Human Trafficking in our Backyard
Where it’s happening, why, and how.
By Todd VanSickle | March 28, 2020
Amy Rouleau is the director of Restoration Place, a non-profit in Genesee County that educates the public about human trafficking.
Since 2012, Rouleau has often found herself on the frontlines rescuing human trafficking victims. It is an emotional experience filled with many challenges, she said.
She recalls working with a victim who escaped from a large sex ring in the southern United States. The victim had no identification and had been to three different agencies in Michigan seeking help. Rouleau started the rescue process and was able to find a place for the victim to live.
By the second week of living at a safe house, the victim still did not have any identification, despite working with the appropriate agencies. She called Rouleau and said she was unsure what to do and was worried that when her time was up at the safe house she would be homeless.
“By the time she steps into that safe house, she has 30 days to figure things out,” Rouleau said.
So, she scrambled and tried to get things in place for the victim, but it was too late.
“Four days later I got a text that said, ‘This is too hard — I’m out,’” Rouleau said.
The victim disappeared, and Rouleau never heard from her again.
“I have no doubt she went back to what she knew,” Rouleau said, who estimates that it takes a victim about seven to eight times to leave a trafficker for good. “Sometimes it is easier to go back to the hell, than to go through the rescue process. The barriers are unreal when it comes to helping a victim. It is sad, but you have to let it go. … I see a therapist a lot.”
MYTH v. REALITY
Human trafficking is on the rise and finding its way into smaller communities, including some in northern Michigan. Although, there is more awareness and education about the crime, it still goes unnoticed in many neighborhoods.
“Anywhere that you have the internet, you have human trafficking,” Rouleau said. “We need to stop looking at this as someone snatched off the street corner and forced into a sex ring, because generally that is not how it is happening. It is happening through families and through friends.”
In 2018, 10,949 cases human trafficking were reported in the United States to the national hotline: 1 (888) 373-7888, according to the Polaris Project. In Michigan, 383 cases were reported, making it the sixth leading state, behind Ohio, New York, Florida, Texas, and California with the most cases reported: 1,656.
However, officials believe the numbers are far greater than those reported, with some estimates between 100,000 to 300,000 children being trafficked in the US at any given time.
“We don’t have pimps saying, ‘I have six girls.’ They don’t disclose,” Rouleau said. “It is really hard to put a number on northern Michigan or even Michigan as a whole.”
About 80 percent of trafficking victims have been or are in foster care, according to Rouleau. And nearly all of them have experienced sexual abuse, something Rouleau can relate to, who spent time in a foster home after being sexually abused by her father as a young girl. She writes extensively about her experience on her LinkedIn page and talks about how she was at risk for trafficking. She managed to avoid it and has dedicated her work to helping survivors.
In the U.S., sex trafficking is the leading type of trafficking, with more than 8,000 cases reported in 2018. Labor comes in second, with 1,249 cases, according to the Polaris Project.
Although, abductions do happen, Rouleau said almost all victims personally know their trafficker and are subjected to psychological abuse.
“Most of it happens through family relationships,” she said. “Growing up in an ongoing abuse situation, someone grooms them from the beginning to just fall into human trafficking. They believe the lies the trafficker will tell them and they are used to the manipulation.”
Prostitution can occur without it being human trafficking, but if there is an element of “I can’t get out,” then it’s human trafficking, Rouleau said.
“There is a difference between prostitution and human trafficking,” she said. “If people are being forced to work for their basic survival, that is human trafficking. There is definitely a line, but it gets muddied.”
Michigan still prosecutes children under 18 for prostitution, while federal law protects kids under 18 who are victims. Rouleau would like to see changes in the state law to mirror the federal legislation.
“Victims shouldn’t have to testify against their pimp or prove that they are a victim,” Rouleau said.
Substance abuse is also a big factor in human trafficking. Although victims usually have an addiction problem, the trafficker will take advantage of the situation and keep their victim dependent on drugs. It is federally recognized as a coercion technique and can be used in court.
“It is not human trafficking without the element of trade,” Rouleau said. “There has to be someone in the control seat and there has to be someone dependent on that person in control.”
Although Michigan was one of the first states to mandate human trafficking awareness training for health care professionals, Rouleau would like to see more training for other professionals like teachers and police officers.
“We need to have mandated training across the board,” she said. “It needs to become like an OSHA requirement.”
Dr. Bill Rawlins has worked at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City since 2002. He is a family medicine physician and the family residency director. He describes his patients as “diverse, from a social economic standpoint.” On average, his office will see about 75 patients day. A lot of them are uninsured or on Medicaid.
“Unfortunately, it is a high-risk population for trafficking,” Dr. Rawlins said. “This is has really come to the light and forefront in the last couple of years. Human trafficking, especially in our area, has been under-recognized and under-reported, but it is certainly happening here.”
His office hasn’t had any specific cases of human trafficking, but he and his staff are learning what to look for and how to respond to any suspicious activity.
The doctor looks for several signs like a younger patient accompanied by someone of authority, like a pimp, who is answering for the patient. Lack of eye contact and inconsistent and unusual stories are also red flags.
“It is a lot of subtle things,” Dr. Rawlins said, who has to find a way to separate the victim from the trafficker if he suspects anything unusual.
