A group of church leaders, social workers and attorneys is working to end a scourge they say goes largely unrecognized: human trafficking in Johnston County.
Human trafficking – broadly defined as forcing or coercing someone to work – can range from prostitution, or sex trafficking, to forcing someone to work on a farm for little to no pay.
It became a crime under federal law in 2000; it has been illegal in North Carolina since 2006.
A group called Partners Against Human Trafficking, or PATH, says North Carolina is attractive to traffickers because of Interstate 95, which runs from Maine to Florida. The interstate attracts truck stops and tourists, and it has a large military presence, all of which create high demand for prostitutes, PATH says.
In addition to I-95, Johnston County has a large migrant worker population.
The church leaders, social workers and attorneys who met this past week are part of a group called the Johnston County Community Human Trafficking Task Force. Andrew Tatum, a youth minister at Centenary United Methodist Church in Smithfield, helped launch the group in April.
“When you learn that human beings are being bought and sold in that way, we are called to do something about that,” Tatum said.
The group, which meets once a month in Smithfield, aims to raise awareness through community events. It also wants to place a billboard on I-95 that would flash the number of a national trafficking hotline. Victims or people who suspect trafficking could call the number.
Kelton Hinton is a leader of the Johnston Baptist Association, which has been working to spread awareness about human trafficking in the county for the past couple years.
Already, the Baptist Association has placed soap dispensers with a hotline number in women’s restrooms in three hotels in Johnston County. The group is working to put the soap dispensers in truck stops.
“When the girls come in, if they are victims, that may be one of the few places they are separate from men, and they can see the number and call it,” Hinton said.
Few resources for victims
In North Carolina, only the Salvation Army in Wake County is equipped to provide comprehensive case management to victims of trafficking, according to Salvation Army spokeswoman Haven Sink. The Salvation Army helps victims from the day they are rescued until they are able to function on their own again, she said.
In 2012, the Salvation Army aided 69 victims in 37 cases of human trafficking. But statewide, only two people were charged with the crime, and both of those cases were in Cumberland County.
The Johnston County task force will work with the Salvation Army and other groups, like PATH, to tackle the problem here.
Hinton asked the group if it would like to open a long-term housing center for victims.
Keri Christensen, executive director of Harbor Inc., said she suspected a shelter would be hard to open, at least financially. Harbor provides shelter to victims of domestic violence but can offer housing for just four to five months because of funding.