Collaboration is more than a word: Highlights from the North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission Conference

Categories: General News Tags: Public Safety

Under federal and North Carolina law, human trafficking is defined as using force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. And any minor involved in a commercial sex act is a victim of trafficking.

Trafficking is often confused with human smuggling, which consists of the movement of people across borders. The movement of an individual is not required for trafficking to occur; there are many documented cases where individuals are trafficked within their own homes or communities. In 2019, there were 713 charges related to human trafficking and similar offenses in North Carolina. However, many more go undocumented for each trafficking charge or victim identified.

Trafficking victims come from all demographics: men, women, and children of any background, race, or national origin. North Carolina consistently rates among the top 10 states with the most reported human trafficking cases, and Charlotte consistently ranks as the top city in North Carolina for trafficking. However, North Carolina has been consistently ranked within the top ten states in the efforts to fight human trafficking. And while all demographic groups may be susceptible to trafficking, women and racial minorities are overrepresented.

The issue of human trafficking has been a passion of mine for many years. Until recently, I have been a direct service provider for minor and adult survivors of sex trafficking in aftercare restoration services. Words do not adequately describe the strength, resilience, and courage of the survivors I have been able to walk with on their healing journeys. However, for every survivor empowered to recover, we know that many more individuals are currently victimized. Anti-trafficking efforts in North Carolina are led by the NC Human Trafficking Commission, and there is continual effort to adapt and improve efforts to address the issue.

The North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission Annual Conference was held in Raleigh on September 7th and 8th. The conference featured speakers from various disciplines, including survivor leaders, direct service providers, law enforcement, and policy experts. Throughout the conference, four major themes emerged: centering survivor voices, collaboration, advocacy, and data integration.

  • Centering survivor voices. “If we are not centering survivor voices, we are not doing the work” -Lala Appleberry, North Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking Survivor’s Network Program Director.
    The anti-trafficking movement needs the leadership of survivors; their lived experiences and expertise give them a unique position to enact change on the policy, organization, and individual levels. The voice of survivors must not just be a final stamp of approval on a policy or program but rather an integrated part of all stages of the work.
  • Collaboration. Numerous speakers stressed how crucial it is to collaborate. Speakers addressed the need for collaboration between victim service providers and law enforcement, regardless of the tensions between these two parties and their differences in opinions. As a former direct service provider who had poor interactions with law enforcement when working with survivors, I can attest that it can be challenging to reconcile the need for collaboration with the reality that its implementation is complex. However, collaboration is essential to the work of the anti-trafficking movement. It has to be a continuous, two-sided process of including, conversing, and connecting with other parties within the space. During the conference, a panel discussion centered on a large trafficking case in Alamance County.
    The panel featured law enforcement officers, the prosecutor, and the victim assistance service provider. This case was a great example of how all roles were necessary to prosecute the perpetrator and provide services to the victims.
  • Advocacy. In 2000, Congress passed the first edition of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA); it was renewed in subsequent years, with the most recent 2017 renewal expiring in 2021. As of this time, there is no federal human trafficking legislation. The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2022 is the current proposed legislation to renew the TVPA. Keynote speaker Bill Woolf, former director of human trafficking programs in the US Department of Justice, emphasized the need for collective advocacy to pass this legislation before the end of the year and the end of this session of Congress. This legislation is necessary to establish and fund education and awareness campaigns, fund victim services, require higher standards of reporting missing children, and provide standards for other countries.
  • Data Integration. Woolf also highlighted that there is currently no central repository for data on human trafficking victims at the federal or state level. There is data in police reports, but not all survivors will make reports or interact with law enforcement. Across direct service-providing organizations, there are no standards for data collection. The lack of data integration greatly impacts the work of policy advocates, making it difficult to provide a research base to understand the necessary policies and legislation to confront the problem, as well as what’s working and what we could do better.

The conference highlighted that the goal of eliminating human trafficking in the state is achievable but will take coordination, concentration, and sustained effort among disparate groups of stakeholders. Now, it is time to go back to the field and put in the work. As Woolf put it: “Collaboration is just a word on a grant without the effort.”


Maris Bey