LANDOVER — To educate the public and begin the discussion around a problematic topic, the Prince George’s County Human Trafficking Task Force, Department of Family Services and the Prince George’s County Police Department held a human trafficking symposium on April 6.
“This issue, as you know, is not a respecter of persons; it’s not a respecter of national origin, or religion, or economic background. This is an issue that touches all segments of our community, so it is important,” said Human Trafficking Task Force Chair Renee Battle-Brooks.
About 30 members of the community gathered at the Prince George’s County Police Department in Landover for presentations and breakout sessions for adults and youth. The event included information tables from The Prince George’s County Family Justice Center, Department of Social Services, the State’s Attorney’s Office and more.
“This is not a subject that is narrowly focused on disadvantaged people economically, educationally, it doesn’t have to do with how you look, it doesn’t have to do with how you choose to express yourself in terms of identity, gender or otherwise,” said Prince George’s County Police (PGCP) Police Chief Hank Stawinski.
“It can impact anyone, and it has across the entire spectrum. And let’s be extraordinarily clear, men, women and those who choose to identify in other ways, all of them, essentially everybody can be a victim of human trafficking.”
One of the presentations of the day was from FAIR Girls, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. that assists victims of human trafficking by providing crisis response, court advocacy, case management, prevention education and provides 30-90-day transitional housing at their Vida Home.
Director of Programs Shannon Sigamoni gave the crowd a rundown of sex trafficking from the signs of trafficking that include having bruises and branding tattoos, the type of people who are at risk such as runaways, LGBTQ youth and people with prior traumas, the use of force, fraud and coercion to use to attract victims and the process of recruitment and grooming.
Anyone can be a victim to trafficking, she said, and what they all have in common is that they are vulnerable in some way.
According to Sigamoni, in 2017 there were 115 cases of sex trafficking reported in Maryland while there were a total of 8,759 cases reported across the nation. However, these numbers show much less than the number of actual victims because many cases go unreported due to fear.
Afterward, Clinical Social Worker at the University of Maryland SAFE Center Elizabet Martinez talked about the connection between domestic violence and human trafficking. She spoke about the impact of knowing the signs of domestic violence and trafficking and how it can empower people to help others.
Following the presentations, Martinez and representatives from FAIR Girls held sessions for youth and adults for further discussion on the topics of human trafficking and domestic violence.
“There are a lot more resources for trafficking than I realized,” said Meg Jordan, an Adelphi resident and University of Maryland Student who attended the symposium for a project she is doing on labor trafficking in the county.
“It made me see that this is happening locally and people are addressing it locally.”
Everyone has their own story when it comes to trafficking, and people handle it in different ways, said FAIR Girls Case Management Coordinator Spowart.
“I’ve had clients that have been trafficked for 10 years when they come to me. I’ve had clients that were trafficked for a year, but it’s always a mix, so everyone has different experiences,” she said.
“I also find that everyone has different levels of recovery. Some people come to us, and they definitely have some level psychosis. Other times people are amazingly resilient with anything, they just seem to keep people at a distance, and they’re very guarded. I find the best thing that helps with recovery though is consistency.”
One of the reasons people remain in trafficking situations or even go back to trafficking is because they often come from very chaotic environments and their trafficker was a consistent aspect of their life, Spowart said. Making them feel like they are not alone and giving them a sense of consistency is important for recovery.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to prosecute trafficking cases, said Assistant State’s Attorney Niki Holmes, because the victims may not be willing to go forward with the case or they are afraid of being arrested themselves.
“We do need stronger legislation, we need a lot more education so people understand the dynamics and we need to be able to have legislation that allows us to build cases, similar to the domestic violence way that we can prosecute these cases with or without the victim by using other evidence that domestic violence allows,” Battle-Brooks added.
As someone who works directly with victims, for Spowart it is important to raise awareness that this is happening, that trafficking is happening around us at a much higher rate than we realize.
“It’s a very hidden thing, and people don’t see it,” she said. “They don’t see the suffering and the isolation because it’s behind closed doors and in this society, you don’t see it really. Some so many people need help, and we really want to reach more people.”