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“It Could Happen Anywhere”: Inside the Fight to Help Michigan’s Human-Trafficking Victims

January 6, 2020

Across Michigan, activists and attorneys are taking a stand to support survivors of human trafficking

By Erin Marie Miller

“It could happen anywhere,” says Hannah McPeak, the executive director of Hope Against Trafficking, a Pontiac nonprofit that educates the public about human trafficking and provides transitional housing and restorative care to adult female trafficking survivors. She goes on to tell the story of a bright young woman from a wealthy Metro Detroit suburb who was lured into human trafficking by her charming new boyfriend. The account is a somber reminder that human trafficking — a form of modern-day slavery that involves men, women or children being forced into prostitution and other labor for little or no pay — is not something that occurs only in urban centers. It happens, as McPeak warns, everywhere.

“There is not one profile of a victim nor a trafficker, so it’s very important to recognize that [trafficking] is happening regardless of where an individual lives,” says Caroline Diemar, director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, an organization that helps victims and survivors of trafficking. In Michigan, the numbers are jarring: In 2018, the NHTH reported 383 trafficking cases and received 159 calls from victims and survivors statewide. “It’s easy to focus on the sex trafficking component of it,” Diemar adds, “but labor trafficking is also highly prevalent and, we think, even more underreported.”

While many tactics are used to lure victims into trafficking, McPeak says a common technique is the “affection lure” — when a trafficker targets a victim who is emotionally vulnerable or experiencing a difficult time in their life. “A trafficker would come into that and take advantage of the [situation],” she says, often showering the victim with affection or gifts to establish a false sense of trust before coercing him or her into a trafficking situation.

Hope Against TraffickingHope Against Trafficking

Hannah McPeak, director of Pontiac nonprofit Hope Against Trafficking

McPeak says it’s important to recognize that similar tactics can be used online. “Being on the internet, you are … more likely to interact at some point with somebody who wants to manipulate you. And that’s one of the things we tell the youth. It’s the same lure tactic — they’ll befriend you anywhere.” She warns against giving out personal information out online, and says that young people (who are especially at risk) should avoid engaging with anyone on the internet without talking to a trusted adult first.

Awareness of traffickers’ methods is essential for prevention, but knowing how to identify victims and report suspected cases is also key. Common signs include a lack of freedom, odd working hours and restricted access to identification documents, among others.

A Flawed System

Although U.S. law defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud or coercion to induce a person into commercial sex acts, labor or services against their will, victims are often treated as criminals — even after they’re free. In a 2016 survey conducted by the National Survivor Network, a coalition of almost 300 survivors of human trafficking from the U.S. and abroad, over 90% of respondents said they had been arrested for activity related to their trafficking. Even an arrest record without a conviction can create a big challenge for survivors starting over. Last year the nonprofit Polaris, which works to combat human trafficking, released a report rating U.S. states on their criminal-record-relief laws for survivors of human trafficking. Although no states earned an “A,” Michigan received an “F.”

Hope Against TraffickingNate Knapper

Nate Knapper, founder of The Joseph Project, a Detroit nonproft that connects trafficking survivors with pro bono legal support

“While survivors of trafficking are often utilized as witnesses at trial, oftentimes when they come out of an exploitation scenario, they have legal needs that are connected to the circumstances of their exploitation,” says Nate Knapper, a former assistant attorney general who now works in federal law enforcement in Detroit. “Yet they cannot afford, nor do they often understand, the nature of those legal needs.” Knapper previously served on a human trafficking taskforce and, after observing survivors’ need for legal aid, founded The Joseph Project in 2018 with the goal of identifying survivors’ needs and referring them to the appropriate resources.

“We recently assembled a statewide group of attorneys that we call legal first responders,” says Knapper. With the help of the State Bar of Michigan, The Joseph Project trained the group to provide pro bono legal services to human trafficking survivors across the state. After evaluating a survivor’s needs, he explains, “We say, ‘Who has the skills and specialties that are most tailored to the needs that we’ve just assessed?’” The organization then refers the survivor to an attorney. “That arrangement results in legal counsel that, very often, will result in their success.”

Hope Against TraffickingHope Against Trafficking

With its 24-month residency program, Hope Against Trafficking provides transitional housing for survivors, plus services focused on physical and mental health

Hope Against TraffickingHope Against Trafficking

While there’s still a great deal of work to be done before the problem of human trafficking is solved, calls to the NHTH reporting suspected trafficking have increased over the last five years — something Diemar says is “indicative of the growing awareness about human trafficking and awareness about the NHTH.”

As attorneys, law enforcement officials and activists continue to combat human trafficking and give survivors a fresh start, Diemar stresses that the work being done in the state is important. “We’re very appreciative of the organizations on the ground,” she says. “Not only in Detroit, but throughout Michigan.”

To report a possible trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, or submit a tip online at humantraffickinghotline.org/report-trafficking.

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