North Carolina is ranked among the country’s top eight states for human trafficking, North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Program Coordinator Kiricka Yarbrough Smith and Human Trafficking Consultant Ashley Bass told the area’s sexual assault service providers Tuesday during a special training at the James W. Citizens Center in Lincolnton.
The three-and-a-half hour session, meant to better educate those workers from Lincoln and surrounding counties who directly deal with child abuse victims — whether it be physical or sexual — offered in-depth insight, scenarios, statistics and other details surrounding the illegal sex trade.
According to Sherry Reinhardt, executive director of Lincoln County’s Coalition Against Child Abuse and Child Advocacy Center, the training was vital since traffickers are frequently updating their tools and technology for luring children.
“There’s nothing we shouldn’t do as a nation to protect our children,” she said.
Funding for the training and its curriculum stemmed from a 2008 grant with the United States Department of Justice.
Smith and Bass opened the program by revealing how sex and labor are the central focus of human trafficking, a $32 billion annual industry.
“The average human trafficking victim goes through 40 people a day,” Bass said.
Most child victims, between the ages of 13 and 17, have a prior history of sexual or physical abuse and are looking for acceptance and love, the women said. The trainers additionally pointed out that at least 30 percent of victims have experienced abuse at the hands of parents or other caretakers.
“The number one way to recruit,” Smith said, “is love. A trafficker is going to look for the least pretty and the one with low self-esteem.”
The trainers told the crowd how traffickers frequently coerce their victims into the trafficking lifestyle by first gaining their trust before revealing the true nature of their harsh and controlling character.
By that point, a victim has already formed a close-knit bond with the abuser, fooling a person into thinking the trafficker is a true girlfriend or boyfriend, someone who must be protected from law enforcement officers and other officials related to child advocacy centers and the court system.
Bass said oftentimes individuals are ignorant of the fact that they, too, are victims.
Sara Brunner, district supervisor for the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Juvenile Justice, works to intervene in the lives of runaways, truants and other troubled children who are prime targets for trafficking.
“We try to get them before they’re too at-risk,” she said.
Currently, Brunner’s department has been assisting around 85 children and teens, both delinquent and non-delinquent, each week. The totals are low compared to average district statistics, she said, which reflect Lincoln and Cleveland Counties, but that the numbers are “fluid” and often fluctuate.
Smith told Tuesday’s crowd how parents should try to keep their children at home after an argument since most runaways are lured into the trafficking trade within 48 hours of leaving their residence.
A majority of human trafficking occurs in North Carolina because of the state’s significant military presence — leading to a large number of strip clubs and massage parlors — and its high volume of ports, major highways and farming and agriculture industry.
Starting Oct. 1, it will be illegal for prosecutors to try sex trafficking victims under age 18, Smith said.
The Safe Harbor Bill, which does not prevent law enforcement officers from actually arresting child victims, offers prosecution immunity to minors who have been involved in prostitution, particularly the 16 and 17-year-olds whom the state court system designates as adults.
Throughout her years of work in Lincoln, Cleveland and Gaston Counties, Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lari said she has never witnessed the arrest of a child prostitution victim.
Lari said she hoped the training would divulge much-needed information on trafficking solutions and prevention rather repetitively remarking on the issue’s seriousness.
According to Smith and Bass, human trafficking is growing in popularity because, unlike other illegally trafficked items such as drugs and guns, a person has unlimited use.
“People — you can give them over and over again,” Smith said, “whereas drugs are used up after one time.”
Reinhardt reiterated the trainer’s words when commenting on the day’s dire topic.
“Flesh is always there,” she said.
As head of the local CAC, Reinhardt has encountered one child victim after another, including 200 children in 2011 and 160 last year. Of that number, more than 80 suffered sexual abuse, she said.
Mayor John Gilleland described a child as a “different kind of victim,” — one whom officers, court counselors, CAC officials and DSS workers must handle with care.
“It’s not average people who can do that,” he said. “I always tell Sherry when I see her that it can’t get any worse, and then I hear a story that is.”