Disclaimer: This article contains multiple references to human trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation, including specific references to cases involving minors.
The Women’s Center hosted (IN)Human Trafficking, a virtual talk with local experts about the dangers and signs of human trafficking on Wednesday evening via Zoom. The event attracted 56 viewers.
The event included three speakers: Brenda Lutz from Living in Liberty, Kaeleen Martin from the Vice Outreach Intervention Center (VOICe) and Joesph Sweeney, the founder and CEO of The Asservo Project.
Each of these speakers presented on a different aspect of human trafficking. For Lutz, she began the event with statistics about human trafficking. She said that last year, human trafficking was a $150 billion industry, with $100 billion coming from the sex slave industry. This is more than McDonald’s, Microsoft and Starbucks combined, she said.
Most of Lutz’s information addressed domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST). The average age of an American child in the human trafficking industry is 13.
“We quite honestly don’t have any idea how many kids are missing, and they don’t have a voice in there for them saying, ‘we need you, we need to find these kinds,'” Lutz said. “We have some, but nothing like what we need.”
According to Shared Hope International, which Lutz referenced throughout her presentation, traffickers find victims through social networks, their home neighborhood, clubs or bars, the internet and school, and traffickers groom victims in promises of protection, love, adventure, home and opportunity.
“There’s one thing I always say about human trafficking: it does not discriminate,” Lutz said. “If you want an industry that does not discriminate, that’s human trafficking for you. It doesn’t care what your hopes are, your dreams are, what your skin color is or your religious beliefs. It doesn’t care how much money you have or don’t have. If [human trafficking] can exploit you, it is going to, period.”
Martin agreed with Lutz’s statements about discrimination in her own portion of the event, in which she addressed systemic issues in human trafficking. She says that human trafficking disproportionally affects members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and homeless or runaway individuals.
Martin also said that as an employee at VOICe’s Cranberry Township location, local residents have a hard time believing that human trafficking occurs in the area.
“I have a really hard time convincing people that it’s happening,” Martin said. “There’s just kind of like this, I guess, perspective that you know [in] certain communities it can’t happen.”
Sweeney, a former SWAT operator, bomb squad commander and U.S. government explosive security specialist, mainly addressed cybersecurity and online protection. He founded The Asservo Project after educating himself while working overseas with anti-terrorism programs.
Sweeney said that he could name 50 apps in which children are communicating with people they don’t know. In a recent case he managed, there was a 35-year-old man who was talking to a 14-year-old.
“You know, a lot of the apps are legitimate, but what has occurred is that these traffickers and predators have exploited this technology, and they have exactly done that,” Sweeney said. “They have set up profiles where they either pretend to be someone in high school or younger [or in] college.”
In response to an audience question asking if traffickers put zip ties or other items on cars to lure victims, Sweeney said he has not seen a scenario like this during this job, although he sees this information being spread on social media.
“It’s not to say maybe there was an isolated incident somewhere,” Sweeney said. “It’s usually not that, it’s usually not the snatch and grab.”
However, Sweeney encouraged audience members to be prepared to respond to unusual situations.
“You have to be prepared not to be a victim, you have to be aware,” Sweeney said. “You have to know your surroundings… If something doesn’t look right, follow your gut, because if it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.”
During this portion of the evening, Sweeney said that he does not believe there is a surge in human trafficking, but more awareness and better identification.
“I don’t believe it’s been a surge,” Sweeney said. “I think it’s been on the rise because of technology, but I think it’s just been around, and maybe there is an uptick because it has been steady for years. I think the overwhelming optic of it surging is more awareness, and more people are starting to talk about it.”
Martin, a 2017 social work graduate from SRU, shared during the question-and-answer session that some of the best things college students can do are to learn more about human trafficking and call out incorrect information online.
“It’s not always the most upbeat conversations with friends and family, but being able to have these discussions, when that comes around, and I mean even using your own social media and even, you know, sometimes trying to pull people aside… I think it’s one of the biggest things we can all be doing right now that is going to help the crisis,” Martin said.
The full recording of the event will be uploaded to YouTube.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888 and is available 24/7. According to Sweeney, The Asservo Project is currently working on a tip line.