Through advocacy programs, hotlines and prevention training, several local nonprofits are working to dispel misconceptions surrounding human trafficking while unable to settle on a single definition for the crime.
Arkansas-based organizations are working to combat rising reports of human trafficking following an 84.7% increase in reports in 2018.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline recorded 85 reports of human trafficking cases in Arkansas in 2018. The reports identified 178 victims and 65 traffickers.
In the first half of 2019, the hotline recorded 41 reports, including 27 for sex trafficking in Arkansas.
Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain labor or a commercial sex act, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Gretchen Smeltzer, founding board member and executive director of Into the Light, defines sex trafficking as any interaction wherein a sexual act is exchanged for anything of value, whether it be money, food or a place to sleep under force, fraud or coercion.
Into the Light, an Arkansas-based organization founded in 2015, offers refuge to young survivors of sexual exploitation, who Smeltzer said are especially vulnerable to trafficking because their trafficker is likely someone they know or trust.
Despite the rising number of reports, Smeltzer thinks the public is detached from the problem, she said.
“The general public doesn’t understand trafficking for the most part,” Smeltzer said. “They see it as an overseas thing or a white van driving by.”
Into the Light also works with Hub of Hope, a nonprofit organization formed in 2015 which provides services to adult female victims.
Jennifer Sorey, founder and executive director of Hub of Hope, said human trafficking is a hidden issue.
“Many survivors of trafficking don’t even realize they are a victim of a crime,” Sorey said.
In addition to a mentorship program similar to Into the Light’s, Hub of Hope offers services for trafficking victims. Services include a help line, a victim response team that meets with victims to establish safe shelter, a relocation team that arranges travel for victims and a 72-hour transition center where victims can rest and recover.
Hub of Hope has 67 clients –– 34 of which are active.
Sorey said she thinks the statistics reported by the National Human Trafficking Hotline are higher because human trafficking is not always reported.
Into the Light focuses on prevention initiatives with high-risk youth, specifically youth in the juvenile justice system.
Smeltzer said she has seen trafficking including children trafficked by their parents, gang trafficked or have run away with their trafficker.
The organization has a long-term advocacy mentorship program that started in 2017 and now has 118 children who will continue to receive support after they turn 18.
Initially, mentors meet with their mentees once a week, Smeltzer said. Eventually, they will meet every two weeks where they discuss life goals, mental health, education and trials.
The organization has eight full-time advocates who carry a caseload of trafficked kids. Smeltzer said all youth are at risk of being trafficked to some extent.
The advocates mentor victims and help the victims find ways to cover expenses for education and medical needs.
“We try to show them what real love looks like,” Smeltzer said.
“If a kid disclose things that have happened to them or they’re sharing indicators of sexual exploitation, it’s really important to intervene,” Smeltzer said.
In January, J.B. Hunt Transportation Services began training truckers to recognize signs of trafficking.
“Anywhere you have an interstate, you have traffickers,” Sorey said.
Partners Against Trafficking Humans, or PATH, is an Arkansas-based organization that advocates for female victims of sex trafficking, 80% of which are from Arkansas, Sonia Vinson, PATH Community Education Director, said.
PATH works with victims ranging from age 7-60 and offers training on how to identify suspected trafficking, Vinson said.
Interstate 40 is one of the largest trafficking routes in the U.S. and is the main source of trafficking in Arkansas, Vinson said.
Connor Hagan, a public affairs officer for the FBI office in Little Rock, said the FBI has different task forces that investigate human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking, labor trafficking and child trafficking.
Over the past decade, FBI officers have arrested more than 2,000 human traffickers, Hagan said.
The FBI also has an anti-trafficking coordination team where they consult subject matter experts, including former trafficking victims, Hagan said. The closest anti-trafficking coordination team is in Memphis,Tennessee.
The FBI investigates human trafficking through undercover work and investigating citizen complaints and referrals from law enforcement agencies and hospitals, Hagan said.
Into the Light has locations in Springdale and Mountain Home that provide services to kids in 13 counties. Smeltzer said the organization’s officials hope to expand its services to more counties in the future.
There will be an Into the Light fundraiser with an anti-trafficking speaker, a dinner and a silent auction at The Ravington in Centerton on Feb. 27.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-888-373-7888.