Truck driver Kevin Kimmel was parked at a rest stop near Richmond, Virginia, on a night in early January 2015 when he noticed a young woman repeatedly peering out through the black curtains of a nearby RV. Kimmel grew suspicious watching a man go back and forth repeatedly between the convenience store and the RV. At one point, as the young lady was looking out the window, she seemed to be yanked away by someone else in the vehicle. Kimmel decided to call the police.
When the cops arrived, the man and a woman accompanying the girl said they were taking a family trip. But once officers separated the 20-year-old girl from the couple, they learned that she had been kidnapped in Iowa on Christmas Eve. The couple had starved, threatened, and tortured her, and they had forced her into an online prostitution scheme. The girl has since been reunited with her family, and the couple are facing federal charges of sex trafficking by force.
“If it was not for that truck driver who just noticed it was really suspicious and didn’t let it go until he got law enforcement out there, who knows where she would be,” says Kendis Paris, executive director of Truckers Against Trafficking, a nonprofit dedicated to educating the trucking industry on human trafficking.
The Polaris Project, a nonprofit that works to combat modern-day slavery, defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to control other people for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex or forcing them to provide labor services against their will.
An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 American children are at risk of becoming child sex trafficking victims every year, and the average age of children entering the sex trade in America is 12 to 14, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The increasing prevalence of sites like Craigslist and Backpage has allowed the illegal sex trade to migrate from street corners to the Internet, making it harder than ever to track down potential trafficking victims.
Although the statistics are staggering, there is hope. Federal task forces and national advocacy groups are partnering with industry professionals to bring awareness and collaboration, and provide the tools needed for bystanders to take action against potential trafficking situations, like Kimmel did at the truck stop.
Last summer, the FBI’s human trafficking task force in Boston approached Michael Soper, the chairman of Boston’s Hotel Security Association, about collaborating with hotels to look for victims of trafficking. Trafficking victims frequently move in and out of hotels; they are never kept in one place for long. An information- sharing partnership among the FBI, the Boston Police Department’s human trafficking unit, and the Hotel Security Association immediately took off.
“Once the problem was brought to the industry’s attention and the magnitude of it, everyone had one of those ‘Oh wow, this is really serious’ kind of moments,” Soper says. “In the old days I just thought prostitution at hotels was one of those things that existed and was part of running a hotel. Once the hotels realized that this is becoming a major issue, of course they wanted to be a part of the solution.”
The first step was developing a training program for housekeeping staff. Soper notes that staff members are the eyes and ears of hotels and can easily notice anything out of the ordinary, including the presence of prostitutes. “To have any type of campaign that’s designed for hotels to identify and respond to the human trafficking problem, we need to start with the very core of where most information about things happening at hotels comes from, and that’s the housekeeping department,” he explains.
Now, the housekeepers are trained on signs of human trafficking and when to report them. For example, housekeepers are cautioned to watch out for trafficking in rooms that request new sheets several times a day and house underage patrons who avoid eye contact, appear to be in poor health, or show signs of physical abuse.
With that information, hotel security directors can further investigate by trying to get a look at the woman or even scouring Craigslist or Backpage, where prostitution services are often listed. If there are any concerns, the hotel director will contact the FBI task force or Boston police, Soper explains.
The partnership has been successful in that more calls than ever before are being made to Boston human trafficking task forces, and Soper urges industry professionals to reach out to local task forces to acquire resources and collaborate on catching traffickers.
When human trafficking victims are not in hotels, they’re on the road. That’s why Truckers Against Trafficking is working to enlist the 3 million registered truck drivers in the United States to be the eyes and ears of the nation’s highways and rest stops. The organization partners with groups both in and outside the industry—trucking schools, large carriers, truck stop managers, and local and federal law enforcement—to provide training on the signs of human trafficking and what actions to take. For example, truckers should be wary when underage travelers have few personal possessions, are not allowed to speak, or lack knowledge about their destination.
“Right now it’s just so easy for these guys to operate unfettered along our nation’s highways, because they count on lack of communication, awareness, or networking,” notes Paris, the program’s executive director.
Beyond the sheer number of drivers, tapping into the trucking industry for assistance is valuable because they are more likely to come across trafficking situations at truck stops or while dropping off loads at events, casinos, and businesses, Paris says. “The girls are typically more easily recovered in transit because they’re out in the open, whereas sometimes in these brothels they’re all underground,” she explains. “It’s helping the people who are in these positions to identify and recognize what they’re looking at and knowing how to report it, and in such a way that they give actionable information when they call law enforcement.”
The first step is to educate: Paris says most people don’t notice the signs of human trafficking, or believe that potential victims are involved in prostitution by choice. “Even if she looks happy, folks need to consider that if you have anybody under the age of 18, you’re looking at a victim of human trafficking if they’re involved in commercial sex,” Paris says. “So often we hear, ‘I just never thought about it.’ For most people it’s not on their radar screen.”
Truckers Against Trafficking hosts a number of meetings involving carriers, truck stop managers, and state trucking associations, as well as attorneys general, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and state and local law enforcement.
These meetings—“basically, mini-conferences,” Paris says—allow for an open dialogue between industry stakeholders and law enforcement on how to combat human trafficking in their community. Everyone receives the same training, which allows truckers to feel more confident calling in a potential trafficking situation and helps law enforcement respond appropriately. The organization conducted four meetings across the country last year, but plans to hold eight meetings in 2015 due to high demand.
“There’s been a tremendous response from law enforcement—they get that there are more truckers out on the road than there are law enforcement at any time,” Paris explains. “They understand that truckers are a viable source of information, and they see things a lot of people don’t.”
Truckers Against Trafficking has created a replicable training model currently used in at least 15 states, and Paris hopes it will be used by other industries. “Where I would love to see the model replicated is the motorcoach industry—buses and bus terminals,” Paris explains. “Imagine if every taxi driver was trained and knew what to look for.”
Other private security sector industries can play a big role in identifying human trafficking. A new training program developed through a partnership between the NCMEC and ASIS International gives security professionals the tools they need to help combat the issue, says Kristen Anderson, the executive director of training and outreach at NCMEC.
“Right now, law enforcement can’t do this alone,” Anderson says. “We focus so much time and effort working on education for law enforcement and prevention techniques for community members, but there is this whole layer of people who work in the private sector who play a potential role by virtue of their position. We’re trying to harness the human resources of the private sector security force to really join with us in this effort to keep kids safe and to know what to do if something does happen.”
The online training, which is available to ASIS members on the NCMEC website, educates security professionals on what to do if they find themselves in a situation involving a vulnerable child. For example, if a mother comes up to a security officer in the mall to report her child as missing, the training details the information the officer should collect while waiting for law enforcement.
Some situations must be handled delicately—if a child makes a disclosure to someone in uniform or an authority figure, the officer should acknowledge the child, say that they believe him or her and stay with the child until law enforcement arrives.
“They should not to try to interview the child about whatever may have happened,” Anderson explains. “We want to assist law enforcement without getting involved in things that could jeopardize an investigation or traumatize the child in an unnecessary way because the officer isn’t trained in how to interview child victims.”
Anderson says the NCMEC training targeted to security professionals is just the start—the organization would like to develop more targeted training for the airline, mass transportation, and even healthcare industries.
“This isn’t something that we’ve done before in terms of engaging industry in this way,” she notes. “We have worked with a lot of private sector partners but not in this training element. We’re very excited about it.”