Supplied photo courtesy of Melissa Davis
Centre of Redemption volunteers compile donation requests to send out to help support the organization, which began in December 2011.
The coast, military bases and highways and interstates across North Carolina are identified as the main factors in why the state continues to rank in the top 10 for human trafficking in the United States.
MaLisa Johnson, founder of the Centre of Redemption, did not believe human trafficking was an issue in Wilmington until she discussed the topic with her boyfriend, Stephen Umstead, who had been making financial donations to anti-trafficking organizations. He convinced her to look into the issue more.
She noticed a similar response to her own when speaking to area churches after establishing the organization in December 2011.
“I would say they probably heard about it and it’s hard to believe it’s happening in the U.S. and even harder to believe it’s happening in Wilmington,” Johnson said.
The faith-based organization has a toll-free number through A Safe Place, at 855-723-7529, that community members and victims can call, and also a safe house for U.S. citizens (domestics) under the age of 18. The group does not take in foreign (international) victims. The language used needs to change, Johnson said. Prostitute, the noun, needs to become prostituted, the verb.
Pam Strickland, director of the Farmville-based Eastern North Carolina Stop Human Trafficking Now, said people could help in small ways, like purchasing fair trade products.
“Fair trade means slave free, child-labor free,” Strickland said. “A lot of people won’t do that. Change is uncomfortable. This whole idea that slavery is happening today is uncomfortable. People don’t want to … know more about it so they don’t have to do anything about it.”
The majority of anti-trafficking volunteers are women.
“The whole problem with sex trafficking is created by demand, by men who want to pay to have sex with young girls,” Strickland said. “We would like to … have young men go in and talk to these boys about pornography and prostitution and how it’s linked to sex trafficking and respect for women.”
Johnson said she is in the process of creating training so volunteers could contact girls listed online on a regular basis who could be victims of sex trafficking.
“Within our community outreach initiative, one is reaching out to the community first, the hotels and motels and to all businesses to display the Safe Place sticker,” Johnson said. “And the second is our call center outreach, we will call the girls that are listed on Backpage.com, Cape Fear Escorts, Craigslist. So we will call the girls and see if there is anything we can do for them. … We could target Backpage.com and be busy enough ’cause what happens is you’re listed on Backpage.com, but that doesn’t mean you’re just only Backpage.com. You could go on Backpage.com and see a girl, click that link and it takes you to Cape Fear Escorts or any other agency.”
In September, Village Voice Media sold its 13 newspapers to Voice Media Group and retained ownership of Backpage, following public scrutiny.
“The same people still own it,” Strickland said. “If you were just to Google prostitution or sex trafficking cases in the U.S. and you start reading the case histories, over and over and over again those girls will say their pimp advertised them on Backpage.”
One positive aspect of the site is that law enforcement agencies use the adult services section to set up stings, she said.
“At least they know where it all is,” Strickland said. “I don’t think it’s enough of a reason to justify what Backpage is doing.”
The only full-time human trafficking law enforcement official in the state, Det. S. Guthrie of the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office, said he begins by treating all of the girls and women as victims. He then conducts interviews to determine whether they are victims, but his main job is training other officials.
Alexandrea Nicole Berte, a 20-year-old who moved to Wilmington in February, is facing two federal sex crime charges after being stopped by highway patrol: one for transporting individuals in interstate commerce for prostitution and one for inducing travel to engage in prostitution for a period from Sept. 1 to Sept. 25, in the eastern district of Tennessee. The other three females, ages 19, 27 and 29, respectively, who were in the vehicle, were released.
“I personally think there’s something very wrong with how this has been treated,” Strickland said. “Once a human trafficking, sex trafficking victim comes under the control of a pimp, one of the things that she will be required to do is recruit other girls. So it really bothers me, and again I’ve not talked to her and I don’t know the situation, but she’s been charged with being a trafficker when I would strongly suspect that actually she’s a victim that’s required to do that by the trafficker.”
Guthrie said the ages of sex trafficking victims vary.
“Look beyond the surface of what’s going on,” Guthrie said. “… There might be a reason she’s in that situation.”