January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month

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Human trafficking is the act of taking advantage of someone for labor or sex in exchange for something of value (money, drugs, food, shelter, clothing, etc.). The person being taken advantage of is forced, lied to, or blackmailed and threatened. When a person under 18 is engaging in sex in exchange for anything of value they are considered to be a victim of a crime.

Simply put, human trafficking is the commodification of human life; it is modern day slavery.

Safe Harbour, housed within the Child Advocacy Program of Chautauqua County (CAP), is New York State and Chautauqua County’s response to the growing number of identified cases of human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Safe Harbour works closely with representatives from federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutors, CPS, hospitals and medical providers, our county’s runaway and homeless youth shelter, faith-based communities, and a number of other allied professionals to identify potential trafficking situations and to intervene appropriately.

Since the program’s inception in late 2016, over 120 local youth have been identified as victims of trafficking or are considered to be at a high risk for exploitation. CAP, and its community partners, are able to offer survivors medical treatment, trauma counseling, financial assistance, emergency shelter, and other basic needs.

The Safe Harbour program works diligently to educate the public on the realities of trafficking and to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding trafficking and exploitation. In the past four years, over 1,700 Chautauqua County professionals and community members have been trained to identify the risk factors, red flags, and warning signs associated with trafficking.

Safe Harbour Coordinator, Kayleah Feser, points out that CAP has seen an increase in cases related to online sexual exploitation, a form of trafficking. Due to Covid-19 restrictions and remote schooling, more young people are spending unsupervised time online leaving many vulnerable to predators who try to groom and exploit minors through coercion and sextortion.

Traffickers are skilled at understanding people and their behaviors and will offer anything to lure youth into the trafficking lifestyle. Tweens and teens are particularly vulnerable because they want to fit in and feel loved. Traffickers manipulate love to fill the void they detect within their targeted victim.

It’s important to note that traffickers can be anyone including romantic partners, family members, friends, and trusted adults – anyone who profits from the coercion of a young person. In 77% of trafficking cases the perpetrator is a family member, friend, or another person the victim knows.

Traffickers tend to target youth who:

  • Have prior history of involvement in the foster care or juvenile justice systems
  • Have a history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Use substances or have a mental illness
  • Are physically, intellectually, or developmentally disabled
  • Have an unstable home life, insecure housing or are unhoused, a history of running way or being thrown away
  • Identify as LGBTQ+
  • Are refugees, immigrants, or non-English speaking, or have undocumented status
  • Have limited education and lack employment opportunities
  • Have low socio-economic status

However, Feser states that it is important to understand that any child – no matter their age, nationality, race, religion, socio-economic status, education, sexuality, or gender – can become a victim of human trafficking.

Recognizing the red flags and warning signs of exploitation is imperative. Take note if a child in your life:

  • Displays symptoms of trauma (including feelings of shame, humiliation, anxiety, depression, or fear)
  • Has unexplained changes in their lifestyle such as excessive cash, electronics, or other material goods and/or is reluctant to discuss how they make money
  • Is in a controlling relationship, particularly with an older partner, and/or shows indications of intimate partner violence
  • Has unexplained tattoos, particularly those expressing ownership
  • Posts sexually provocative pictures or content on their social media (including photos of drugs, cash, hotel stays, etc.)
  • Is chronically running away
  • Is not attending school

To learn more about the realities of trafficking in Chautauqua County or to get involved in the fight against exploitation contact Safe Harbour Coordinator Kayleah Feser at feserk@capjustice.org.

To report suspicions of trafficking contact the Chautauqua County Confidential Human Trafficking Tip Line at 833-872-0020.