Exposing human trafficking darkness
COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho (AP) — The traps of human trafficking exist in Kootenai County and a pair of nonprofits are reaching out to all areas of the state to expose the manipulative crime.
“It typically starts online with a shower of grooming and attention, then you become owned and cut off from the outside world,” said Jennifer Zielinski, executive director of the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition that formed a year ago and became a nonprofit four months ago to create awareness and set up “safe homes” for victims.
“The victims fall in love with the trafficker, are brainwashed and not easy to communicate with. It’s a vicious circle.”
The coalition teamed up with another Boise-area nonprofit, Community Outreach Behavioral Services (COBS), which provides trauma care for human trafficking victims, to present a seminar to about 125 attendees on at Lake City Church.
“When we held an event like this in Boise we had a lot of individuals from north Idaho who requested that we bring it up here, so we thought we’d honor that,” Zielinski said.
She said the coalition hopes to find data that points to just how prevalent human trafficking is here, but with its proximity to Spokane, that makes it a vulnerable place for trafficking. She said Spokane is a hotspot for such activity.
Service providers, workers around homes and the community at large can do their part to bring down human trafficking, a form of “modern slavery” in which a person is forced to perform acts through force, coercion and intimidation.
Last year a 17-year-old Post Falls girl was caught in a human trafficking ring in the Seattle area before teen Jacob Stuart and his mother, Michelle, helped crack the case when they discovered the clothing the victim was wearing matched that of a girl’s on an online escort ad. A male and female were subsequently arrested.
Stuart and his mom, along with former Post Falls school resource officer Troy Roberg, were honored by the police department for their efforts.
Tami Brown, of Coeur d’Alene, said she attended June 4 seminar because she wants her teens to know just how enticing people can be.
“You can be promised money and fame and, when the going gets tough, that can sound wonderful,” she said. “But, before you know it, you’re caught in their trap and can’t get out. It’s sickening to see what takes place.”
Kevin Zielinski, Jennifer’s husband, said the couple made the gut-wrenching decision to place their foster child in a facility, only to find out nine months later she and others were sexually abused by the house parents.
“Human trafficking hides behind religion, badges, business, courthouses, classrooms, social media and even families,” he said.
He said his redemption is being a part of the coalition and educating the public about what to look for, including victims being overly tired, dressing less appropriately than before, bragging about having a lot of money and signs of physical abuse. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in six runaways are likely sex trafficking victims.
The types of human trafficking are sex trafficking (escort services, porn, prostitution), labor trafficking (carnivals, traveling sales crews, agriculture/landscaping, nail salon, illicit massage businesses, peddling/begging) or a combination of both (arts and entertainment, strip clubs).
“It’s a low-risk, high profit criminal activity,”
Paula Barthelmess, of COBS and guest speaker, said of the multi-billion-dollar industry. “It’s hard to recognize, unless you’re looking for it.”
Traffickers can be older boyfriends, the nice boy next door, women, business professionals and travel agents.
“They know the digital world isn’t going away, and they’re waiting to start that conversation with your sweet little children when they’re vulnerable,” Barthelmess said. “They’ll offer to buy them drugs or alcohol when no one else will. I guarantee you they’re in malls.”
Zielinski said the belief that human trafficking is confined to mostly young girls in metro areas isn’t true, because boys, adults and those in rural areas are also targeted.
“It’s happening all over the state,” she said. “Our borders are what causes a lot of access for traffickers. Rural communities are easy targets because they are isolated. There are a lot of adults still owned by traffickers who happen to be their pimp, and there’s a rising number of boys being sold.”
In the United States alone, nearly 300,000 children are trafficked for sex every year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The problem is, most victims don’t even realize it is happening.
“It’s so calculated and manipulative, and you can’t find your way out,” Zielinski said. “Oftentimes a young man around the same age will spend months and months grooming an individual before taking her to the trafficker. College campuses are being increasingly targeted. It’s scary how often it is happening.”
Zielinski said it’s going to take all sides working together, including legislators, law enforcement, the courts, victims, nonprofits and others, to tackle human trafficking. She said she believes steps are being made, including training for teachers.
The coalition’s first mission is to have a safe house for juvenile victims of human trafficking in the Boise area, followed by one for adults. She hopes those models will then spread to other areas of the state.
“It’s a horrific industry, and it’s no longer underground,” she said.
Federal law enforcement authorities in April seized Backpage.com and its affiliated websites to crack down on human trafficking.
“But there’s going to be another (source) and another one . ,” Barthelmess said.
Information from: Coeur d’Alene Press, http://www.cdapress.com