Event teaches community how to help fight human trafficking

About 20 community members filled a small meeting room at the Lawrence Public Library on Tuesday to learn about human trafficking in Lawrence.

Elizabeth Moffitt, human trafficking program coordinator for the Willow Domestic Violence Center, explained the pervasiveness of the crime within Douglas County — a fact most attendees found jarring.

“We know that this is an issue here, but people don’t know this is happening,” Moffitt said. “That’s why we’re having this (meeting) tonight, for prevention through knowledge.”

The program Tuesday described the ins and outs of human trafficking from what Willow advocates see in the Lawrence area, debunked myths about the subject and informed attendees of what they can do to help.

Moffitt said that in 2014 alone, the Willow assisted 42 victims of human trafficking, most — if not all — of whom were forced, tricked or coerced into selling sex for profit. Of those 42 victims, some were children under the age of 18.

In Kansas, there were 352 victims of human trafficking identified in 2014 and about 60 were children, according to the Kansas Attorney General’s Office. About three-fourths of those children were in the custody of the Department of Children and Family or the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Moffitt said that although some may think that human trafficking mainly involves foreign nationals, victims are most likely to be trafficked by an intimate partner or a family member.

“It makes sense because if you can exploit someone in your backyard, you’re not going to pay for someone to come here,” Moffitt said.

Although international human trafficking does happen — as was the situation with the defendants in the Spring Massage case when Guihong Xiao and Chen Li were accused this year of selling sex at the 600 Lawrence Ave. business — Moffitt said most trafficking in America involves U.S. citizens.

“Eighty-three percent of victims in America are citizens,” Moffitt said. “It is a myth that all victims are foreign nationals.”

Another myth, Moffitt said, is that trafficking always involves moving a victim from one place to another. Moffitt said that, in fact, she has seen that one can be trafficked by a partner out of their own home.

“Trafficking doesn’t require movement,” Moffitt said. “They can utilize transportation, but they do not have to.”

Moffitt also said that sex trafficking and prostitution do not always have to be separate. She said that minors involved in selling sex are always considered victims of human trafficking and should not be referred to by “demeaning” words like “child prostitute.” Adults, however, must also have an element of coercion, force or fraud in their situations in order to be considered trafficking victims, according to Kansas law.

However, victims can be given some profit for their forced sex work and still be considered victims, Moffitt said.

“Sometimes victims are given money, sometimes not,” Moffitt said. “Sometimes material items are given as a recruitment tool.”

Moffitt also said it’s not just women being trafficked. Statistics from research by John Jay College showed that half of all children used in sex trafficking nationwide are boys, Moffitt said.

Anyone can be a sex trafficker, Moffitt said, and there is not one distinct profile. However, she said she sees a lot of victim recruiting done at several kinds of places, including truck stops, strip clubs, private parties and online.

“I’ve met people trafficked by homeless people and I’ve seen people trafficked by high-up executives,” Moffitt said. “Nationwide, most trafficking is moving online.”

Moffitt said that she regularly hears from teenagers who say they have been approached by strangers online through social media who ask if they’ll have sex with them or arrange “dates” for pay. Additionally, there are many online websites that advertise “escorts” or sexual services within Lawrence that may be using trafficking victims.

To prevent human trafficking in Lawrence, Moffitt explained a few actions anyone can take. First is to become educated about and spread awareness of the issue by telling friends and family about human trafficking’s reality in our community.

“Awareness is huge,” Moffitt said.

People can also raise money or volunteer their time for agencies “doing direct service with survivors” as the Willow does. Last, Moffitt said people should consider mentoring youths, becoming a foster parent or becoming a court-appointed special advocate or a “big” for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“Most victims I’ve worked with didn’t have support as teens or kids, and their trafficker became that mentor for them,” Moffitt said.

Attendee Melissa Boisen said that she plans on educating others about human trafficking and came to the event after decades of working in child social services.

“I thought nothing was worse than child abuse until I realized this was happening,” Boisen said. “If we don’t get involved and get the word out, things do tend to get worse.”