Human trafficking, the subject of new outreach efforts, hits close to home
While sitting in a recent class about human trafficking, one woman came to a sudden realization: She had been trafficked as a teen in the '90s.
“This wasn’t a thing,” said Sarah Henderson, now 44. “It didn’t have a name.”
Henderson, now a mom herself, decided to attend the class taught by Greenlight Operation Founder and CEO Jordan Pine to educate herself on how to detect human trafficking, so she could help others. But the class brought up troubling memories of her own abusive teen years in the Red Lion area.
“I didn’t realize I was being trafficked back then,” she said.
According to south-central Pennsylvania-based Greenlight Operation, there could be a variety of signs when someone is being trafficked, such as signs of physical abuse, lack of personal possessions or no longer attending school and other regular activities. Their answers could sound scripted or they may not be allowed to speak to someone alone.
When Henderson was a teen, she lived up to every stereotype one could think of, she said. She came from a divorced family and often moved around between places. During that time, she was targeted and caught up in the wrong crowd that seemed to fill the needs that weren't getting met at home.
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Older men would try to pick her up constantly or ask to hold her hand. They would compliment her on how pretty she was and offer friendship. Henderson said she dated a few older men — when she was 16, her boyfriends might have been 26.
At that time, Henderson said, her experiences came via boyfriends who seemed to offer a better life — one that happened to include sex and drug use. Or an older girl would drive the younger teenagers around to get cigarettes or anything else they needed. Then the younger teens would be indebted to the older group. They would have to pay them back in certain ways. Henderson recalled that she was once asked to deliver marijuana on her bicycle.
“They knew a kid on a bike wouldn’t get stopped by the cops,” she said.
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Henderson got out of the situation when she and a boyfriend moved to Lancaster, getting away from the people she'd fallen in with.
“And I got older,” she added.
But some of her friends weren’t as lucky. Henderson recalled that one of her friends was picked up by a man. She said her friend was "used and abused," isolated from from everyone and farmed out for sex work.
“These girls now just have really no concept of how bad it could be,” Henderson said, explaining they don't understand they are more susceptible because of social media.
When she was younger, there wasn’t social media or an online community.
“If you got away from whatever their local element was, you got out of their reach,” she said.
But now, the traffickers can get their targets in person or track them online, which she ran into a few years ago when she downloaded a puzzle app for her now 11–year-old daughter. Her daughter, Æris, asked Henderson for their information so she could share it on the app with a new friend she had made. Henderson was confused because it was a puzzle game with no way to make new friends. That was until she found the secret chat box her daughter was using in the app. When Henderson scrolled through the chat, she saw one person write multiple times as a different person each time, saying they were an 11-year-old girl or a 12-year-old boy asking for photos and information. Henderson quickly deleted the app to protect her daughter.
“There’s a predator in here looking for pictures of young kids,” she said of the app, which she quickly reported to the app store.
The possibility of her child being trafficked keeps Henderson up at night.
She tries to warn her daughter and others that the traffickers look to fill basic needs or gaps in the children's lives.
“When they’re filling that gap and they're targeting you, it's not Gucci or Prada,” Henderson said, explaining it starts with filling basic needs, which could be something as simple as fighting off bullies or buying them meals.
To combat the danger, Henderson said she raises her daughter very differently than how she was raised. She tries to fill any gaps her daughter may have. She also makes sure the teen understands that Henderson's home is somewhere she could run to rather than from.
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During the class, teens including Red Lion Area Middle School student Anaiaya Gonzalez, 13, and 17-year-old Nicole Meiser sat on the couches or along the back wall of 18 South Youth Center, listening.
Gonzalez and Meiser attended the class because they were concerned for their safety. Both walk around the area alone and wanted to be prepared for the possible danger.
Gonzalez also worried after a story she'd seen on Snapchat, a social media app. Days before the class, Gonzalez saw a story about three men driving around Red Lion and York looking to pick up people, especially girls, she said.
Meiser was concerned enough to make one of her cousins, who wanted to leave the class early, stay for the whole session.
"You're going to learn about this because I don't want this to happen to you," Meiser told her cousin, who stayed for the class.
Anyone who suspects human trafficking or is being trafficked can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text “BeFree”233733. Greenlight Operation offers seminars and more on its website, https://www.greenlightoperation.org/.
— Reach Meredith Willse at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.