January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
9 On Your Side covered several events throughout the month related to the issue.
Many municipalities across the East made their own proclamations, including Jacksonville, New Bern and Greenville, among others.
The state of North Carolina is ranked eighth in the nation for highest reported numbers of human trafficking.
In 2018, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation found more than 32,000 ads of potential human trafficking victims in the East.
9 On Your Side spoke with survivors, law enforcement and agencies working to eradicate the issue.
“My exploitation started at three,” human trafficking survivor Lanie George said. “I ended up in foster care because my birth father ended up in prison, and my mom ended up using drugs. Here I am, just wanting to be wanted and craving that attention, and they gave it to me.”
Home for young Lanie George was a mix of sorts.
She was in and out of strip clubs, bars and foster care.
“My mom started being trafficked when she was 16,” George said. “So literally my school bus in third and fourth grade dropped me off at my mom’s strip club, and I worked out of my mom’s strip club until I was about 12, ended up back in foster care and within a year I was trafficked out of my foster care.”
She was trafficked by strip club owners.
Then, she was trafficked out of her own bedroom by someone her foster parents trusted, who was around 15 years older than her.
“This gentleman, I truly believed he cared for me and that I was doing this because I loved him, and he loved me,” George said. “That was up until I was 17.”
After escaping the situation, she vowed to never speak of what happened again, until she was in her 30s.
“I hated everything about who I was, and I tried to take my life again, and I remember laying there and crying out and going ‘God, either you let me die or you heal me,'” George said.
The healing process for George is now helping other victims become survivors.
She works with non-governmental agencies to eradicate human trafficking.
“Many people aren’t really aware of what human trafficking really is,” said Melinda Sampson, ENC Stop Human Trafficking Now community outreach coordinator.
“It is compelling somebody to work or perform a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion,” Sampson said. “Even less people understand that if a child is performing a commercial sex act, then they are automatically victims of human trafficking, and force, fraud or coercion need not even be proven.”
Sampson said coastal waterways, tourism and large arenas in North Carolina are all factors that contribute to the prevalence of trafficking.
“There is I-95 and I-85 and there is also I-40,” Sampson said. “The prevalence of truck stops in that corridor increases the demand.”
Traci Klein with True Justice International helps human trafficking victims throughout the East.
The non-profit holds a safe house in New Bern.
“We have a restoration home that we provide four girls so they can get up to two years,” Klein said.
They have a 100 percent success rate of girls completing the program and not returning to trafficking.
They are opening another safehouse in Jacksonville.
“In Jacksonville, there is a large drug population,” Klein said. “Drug addictions go hand-in-hand with human trafficking and, of course, there are five strip clubs. Jacksonville is one of the circuits. Jacksonville, Fayetteville, obviously more because of the larger military presence there and, of course, Greenville since it’s college place.”
“Because of our university here, the traffickers prey on young ladies,” said Chief Deputy Chauncey Congleton, with the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office. “They try to get them hooked on drugs.”
Congleton said the Sheriff’s Office receives trafficking tips all the time.
They monitor the internet and do sting operations to put the people buying sexual favors behind bars.
“Concentrate on the johns because it is supply and demand,” Congleton said. “You cut the demand off, start prosecuting some of the johns, that would, in turn, slow down the sex trafficking.”
As for the pimps, it is more likely for one of them to be struck by lightning than convicted due to victims not self-identifying or not cooperating with law enforcement.
“I got to go back in 2011 to that same strip club and help rescue my mom out of that strip club who was still being trafficked,” George said.
George works with law enforcement in North Carolina and beyond to bring survivors home.
“We are set free for the purpose of helping set other people free,” said George. “While I didn’t have the courage at 17, I definitely have the courage now to look into the face of another woman who is filled with shame or gone through this and say, ‘I know that you are worth it, and I know that you are capable to walk through this healing, and I am willing to walk alongside you.'”
The people 9 On Your Side spoke with hope raising awareness of human trafficking will help bring in more tips to law enforcement, as it is an under-reported crime.
While certain populations are more susceptible to being trafficked, it can happen to anyone.
Here are some things to look out for in your community:
- Branding marks on women
- An older man with younger girls oftentimes speaking for them
- The women with the man not speaking to you, turning or looking away
- Men offering money or favors, even if a sexual exchange is not brought up initially
It is also important to be aware of online posts and hashtags, as a lot of trafficking is hidden in plain sight on social media and dating apps.
While sex trafficking is more widely reported in our state, the SBI said labor trafficking may be just as prevalent.
Click here to view 9 On Your Side’s Web Extra on labor trafficking.