While it may seem like the peaceful enclave of Macon County, nestled in the Western North Carolina mountains far from major cities, could not possibly be affected by the crime of human trafficking, attorney Ashleigh Chapman conveyed otherwise at an Oct. 11 awareness event hosted by Discover Church.
Chapman, president and CEO of Alliance for Freedom, Restoration, and Justice, hails from Nashville, Tenn., yet she spoke to a packed room of concerned Macon County citizens and visitors about how human trafficking is not just a big-city issue.
Earlier that day, she met with representatives with the Macon County Sheriff’s Department and communicated kudos for local law enforcement’s awareness and intervention efforts regarding what she noted is a $150 billion criminal business impacting more than 50 million individuals worldwide.
“Human trafficking is the sale of human beings for forced labor, sexual exploitation, and organs,” she informed. “And there are more than one million victims of human trafficking in the United States. In fact, North Carolina currently ranks in the top 10 states for the prevalence of human trafficking. It’s not just happening in border towns and major cities. I have not visited a place in this country where trafficking is not happening. It’s grown by 400% in the past five years, and it’s happening right here in your county.”
Chapman said she was motivated to become a human rights attorney when, at age 11, she learned that foster children taken in by her parents had been “horrifically” abused. “I decided I would do something to protect vulnerable people.” And she has, for more than 20 years.
She noted, “I know this topic is so dark that it breaks our hearts and hurts our brains, and so many people – many of you who are here – feel like you can’t make a difference … you may feel helpless. But every single person is uniquely equipped to help. There are many, many, many ways that concerned citizens can be the light that will someday win against this darkness.”
Via detailed slides, Chapman provided instructions on how citizens, first responders, teachers, healthcare providers, and more can “recognize and respond” to trafficking. She also pointed out that even though the majority of individuals trafficked may fit into such categories as runaway and homeless youth, individuals involved with gangs, children in and aging out of foster care, individuals experiencing homelessness or drug addictions, refugees and recent migrants, it is important to know that any person of any age, demographic, or background could be a victim of human trafficking.
“Many who end up being trafficked are not kidnapped,” she said. “They are tricked and manipulated.”
Often the trafficker will build a relationship with a vulnerable person either in person or on social media. Regularly, the ruse is an online job posting or someone pretending to be a new friend. Sometimes the relationship will last weeks or months to build trust. “They think of the person as a potential ‘product,’ so they will spend a lot of time and sometimes money on building trust,” said Chapman.
She added, “In general, traffickers exploit the vulnerable through force, fraud, and coercion, luring their victims with promises of work, shelter, food, or support.”
Besides practical information, such as a list of “signs” to look out for concerning an individual that may be trafficked or a trafficker, Chapman insisted that parents should warn children and do all they can to protect them concerning social media and gaming.
“Devices have a world of perpetrators out there that know how to get around protective controls,” she said, sharing that her sister had given her 7-year-old nephew a device on which to play a game and immediately a perpetrator communicated with the child. “Kids need to know all the ways and means traffickers will use. And traffickers can be anyone, a stranger, parent, friend, or family member, so it is important not to feel like it cannot and won’t affect you or your child.”
An example of an opportunity for traffickers to reach children is through a highly accessible – even at some local retail outlets – Roblox game card, touted as “a global platform that brings people together through play.” The National Center for Sexual Exploitation reported in “Child Sexual Abuse and Grooming of Children on Roblox”: “In 2022, an 8-year-old girl in North Carolina was targeted by an online predator on Roblox who asked her to send him ‘hot videos.’ The girl’s mother said she had parental controls on all the devices her kids used.”
Chapman expressed that prevention is key. “We need education, but we also need supportive pathways in every community so that the most vulnerable won’t feel like they don’t have options or resources to reach out to in their moment of need. We need to educate so the most vulnerable won’t be naïve to traffickers’ tactics. Every entity in every community – from churches to schools to universities to businesses – can pay attention. It’s going to take all of us to make a difference.”
Additionally, Sheriff Brent Holbrooks explained that citizen intervention is key. “Typically, law enforcement does not see [human trafficking] first-hand until there is a complaint. If any citizen or resident of Macon County suspects human trafficking, the best avenue to file a complaint is to utilize the ‘Submit a Tip’ on the Macon County Sheriff’s Office App (available on Google Play).”
Locally, REACH of Macon County is a domestic violence and rape crisis center and can provide help and information regarding trafficking issues: 828-369-5544.
Chapman also suggested citizens can become most informed by taking a free online course provided by Justice U. Citizens can report suspected human trafficking by calling 1-866-347-2423, and assistance is provided from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-3737-888.
For full details on what she shared on Oct. 11, click here to visit the Alliance for Freedom, Restoration, and Justice.