WALDORF, Maryland – Bringing a halt to human trafficking needs help from the public, which must learn to “see the unseen,” an anti-trafficking advocate recently told church members here.
Civilian training is the first step, said Rebecca McDonald, founder and president of Women at Risk, International (WAR), a Michigan-based non-profit organization that works to provide protection to those at risk, for the event.
“Until you take this personally, nothing is going to change,” McDonald told members of the First Baptist Church in Waldorf.
The church partnered with WAR for a seven-hour Civilian First Responder program for 250 attending members, teaching them about what human trafficking is, the horrors of victims’ experience, how they can detect signs of the crime in their community and resources they can contact to get help.
Human trafficking, often considered a forgotten crime, is modern day slavery. An umbrella term, human trafficking encompasses a number of crimes like sex trafficking, forced labor and debt bondage.
The International Labour Organization estimates that 40.3 million people are trafficked globally, according to Polaris, an organization dedicated to eradicating modern slavery.
In 2014, 396 survivors of human trafficking were identified and provided assistance in Maryland according to the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force. As most victims are not identified or reported to an agency, this number is only a fraction of the actual number of people being trafficked in the state.
WAR provided pamphlets and documents that had further information about human trafficking and ways to see its signs. In a booklet specifically aimed at the general public, the organization lists 15 demographic characteristics that make an area more prone to human trafficking.
Tourism, for example, invites people to come in and out of an area for short periods of time. These tourists, primarily men, are more likely to partake in human trafficking activities, like sex trafficking, and leave the area before there are any repercussions. Sex tourism “treats sex as just another visitor attraction,” according the WAR’s website.
Because of Maryland’s close proximity to cities like Washington and Baltimore, the state is vulnerable to sex tourism.
Six men, including two from Anne Arundel County, were arrested by county police in a prostitution sting operation at the Extended Stay America hotel in Linthicum, only a 10-minute drive from the Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, according to an article by the Capital Gazette.
Maryland has about 12 or 13 of these 15 demographic characteristics, according to McDonald.
McDonald said the real problem of human trafficking is that it is “good business.” Traffickers can sell a human over and over again and still have deniability, according to McDonald.
The church event also had separate break-out sessions for parents and educators, hospitality workers, teens and young adults and homeland security and local law enforcement to learn how to detect human trafficking in these specific groups.
Speakers for these sessions included representatives of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s office, the Charles County Sheriff’s Office and an advocate for Human Security Investigations.
Two human trafficking victims, Jill Short and Wendy Schoonmaker, spoke about their experiences during the lunch break. Short, a mother of 10 and grandmother of six, uses beauty pageants to talk about her personal story and won the position of 2019 Mrs. Downtown DC America, the official Washington preliminary pageants to Miss for America and Mrs. America.
Schoonmaker said people are sometimes taught to mistrust themselves and ignore or shutdown their own feelings, which can be passed on to children, creating a major source of vulnerability.
“If you don’t acknowledge someone else’s feelings, someone else will,” she said. “And often times it’s someone who will exploit them.”
Schoonmaker said she was able to walk away from the first 16 years of her life by having people, either mentors or volunteers, who spoke about positive things in her life.
Both survivors urged attendees to be vigilant about signs of trafficking.
Church member Charlotte Vass organized the training session with help from other members. Having previously worked with domestic violence victims and then with WAR, Vass said the sinfulness of human trafficking “struck her” and made her want to make a difference.
A group of women at the church have been praying about this problem for years and started planning the event about eight months ago, according to Vass.
“It just became apparent that people are really uninformed about the human trafficking situation in general,” Vass said. “Most people seem to think it’s over there, they don’t realize it’s in your own backyard.”