Christine McCoy was completely shocked the first time she heard Yolanda Schlabach speak about the ugly truth of human trafficking in Delaware.
“To me it was always overseas, or cities — not right here in Sussex County. And the more people that are aware, the better we can start fighting it,” said McCoy, president of Southern Sussex Rotary Club, where Schlabach spoke in May.
“Apparently, southern Delaware is a hotbed for this type of activity because of the rural nature of our communities and several other factors,” McCoy stated.
“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act,” according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
If a child is caught in prostitution, that is automatically labeled “trafficking,” not child prostitution. There is no need to prove force or fraud. And human trafficking is one of the largest organized crimes in the world.
“I think it’s a problem that we never realized, and a lot of us with teenage kids don’t really want to acknowledge it, because it’s too scary to think about,” McCoy said.
“We have children and grandchildren in our area that need to be protected,” said Schlabach, executive director of Zoë Ministries, a Delaware non-profit aiming to provide a safe place for sex-trafficking victims and minors.
Signs of human trafficking
“We want to help you know what to look for,” Schlabach said, “when you see what you suspect to be human trafficking.”
Some buzzwords in Internet ads may point to minors, including “new,” “extra-small” or “petite.”
“In-call” means clients go wherever the victims are kept, sometimes a cot in a beauty spa. “Out-call” means the sex worker will travel to the client.
Can’t the FBI just bust someone for placing a suspicious ad?
No, Schlabach said. The pimp could just call it an “escort service” between consenting adults.
One warning sign is spas that advertise prices “by the hour” instead of a cost per service. While driving down Route 113 that morning, Schlabach said, she had seen several potential locations of trafficking.
Such spas also offer legitimate services, but Schlabach once saw three men enter a beauty spa that charged by the hour.
“I saw three construction workers walk into the spa. After 15 minutes, they came out with their big ol’ work boots on. They were not getting pedicures,” she said.
“What did you do?” a Rotarian asked.
“I made a call to this number,” Schlabach said.
Citizens should report any perceived instances of human trafficking by calling the police and trafficking hotline 1 (888) 373-7888. Tips are accepted online at www.traffickingresourcecenter.org.
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline only received 24 Delaware-based calls in 2014.
Schlabach said the more calls that come in, the more powerful the statistics can be.
Delaware has money for victim services but needs to figure out the best way to help women with it. The average trafficking victim will not identify himself or herself as such.
Teens tumble into trafficking
Children can be kidnapped, but they’re usually running away from home, not toward prostitution. Around 60 percent of trafficked people are from the foster system, Schlabach said.
“When a girl is lured away,” she is charmed by an older man “because he tells her all the things she didn’t hear at home,” Schlabach said.
Then the “boyfriend” coerces that first degrading act, perhaps with another man who will “pay enough money for their rent.” After that, she’ll either be shamed by the photos he took, or afraid of the violence he inflicts.
She learns that “she will do what she is told, with or without the beating,” Schlabach said. “That’s why you have 15- [or] 16-year-olds willing to meet people in a hotel, without a gun to her head.”
She learns that it’s just better to avoid the beating.
Some girls are tattooed with vulgar language as a sign of ownership. While doing a presentation for people in Salisbury, Md., Schlabach said, “They were falling off their chairs, because they’ve seen this.”
An 18-year-old prostitute has probably been trafficked for three to five years, Schlabach said.
The sex slaves are often moved around, with false ID, kept in ignorance of the time and location. For example, they may be shuttled up and down the Route 95 corridor.
At a recent presentation, Schlabach met a woman who had a terrible childhood at the hands of her mother. She always just considered it abuse, but now realized her mother had trafficked her out for years, sometimes for as little as cigarettes and a Pepsi.
Girls have “a quota to meet, and hell to pay if they don’t.” One girl could be forced to make $500 a night, which might equal five partners if she’s paid well, and not cheated or robbed.
An average pimp oversees three to five girls, but sometimes up to nine. He takes all of their earnings.
Why don’t these girls run away?
“Where’s she gonna go?” Schlabach countered.
The average life expectancy is seven years for a girl trapped in this life, mostly likely dying from homicide, suicide or drug overdose.
Pimps may get the girls hooked on drugs. Addiction is fast, and it binds women in desperation to a lifestyle that gets them money for a drug that eases their pain.
“They don’t have to keep them in the handcuffs,” Schlabach said of the pimps. Sex slaves remain trapped in their own fear and addiction.
Fixing the problem
Delaware has had no human trafficking prosecutions, despite passing a law relating to it in 2014, Schlabach said. Prostitution, drugs and related offenses are still being prosecuted.
“Let’s move away from arresting the girls,” Schlabach said, and focus instead on helping them.
Ultimately, Zoë Ministries aims to build a facility for minors who survived sex trafficking, with access to drug/alcohol detox, trauma therapy and more. The group wants to partner with other state agencies already specializing in related work.
The group’s website is at www.zoe-delaware.org.