chosen to get a grant in order to educate students and school leaders. Over the next three years, SEE will receive money to educate teachers on how to talk about trafficking with their students, and how to recognize warning signs in their students. The goal is to train one or two teachers in each building on how to talk to students about human trafficking.

The initiative first began in 2014 as a monthly task force. At meetings, open to the public, the task force would “explain the different aspects of human trafficking. We ended up getting a lot bigger and getting some money, so we became an actual non-profit,” Meneely said. 

“When we first started social service providers, the medical community, schools, law enforcement, and prosecutors were all over the place. So if there was a victim nobody knew what to do. What SEE did is we got all of these people to the table,” Meneely said. “So now what happens is, if there is a victim we’re all talking to each other. We know if they are a minor or adult, if they are a female or male, where to send them for shelter, where to send them for counseling. Now we all talk to each other to make sure that the victim has all the services they need.” 

SEE does not actively participate in the rescue efforts, but they work closely with the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) and other police departments. GRPD just hired a human trafficking detective, and SEE works closely with him. 

“He lets us know what he is out doing, [such as]  if there are any cases if there are any victims. We will then help him help the victim. We are the umbrella over all these people that are trying to help. We’re making sure everyone is working together.” Meneely said. 

It is a difficult truth that human trafficking is very common in Kent County.

“There is always a victim that we are helping right now,” Meneely said. 

Sacred Beginnings, a new drop-in center for human trafficking victims just opened by a former human trafficking survivor, Leslie King. Sacred Beginnings is a shelter for adult women coming out of human trafficking.

 King “got money to open a new drop-in center, so anybody can drop in from off the streets that are being trafficked. She has people dropping in day and night,” Meneely said. 

The center assists a surprising variety of people, including many young boys who will go to the drop-in center, and sometimes  there are even mothers and daughters who come because they are being trafficked by the same person. 

SEE is currently running a campaign called SEE. BELIEVE. DISRUPT. (seebelievedisrupt.com) to “provide resources that empower our communities  to create change and movement toward a world free from human trafficking.” 

The campaign is all about awareness, specifically ”knowing what human trafficking looks like, making sure that people are aware that yes it does happen here, and what to do if you see it,” Meneely said. 

There are yard signs and logos that businesses can put in their windows or on their menus to raise awareness.

There are also important measures to take to protect yourself. According to GRPD Major Case Detective Jennifer Wordelman, who spent years investigating sex crimes, there are strategies that young people can use to help prevent these types of crimes.

“A common misconception is that ‘it doesn’t affect me,’ but it affects all communities the same. There is no community that is immune from this,” Wordelman said. 

“If possible, go places in pairs or groups, be mindful of your surroundings, especially in unfamiliar places, don’t talk to people you don’t know online, don’t give out information to people you don’t know, and look out for your friends. “If something feels weird, go tell someone,” said Wordelman.

Awareness is important so that people in the community are equipped to respond when they see signs of trafficking. Poor living conditions, signs of physical abuse, and an inability to speak alone are all possible signs. 

Another problem is the still existent stereotypes around human trafficking. For example, people don’t tend to believe boys when they report potential trafficking. 

“Boys are the hardest [to rescue and prosecute the predators]. It’s getting better, but I remember when I started in this industry eight years ago there was no data on boys, but we knew it was happening,” Meneely said. 

The response when these boys came forward was not one of sympathy or a desire to help, “People would say ‘oh you’re gay’, or ‘nobody is making you have sex’,” Meneely said, “The LGBTQ community are at huge risk for trafficking because a lot of them get kicked out of their homes or don’t have comfortable relationships with their families.”

SEE’s goal is to change those stereotypes and to help educate the community that human trafficking is an abusive situation and a power imbalance, not simply a choice.

Technology has become one of the main reasons for the increase in human trafficking. Technology has made it near impossible to track predators, and it has increased the population at risk for human trafficking.

There are many important safety measures to take while using social media. Turn off your location, keep all your accounts private, and never accept friend requests from anyone you don’t know. 

Sex traffickers used to have to “walk the streets or hang out at malls, and could only groom two or three girls at a time because it’s a lot of work. Now with the internet a pimp or predator can sit on their couch and groom 20-30 girls at once,” Meneely said. 

The predators hiding behind screens can take a long time to track down. The police and FBI have to go through and look at old deleted snaps, and other intent interactions, so while it is possible it takes a long time. 

The goal is to change policy, because “once you stop the demand then human trafficking goes away, but as long as there is a demand you will have victims all day long,” Meneely said. 

If you see signs of human trafficking, report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at

1-888-373-7888

 

 

This story was originally published in the March 31 edition of The East Vision.

The East Vision • Copyright 2022 • FLEX WordPress Theme by SNOLog in