FORESTVILLE – Just because Chautauqua County is rural, it does not mean human trafficking could not happen here. Forestville High School students heard a presentation from various experts on human trafficking Friday. A second presentation was held in the evening for parents and community members.
Karen O’Hara, founder and Executive Director of United Hands of Hope House, explained domestic human trafficking happens in the United States. It can be exchanged for anything, not just money. It can be accomplished by force, fraud or coercion. She explained the number one lie for human trafficking is “Do you want a job?”
O’Hara said many traffickers use social media to find information on victims. A lot of traffickers believe their victims will be naive and trusting; many victims are picked through a process or “groomed.” The trafficker will add teenagers as a friend or send a message saying they like what is posted on Facebook. This person will even sometimes add friends off the teen’s profile to make it appear as they have mutual friends.
Traffickers will start a short relationship, that is always kept a secret, where they will buy expensive gifts for the victim.
Eventually the trafficker will say they cannot afford the relationship in hopes the teen will offer to help them out financially. The teen will then be coerced into prostitution or stripping, which the trafficker will use to threaten them by showing video or photos to friends and family. O’Hara explained to students to always follow their intuition and be aware of trafficking signs.
“If you feel that something is wrong, or not right, it probably isn’t. You should speak up and say something,” O’Hara said.
During the evening presentation, a local teenager shared her story of how she was a victim of human trafficking. The young girl, who was 12 at the time, added a man on Facebook who she did not know. That man tried to coerce her to meet him out of state. During this time, the girl’s parents saw a text message correspondence and reported it to the police. The young girl had no idea she was a victim of human trafficking until she watched a movie about victims of trafficking.
Another speaker was Kelly Richards of Homeland Security who works with cyber crimes. She gave pointers on how to stay safe online. She shared information on Project iGuardian, which is meant to teach parents, teachers and students about online safety and staying safe from online predators.
“You guys need to think about what you’re doing online. You need to think about what is being posted,” Richards said.
Todd Bunnenberg, a victim assistance specialist for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement through Homeland Security Investigations, helps out trafficking victims any way needed. He told students to learn the warning signs of trafficking as some cases appear to be domestic violence or drug-related crimes.
School Resource Officer Moses Robinson, who works in the Rochester city school district, told students how he has seen the adverse effects of a high-risk school and gang activity. He said he has had 16 students murdered and his sister was a victim of human trafficking when she was only 13 years old. He told students as soon as a relationship becomes a secret, they need to tell someone.
“The moment someone tells you … ‘Don’t tell anybody about this,’ it’s time to tell somebody. You never want to get to a point of no return,” Robinson said.
The presentation capped off a week of human trafficking education for the students, which was in part organized by the senior class. The topic of human trafficking was brought into the school because it’s not widely addressed but is a concern, according to the Rev. Bruce Ellis of the Forestville Wesleyan Church. Bunnenberg said there has been 400 survivors of human trafficking throughout the 17 counties of Western New York.