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Human trafficking: a problem close to home

North Carolina responds to a call to action as human trafficking continues to worsen in the state.

Photo: The Badger Herald, (Courtesy of Google Images)

When discussing human trafficking, Hollywood cannot help but blend into the conversation. Films like “Taken” and “The Whistleblower” are usually referenced, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Like in the movies, human trafficking is something that happens in foreign places, such as France and Bosnia; however, the problem also exists much closer to home.

North Carolina is ranked as one of the top ten states for human trafficking— for both sex and labor purposes—in the United States.

Human trafficking is defined as forcing, fooling, or frightening someone into performing labor or sex for personal profit. North Carolina is ranked as one of the top ten states for human trafficking— for both sex and labor purposes—in the United States. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH), 181 cases were reported from North Carolina in 2016 alone. Since 2007, a total of 881 cases have been reported. That means nearly 21 percent of the trafficking cases from the last decade occurred within the last year.

Why is human trafficking so prevalent in the North Carolina? Location is a big contributor to the problem. Not only does North Carolina lie at the intersection of several major interstate systems, but the crossing interstates run North and South, as well as East and West. Essentially, one can easily travel just about anywhere in the continental United States from NC.

North Carolina is vigorously fighting this trend. The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department has placed a priority in surveying I-95 just north of Fayetteville, as this location marks the halfway point between New York and Miami. This route is of particular focus because it runs through other eastern human trafficking hubs, like Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

Dean Duncan, a research professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work, spoke of other elevating factors contributing to the trafficking problem in North Carolina. He said, “A number of advocates have long pointed to the convenience of major highways for transportation, easy access to and from tourist areas, as well as a large military presence associated with greater mobility and a number of adult businesses in the area as factors that increase the level of trafficking.” Duncan further elaborated on the large sporting and entertainment opportunities attracting tourists, and the agricultural industry’s exposure of seasonal workers. Under all the circumstances, North Carolina has unintentionally created the perfect storm.

In response to the worsening trend, Project No Rest, a statewide project partnering with UNC School of Social Work, is focusing on raising awareness and prevention of human trafficking, with the ultimate goal of reducing the number of people affected by it.

Spokesperson Meghan Carton from Polaris, a leader in the global fight against human trafficking, said it most succinctly, “It’s a lot bigger problem than a lot of people realize.” Rochelle Keyhan, also with Polaris, continued to elaborate on the issue as a form of “organized crime” that “we’re not talking about.”

Aside from these projects and programs aimed at relieving human trafficking as a means of public policy, North Carolina lawmakers are becoming more involved to address the issue. In particular, advocates are developing ways to hone in on the most recent development – illicit massage parlors. Often advertised on Craigslist and Backpage, promises of regularly rotating women and ground rules specifying “no law enforcement” are prominent. Most of the parlors are not reviewed on Yelp, but one site offers information regarding how easy it is to receive sexual favors.

North Carolina is not devoid of these parlors, but in fact hosts a number of them. Last year, police raided one parlor in Apex. Officers seized records, cash, and found two women operating without massages licenses. The search warrant shows the officers watched the “business” for over a month and frequently reported women being picked up or dropped off in cars with New York tags. Fortunately, the raid led to two major arrests, in which both men were charged for felony prostitution and felony promoting a criminal enterprise.

[T]he legislature passed a human trafficking law allowing the massage board to more closely regulate parlors and hold owners more accountable for any illegal activity.

Prior to the investigation, there had been a series of complaints from legitimate licensees about a “spring up” of massage businesses, according to Charles Wilkins, general counsel of the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy. As a result of the complaints, inquiries, and detected crimes, the legislature passed a human trafficking law allowing the massage board to more closely regulate parlors and hold owners more accountable for any illegal activity.

Permitting the massage board to be more proactive will aid in detecting and terminating illegal activity sooner. An example is the case of Hong Wei Zhang, a man who had connections with four other parlors in Raleigh and had been on the board’s radar since 2011, who was just charged this summer for his participation in illicit massages.

As WRAL discovered, cases of people being charged for practicing without a license and promoting prostitution are receiving more attention. Polaris urges these efforts to continue and for law enforcement to keep digging.

Unfortunately, the effects of human trafficking have reached further than illicit massage parlors. Some of the most recent cases prosecuted by the State have revealed that young girls, like the 13-year old in State v. Kirk, are being targeted as ways for their captors to “make money.” After the defendant in the Kirk case had arranged for the young girl to engage with different men throughout the night in exchange for money, the girl’s mother found them and was able to rescue her daughter.

When the general community is educated on what to observe and report potential situations of human trafficking, then individual families and the State as a whole are better protected.

North Carolina is taking the call to action seriously. In addition to expanding the authority of the board, the North Carolina Department of Justice is mobilizing as well. The North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission is the legislatively mandated leader of anti-human trafficking efforts in the state under Session Law 2013-368. The Commission is charged with examining and combatting human trafficking on all fronts, by enabling research, creating accountability measures, educating law enforcement, suggesting new legislation, and identifying gaps in the laws against human trafficking. In pursuit of the Commission’s charge to inform the general public as well, the Commission has prepared a series of symposiums for professionals engaged in ending human trafficking in North Carolina. The first symposium will be offered in November and will be focused on strengthening the multi-disciplinary response to human trafficking.

“All citizens can make a different in preventing this crime once we are aware,” said Patricia Witt, co-founder of Partners Against Trafficking Humans in N.C.. Witt exclaims that more reports will hamper the industry by making it much more difficult for the practice to continue in plain sight. When the general community is educated on what to observe and report potential situations of human trafficking, then individual families and the State as a whole are better protected. Human trafficking is a problem that affects all North Carolinians. It will take efforts on behalf of the individual citizens and the State to bring an end to its practice.

Taylor Elkins
About Taylor Elkins (9 Articles)
Taylor Elkins is a third year law student and serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Born and raised in Owasso, Oklahoma, Taylor went to Baylor University where she obtained a degree in biology and political science. During her time at Campbell, Taylor has worked at the North Carolina Department of Justice in the Criminal Appellate Division. She won Campbell's Richard Lord Intramural Moot Court Competition, and is now a member of Campbell's national moot court team. She is interested in patent law as well as appellate advocacy.