The State of Michigan requires physicians, like Dr. Rawlins, and various health care professionals to complete one hour of continuing education on human trafficking.
“My understanding is that it is a one-time education, so if I don’t do that it could affect my ability to be relicensed,” Dr. Rawlins said. “The one hour is a start, but it is not enough.”
In 2002, human trafficking wasn’t on many people’s radar, Dr. Rawlins said
“You would have been shocked and blown out of the water if someone was being trafficked,” Dr. Rawlins said. “You definitely knew it was happening in third world countries or inner cities, but it just didn’t feel like it was something in our community. So, I think over time with awareness we have come to realize that is not the case.”
Michigan State Police Community Service Trooper David Prichard conducts human trafficking training seminars to bring awareness to a wide variety of professionals who may encounter a trafficking victim while on the job. He recently led a training session in Wexford County for Child Protective Services. He explains to attendees what human trafficking is; what are the signs; what is the difference between labor trafficking and sex trafficking.
“We give people the tools to recognize it,” Prichard said.
The MSP trooper has not dealt with any human trafficking cases personally but acknowledged that it exists in the region.
“I don’t think there is a lot going on in northern Michigan necessarily,” Prichard said in December when he first spoke to Northern Express. “But that doesn’t mean it is not happening. It is one of those try-to-bring-it-out-of-the-shadows type of thing. People have that vision that if someone is trafficked that they are locked in the basement 24/7 and they just shove food down there. That is not the case, people are going to work and they come home and hand over their money to their pimp or trafficker.
About a month later, on Jan. 10, in Crawford County, two Roscommon men were arrested after a woman was caught stealing a car and claimed the two men had been holding her captive and forcing her to clean and perform prostitution acts.
The Houghton Lake Michigan State Police Post did not respond to Northern Express’ inquiries about the case; when contacted, Trooper Prichard said he was also awaiting details about the incident.
“I want to get a better scoop on what happened over there for my training purposes,” Prichard said, who is stationed in Cadillac. “I think it will be part of my presentations going forward. People have that mindset that these things don’t happen up here. Things that happen in bigger cities always find its ways into rural America.”
Aside from educational and awareness training sessions, the MSP combats human trafficking in several other ways.
One technique is to reduce the demand.
Early last year, the MSP conducted a prostitution sting in Traverse City. More than two dozen men answered a fictitious online ad and 14 were charged in the operation.
“We are trying to eliminate the need and demand by arresting 20 to 30 guys who are looking for sex,” Prichard said.
The MSP has also distributed informational flyers and put the phone number of the national help hotline on the packaging of bars of soap and beauty products in local hotels.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do,” Prichard said. “If they get a bar of soap with the number on it they can stick that in their pocket.”
The top venue for sex trafficking is illicit massage and spa businesses. Residence-based commercial sex and motels round out the top three, according to the Polaris Project.
During the month of January, the MSP performed inspections on semi-trucks at weigh stations as part of an awareness campaign for human trafficking.
One of the challenges with addressing human trafficking is a lack of funds for housing and resources.
“We have the resources and funds dedicated for the criminal justice system, because that is where these kids are ending up,” Rouleau said. “We definitely have some systemic issues.”
To run a 12-person home that is licensed to take in kids who have been trafficked costs about $1 million per year, according to Rouleau. Currently, there are only two such facilities in Michigan — Grand Rapids and Detroit.
“You need a one-to-one ratio when it comes to staffing the facility,” Rouleau said. “So the costs are going to go through the roof.”
Rouleau had been fundraising to build a home for trafficking victims for eight years on a rural 11 acres near Swartz Creek. Her organization doesn’t receive any state funding. There is no money available, other than fundraising and donations, to build a brick and mortar facility. Once the building is erected there are funds available to operate it. However, things have not been moving as fast as the donors wished, so the project is dissolving.
“In an effort to preserve what we have been doing we are going to send our assets to someone who has already been doing what we wanted to,” Rouleau said, who will continue with the education side of things. “We haven’t decided just who yet, but we will know in the next couple of months.”
Having a safe place to live is an important part of the rescue process. She said the problem is that many at risk kids are in safe houses in the inner city.
“If they can walk out the door and there is a pimp, there is no healing going on there,” Rouleau said. “You can’t really call it a safe house.”
In northern Michigan, there is a large number of homeless kids, according to Trooper Prichard.
“A lot of people don’t know that,” he said. “That is a high-risk population up here. They are in a different environment every day.”
Rouleau is skeptical that the state will take a more active role in fighting human trafficking. She said a couple of years ago there was a big push by the state to eradicate it, but since then things have simmered down and people have become more blasé even though the public has become more aware and informed about human trafficking.
If there is a large bust, Rouleau feels the state is not equipped to deal with the large number of victims. If the victims have travelled over state lines, it becomes a federal case.
“It goes directly to the FBI and the federal government is equipped to handle bigger cases,” Rouleau said.
Prichard is more optimistic and believes the MSP and its partners will be prepared to deal with the situation.
“We have conduits in place if we come across that,” the trooper said.
Both agree that the human trafficking is present in all communities and is not an isolated issue.
“This is an everybody problem,” Rouleau said. “It is not a rural problem. It is not a city problem. It is a human problem.”