Would you know human trafficking if you saw it in your community? Stephanie Saville, Marketing & Communications Specialist at Common Ground interviewed Allison Mercer, MS, Victim Advocate – Human Trafficking at Common Ground to talk about what defines human trafficking, where is it happening and how Common Ground is helping survivors.
When we hear “human trafficking” I think most people think of sex trafficking. But people are exploited for many other reasons. Can you clarify what human trafficking involves other than just sex trafficking?
There are a few different kinds. Sex trafficking is the one that is depicted the most in the media, so that’s really normal for people to only think of that one. Although accurate trafficking statistics are really hard to capture, labor trafficking is actually way more prevalent than sex trafficking. Labor trafficking can occur in different industries like hotels, agriculture or cleaning services. Debt bondage is another type of trafficking where victims get in a relationship in some capacity where debt is attached. The trafficker may say something like, “I’ll put a roof over your head and you can live there a month. But now you owe me $1,500.” And normally that just keeps accumulating. The victim may actually have a job, but they never make enough money to get out of the situation.
As long as forced fraud or coercion is there, that could be considered sex trafficking, labor trafficking or debt bondage. They all have similar elements but they can look very different based on who the trafficker is, who the victim is, and the circumstances. Traffickers are very good at manipulating victims and finding things that they can use against them. And most of the time they get away with it. That’s what makes it so difficult to stop – because if we’re not doing anything about it and they’re still making the money that they want, why would they stop?
Let’s talk a little more about prevalence. I have seen things in the news where they bust trafficking rings and you see the police making arrests at hotels. Do the local police departments see trafficking cases often and what does the prevalence look like?
Looking at Southeast Michigan, the police departments that are seeing trafficking are the ones that are actually looking for it. It happens everywhere, but some police departments might not actually have cases for it because they either don’t recognize that it is actually trafficking that is happening or it’s not a priority within the department and/or their budget. Most police departments don’t have any training in trafficking. If they do, most of the time it’s something like two hours of human trafficking training a year, and that is not nearly enough.
I know the City of Auburn Hills has a lot of trafficking cases. The City of Madison Heights also has a lot of cases and the City of Southfield had one recently. But those are more or less because these departments are looking for them. A lot of police departments say, “we’ve never even had a human trafficking case.” But that’s really because they aren’t doing investigations to find them. These cases are out there. They’re really quite easy to find if that’s what you’re trying to do. But it’s just not a priority in a lot of places, including the sheriff’s office.
What are they mistaking the situation for when it’s probably human trafficking? I’m going to guess drugs and prostitution.
Those are the big two; that it’s just a drug addiction or just prostitution. Or, it’s a mental health issue and what the victim is reporting isn’t real. When it comes to minors, a lot of the time they’re written off as “just runaways” or “just being dramatic.” Trafficking someone is really not as hard as people think it is – which is part of the scary aspect of it. It’s much easier to fall into than people think. All of that goes into the denial of thinking that it couldn’t happen here and that it wouldn’t happen to me. Victims get blamed a lot for various things that happen to them when truthfully, they haven’t done anything at all to bring that on or deserve that.
If the police aren’t specifically looking for trafficking, is it a lack of awareness or not having the resources to develop a task force? Or do they not know where to start so they just focus on other priorities? What have you seen are the biggest barriers to making it a priority?
I can’t speak for every police department, but we work in close collaboration with Madison Heights and they used to have an undercover unit that specifically focused on human trafficking. That unit got disbanded because of resources. There weren’t enough officers out on road patrol and the community in that area wanted to prioritize road safety and emergency response so they disbanded the unit and put them on road patrol. However, now the problem is back to being worse than ever because no one is being held accountable. The traffickers are getting away with it. They have no reason to stop if they’re not getting charged or no one is looking for them.
How is Common Ground assisting victims of human trafficking?
First, we help individuals identify if they’re a victim. Many people don’t recognize themselves as a victim of a crime for a variety of reasons including self blame and the manipulation that has occurred.
When it comes to trafficking, we are the only agency in Oakland County that deals with trafficking on an emergency response basis with case management. We are also able to support victims as they travel through eight surrounding counties, which is a tremendous help as many people don’t just stay in one county or they want to get away from their perpetrator.
Every situation is very specific to the survivor, but we help with things like physical health (many people haven’t been to a doctor in years), transportation, court accompaniment, legal and immigration issues, and so much more.
In closing, what is the one thing you would want the general community to know about when it comes to human trafficking?
I feel like our community needs to know that we don’t have a designated unit handling this within our county. I think people would really be surprised to find out that these cases you see in the news are done by individual police departments pulling all the resources they have and practically training themselves to get it done. I think that’s an important thing to know because the only way that we are going to make a change or a difference is when people are aware of what we’re dealing with right now. The best place to start is sharing your concerns at city council meetings and reaching out to your commissioners.
Common Ground provides 24-hour access to advocates for victims of ANY violent crime; domestic and sexual abuse, robbery, stalking, human trafficking, etc . We offer on-site advocacy, crisis intervention, personal protection order assistance, and accompaniment of victims to hospitals, police stations, and court rooms. To learn more, call 1-248-451-2600.
Innovation in human trafficking response is a critical service to the community and Oakland County is a leader in these innovations. For more information about Common Ground’s Victim Assistance Program, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to make a donation to support the Victim Assistance Program (our online form has a Victim Assistance Program option in the campaign drop-down).
About the interviewee: Allison Mercer has worked in victim advocacy for five years and has been at Common Ground since December 2019. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice and Sociology from Oakland University along with a Master of Science in Law Enforcement Intelligence and Analysis from Michigan State University. She completed an internship through the U.S. Department of Probation, Eastern District of Michigan. Allison is an experienced Victim Advocate with a demonstrated history of working with Human Trafficking, Child Abuse/Neglect, Sexual Assault, Trauma and Foster Care.
Allison will be presenting at a virtual webinar, Human Trafficking and Community Resources, on January 24th. Click here to learn more and sign-up.