by Graham Sturgeon, co-editor
With recorded cases of human trafficking on the rise across the country, Shiawassee County has not been overlooked by traffickers. Though instances are not as common in Shiawassee County, several local organizations, including the Michigan State Police, Owosso Police Department, SafeCenter, Memorial Healthcare, the Child Advocacy Center, and the Human Trafficking Task Force of Shiawassee County, have joined together to combat the spread of trafficking.
One of the key focuses of the group is teaching others how to identify signs of human trafficking. According to National Human Trafficking Hotline/Polaris Project data, the highest number of sex trafficking cases occur between intimate partners. Labor traffickers often lure victims with enticing job offers. Those most at risk include recent migrants, runaways/homeless, and people with substance abuse problems, unstable housing, or mental health issues.
“People often don’t think that trafficking can occur in intimate relationships,” explains Stephanie Molnar, a Licensed Master Social Worker at SafeCenter. “Many victims don’t even realize they have been trafficked until we provide them with the correct information.”
Molnar and SafeCenter work with domestic violence and sexual assault victims, and they partner with Memorial Healthcare to provide support and information to victims during the forensic examination process.
Cassandra Kotlarczyk, an R.N., is the sexual assault nurse who conducts the examinations at Memorial. After obtaining the victim’s health records, she does a head to toe exam and collects evidence when necessary. As difficult as the exams are for everyone involved, they do provide a good opportunity for Kotlarczyk and Molnar to identify and provide information to victims.
Olga Mathis of the Child Advocacy Center provides and conducts forensic interviews with the help of police officers, prosecutors, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which can be used for criminal cases. The interviews are developmentally sensitive so victims are not re-traumatized. Additionally, Mathis and the others at the Child Advocacy Center provide free services to children affected by human trafficking, sextortion, sexual assault, rape, and child pornography.
These three organizations, along with local law enforcement agencies and the Human Trafficking Task Force of Shiawassee County, are working to educate county residents on how to spot human trafficking victims. The SafeCenter will visit Owosso High School in December to give a presentation on the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships. And then in January, Memorial Healthcare will host a community trafficking training event.
While the county has plenty of services available to victims of human trafficking, these experts emphasize that all reports of trafficking be reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline by calling (888) 373-7888, or by texting “HELP” to 233733. This will allow for the continued improvement of human trafficking statistics gathering nationwide, which has been lacking until recently. Additionally, more information can be found by visiting www.humantraffickinghotline.org or www.polarisproject.org.
The Human Trafficking Task Force of Shiawassee County meets at 11 a.m. on the second Tuesday of every month at Covenant Eyes, 1525 W. King St. in Owosso. The public is welcome to attend the meetings and to get involved with the organization.
The Independent will continue its human trafficking coverage in the coming weeks by focusing on law enforcement strategies.