A group of attorneys is urging the Durham city council to create a task force to fight child sex trafficking.
Durham-Orange Women Attorneys—or DOWA—says county and community agencies need to coordinate their efforts to address child sex trafficking.
The group’s former president Sherri Zann-Rosenthal presented a report to the city council Thursday detailing the issues she believes local agencies face in helping victims and pursuing their traffickers.
"Right now, our response to child sex trafficking is really piecemeal, with certain individuals in those agencies getting trained and doing a lot of work, but no systematic and institutionalized response," Zann-Rosenthal said.
A task force, Zann-Rosenthal said, could bring together local agencies with new inter-agency protocol and train educators and social service providers to recognize the warning signs of trafficking, which can be difficult to identify.
"Human beings don’t have anything stamped on them saying they’re contraband. One human being looks like another human being," she said.
Zann-Rosenthal says it's impossible to know just how prevalent trafficking is in Durham, but that in every local agency she looked into in her report, employees she interviewed said they had provided services to children they suspected were being trafficked.
Children are targeted and recruited into trafficking in two main ways, according to the report. Zann-Rosenthal calls one method, "home-grown" recruiting, in which 17- and 18-year old high school girls who are already being trafficked recruit younger high school students or middle school students and introduce them to their trafficker, who grooms them for sex work.
"The young girl may believe that this is her boyfriend—she's getting lavish attention, and a bond is created," Zann-Rosenthal said, "and then to please the (trafficker), she is essentially pimped out."
Traffickers, she said, are often part of a large hierarchy of criminals.
"So even if that girl has a relationship with one particular fellow who's a recruiter, that's not really the extent of the organization by any means," she said.
Zann-Rosenthal says the other major way children are pulled into trafficking is through gang activity.
Charlene Reiss of the Durham Crisis Response Center says Project Fight, a Raleigh-based nonprofit run by the Salvation Army to support survivors of human trafficking, has managed 32 confirmed cases of trafficking in Durham since 2011.
"But that doesn't really tell you how many cases are out there, that just tells you how many they've been able to get the victim into services," Reiss said.
"We already work together," Reiss said. "We can have all the coordinating teams in the world ... but ... that's not going to change the fact that we need far more services and resources than we have to actually combat the problem."
Reiss said the law enforcement officers the crisis center works with on trafficking issues don't have enough time to investigate and build tight cases against perpetrators. In addition, Reiss said more support services are need to prevent human trafficking in the first place.
"Just like the traffickers can, we can recognize the kids who are at risk of being recruited into trafficking," she said. "But if we don't have enough mental health services and family therapy services for people that have no money to pay for private services and may not have insurance, there's nothing that we can do."
Reiss also said she recommends expanding any task force to address adult trafficking, as well as child trafficking. She notes that most of the trafficking cases reported in the state concern adult victims.
The Durham city council plans to vote on creation of the task force on Oct. 19. If Durham does create a task force, the city would join Charlotte and Pitt County in eastern North Carolina, both of which already have anti-trafficking task forces.