Staff photo by Emmy Errante
Victim services and advocacy coordinator for the Rape Crisis Center of Coastal Horizons Center, Inc., Deanna Stoker, speaks to the League of Women Voters at McAlister’s Deli on Monday, Feb. 25.
Those convicted of exploiting people through prostitution would need to register as sex offenders if the victims were forced into sexual servitude or younger than 18 under Senate Bill 122, which was recently filed in the North Carolina Senate.
In addition, traffickers would be required to wear GPS tracking bracelets when released from jail, Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, told county and local municipal leaders during a New Hanover County Local Officials Caucus at Wilmington City Hall on Monday, Feb. 25.
“When we introduced that bill last year there wasn’t much of a whisper about it,” said Goolsby, a primary sponsor of SB 122. “It’s really caught fire this year.”
Rep. Susi Hamilton, D-Brunswick, New Hanover confirmed during the caucus that the House planned to run a concurrent bill.
Human trafficking is a felony under North Carolina law and is defined as knowingly recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining another person for involuntary or sexual servitude.
“We’ve got two large military bases here, which drives some of that traffic, and also being on the coast,” Goolsby said.
North Carolina ranked among 21 states in the top tier of a 2012 Polaris Project study that stated the state has passed significant laws to fight human trafficking and should continue to improve laws. Provisions in which North Carolina lacked points in the study, however, included Safe Harbor laws or protecting trafficked minors and vacating convictions for sex trafficking victims.
Lawmakers were drafting a Safe Harbor bill, which Goolsby said would be comprehensive watershed legislation.
It could include creating a “john school” for men caught soliciting prostitutes, Goolsby said in a Feb. 16 interview.
“They get to understand fully what sex trafficking is all about, how these women are abused,” Goolsby said. “They understand the consequences.”
Goolsby has said he hoped North Carolina could begin to institutionalize a system of addressing sex trafficking, with specially trained coordinators and officers.
Stiffer penalties for pimps
Goolsby and Hamilton both have said they would like to see parental rights stripped from traffickers who have children with prostitutes.
“Pimps are using the children as a way to keep women enslaved,” Hamilton said in an earlier interview this year. “They’re threatening to take away their children.”
Meanwhile, pimping is a misdemeanor in North Carolina and should be a felony like human trafficking New Hanover and Pender County District Attorney Ben David said Tuesday, Feb. 26.
“It’s too hard to draw the distinction between human trafficking and pimping,” David said. “Once they’re under a felony conviction several things are triggered,” David added. “We can take away their guns. …We can monitor their movements, because they could be subject to GPS tracking, and they would be registered sex offenders, so if they move into an area, that would have to be known to a sheriff.”
In North Carolina, where those accused 16 years and older can be treated as adults in the criminal justice system, the age-neutral prostitution law should be changed to say those under 18 cannot be charged, Assistant District Attorney Lindsey Roberson said Feb. 26.
“If you see a 17-year old being sold for sex our state law says you treat her like a criminal,” Roberson said. “We’re ending up with teenagers … in these detention centers instead of being treated as victims in need of resources.”
Renaming, reclaiming the victim
“We have to take this issue out of the shadows and into the light,” David said. That could include changing the terminology from “prostitute” to someone “being prostituted,” he said.
“In many cases these are good people. They’re someone’s daughter, someone’s son in some cases,” David said, adding that most are engaging in the vice crime through coercion of others or have been abused in the past.
Redemption is important, too, Goolsby said, with prostitutes given a chance to straighten out their lives, get off drugs, get an education, learn parenting skills and get psychological support.
“How do we clean up these women’s records so that when they’ve gotten out of all this they can stay out?” Goolsby added.
On Feb. 25, Deanna Stoker, victim services and advocacy coordinator for the Rape Crisis Center of Coastal Horizons Center, Inc., spoke in-depth to the League of Women Voters of the Lower Cape Fear during a luncheon about the issues North Carolina faces with human trafficking.
In fiscal year 2011-12, 13 human trafficking victims were served locally. So far for fiscal year 2012-13, 12 human trafficking victims have been served.
“A victim is not just going to come out and identify as being a victim,” Stoker said.
The center finds victims through Federal Bureau of Investigation tips, the Polaris Project human trafficking hotline, the Centre
of Redemption’s A Safe Place hotline and from direct phone calls.
With survivors, Stoker said she tries to make them understand the odds are stacked against them, and most will go back into prostitution.
“We have to understand that this is a process,” she said.
The Polaris Project hotline, or National Human Trafficking Resource Center, received about 361 calls from North Carolina from January through September 2012 that included community member tips and general information requests, media relations specialist Tamara Robinson said Tuesday, Feb. 26.
Since the resource center opened in 2007, North Carolina has been the 10th highest state in terms of volume of phone calls, Robinson added.
One challenge in trying to help trafficking victims is a funding gap between support for domestic-born and foreign-born victims, Stoker said. In North Carolina, foreign-born victims typically are from Latin American or Asia, she said.
“For foreign-born, our goal as the rapid response team is to provide them with emergency services in the first 72 hours and then get them directly linked to the Salvation Army in Raleigh, so that they can take over and provide them with ongoing case management,” Stoker said. “For our domestic-born victims it gets a little more complicated, because there is no one specific agency in the community that can provide them with the array of services that we need.”
“To be found guilty of human trafficking takes a lot of work,” Stoker said.
Senate Bill 122 is a public safety measure, and planning also is needed to address other aspects of human trafficking – such as ensuring the Division of Social Services has the capacity to serve additional victims who come through the system as a result of law changes, she said.
“It does add another layer of accountability,” Stoker said. “I’m hopeful to see what happens. … When you change a law, you have to have a thorough thought process for it.”
On Feb. 6, 2013, Alexandrea Nicole Berte, a 20-year-old who moved to Wilmington in February 2012, pleaded guilty to interstate transport of another for purposes of prostitution. According to the United States District Court Eastern District of Tennessee plea agreement, Berte operated a make-shift brothel at a hotel in Wilmington before operating a second brothel in Winston-Salem and then heading to Nashville, Tenn., when she was stopped and arrested on Sept. 25, 2012.
The punishment for the offense is a maximum of 10 years imprisonment, a maximum fine of $250,000, a $100 mandatory assessment, a maximum of three years supervised release and forfeiture of the instrumentalities and fruits of the offense.
The other charge against Berte for inducing travel to engage in prostitution for a period from Sept.1-25, 2012, will be dismissed at sentencing by the U.S. for consideration of the defendant’s guilty plea.
A plea hearing was held on Wednesday, Feb. 27, but a sentencing date had not been set as of press time.
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