People becoming exploited through human trafficking might seem like the stuff of movies, but it happens here in Vermont.
Human trafficking is the intentional exploitation of vulnerable people for financial or other gain using force, fraud or coercion.
“Sex and labor trafficking are both prevalent here in Vermont. It can happen in any community, victims can be any age, race, gender or nationality,” said a case manager with the South Burlington Police department who requested anonymity because of the nature of her work.
Since February of 2018, she has served more than 185 people throughout Vermont.
“We don’t like to alarm people, but we do like people to understand that it’s here, and you walk by it,” assistant attorney general Cindy Maguire said.
Maguire serves as co-chair of the state’s Human Trafficking Task Force.
Around 2009, the Vermont Legislature convened the Human Trafficking Task Force with state and federal partners to make recommendations for the state’s human trafficking statute. Since then, the force has shifted its focus to providing survivors with referrals to services like housing and medical care, and resources like telephones. The task force also educates the public and trains law enforcers in identifying and addressing these types of crime.
Between 2015-17, Vermont governmental and victim service agencies worked with at least 250 human trafficking victims, Omara Rivera-Vazquez, grants manager at the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, said.
The human trafficking case manager in South Burlington serves about 25 victims each quarter, most of whom are white females between 18-29 years old, Rivera-Vazquez said.
From Jan. 1- March 31 of this year, Vermont agencies worked on about 70 cases of human trafficking, 67 of which were sex trafficking, Rivera-Vazquez said.
About 20 of those cases came from the South Burlington case manager, she said.
“It’s happening everywhere and happening in every state. It’s happening in every territory, it’s happening globally. It’s nothing new,” Maguire said. “It’s just that we are identifying it now and we’re shining a light on it and we’re uncovering it, and that’s why it seems so big suddenly.”
What does it mean?
Human trafficking can manifest as a person withholding drugs from an addicted person until that person performs sex acts or labor for them. It can also be carried out through force: like someone threatening a person or their family until the person complies with their demands, Maguire said.
“The stereotype that we see in the media, it’s not always representative of real-life situations,” the South Burlington case manager said. “A big one is if somebody doesn’t have access to personal documents, which is IDs, passports, social security cards.”
It can also include a person who isn’t being paid, or is being paid very little, working excessive hours or in dangerous conditions, she said.
People who don’t have stability and structure, and who have experienced addiction and trauma, may be more susceptible to these types of crime, Maguire said.
“It’s very challenging because our victims of human trafficking, often don’t identify as victims,” Maguire said.
One reason they might not identify as victims is because the trafficker is meeting their needs.
“Traffickers don’t come into this as big bad-looking people, they come into this and they develop a relationship,” she said.
Indeed, the trafficker may help the person with housing, or buy them a phone. But then that phone might become a restraint because the trafficker can monitor the person’s movements, Maguire said.
“It’s a subtle, manipulative, emotional trajectory,” she added.
Whereas someone who has been robbed may feel victimized and call the police, human trafficking victims may feel ashamed of what they believe are consensual acts, and be less apt to report their experiences, Maguire said.
“There’s all this shame and guilt that comes with survivors,” she said.
As for helping people who have experienced this, the state has two federally funded case managers who are trained to connect them with resources and make referrals to medical, housing and other resources across the state.
Case managers take a person-centered approach and build relationships with survivors, the South Burlington case manager said. They allow the survivors to make decisions for themselves, the case manager acting as a liaison to services.
Beyond the case workers, there are a variety of advocates including nonprofit organizations, Maguire said.
The most important thing the community can do to help is to learn about human trafficking and identify it, Maguire said. If someone is concerned that another person is being exploited, they can make a call. The call might not be to the police, but rather to the person they believe is being victimized.
“It’s hard for us sometimes as a community to look at the shadows and what lurks in the shadows. I think as a community, the best thing that we can do is to accept that it’s here and be willing to learn what the signs are and to be able to learn where we can help,” she said.