Look beneath the surface.
Women and children are being trafficked in Kalamazoo in hotels, massage parlors, hair braiding salons, truck stops, migrant work, restaurants and even the house next door.
In May, three men were arrested for soliciting prostitution in the 1000 block of Portage Street.
The Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, formed in March 2012, organized an event to train community members on human trafficking. The event shed light on the biggest problem: awareness. Community members were briefed on ways to spot a victim.
“The point is that it’s right in front of our faces,” said Pam Trammel, a member of Mission of Mercy’s Human Trafficking Task Force in Jackson. “These human traffickers are smart; they know what to look for.”
Trafficking starts online on websites like Craigslist. Seventy-six percent of transactions for sex with underage women start on the internet, Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller said. Even college students are vulnerable, since most are separated from their families.
“You’re on your own,” Fuller said. “These people know that.”
Debra Stewart, a licensed professional counselor at Cornerstone Christian Counseling, works directly with trafficked victims.
“These are our people—Kalamazoo people—who are being affected,” said Stewart. “All women I’ve worked with were within a 50-mile radius [of Kalamazoo].”
Stewart said most of her cases involve teenagers, including one in the Kalamazoo schools where a young boy was receiving sexts from multiple girls.
“Once they send that picture, they’re using it to blackmail the girl,” Stewart said. “This is the stuff that really hits home. These are people that are just like us. Look around because they might be your neighbors.”
Kalamazoo is a breeding ground for trafficking activity.
“We found out 20 years ago that being as close to two major cities has some difficulties,” said Sheriff Fuller.
The I-94 freeway runs through Kalamazoo and connects Chicago to Detroit, and eventually, to the Canadian border.
“Trafficking is on the rise in the suburbs,” said Besty Rybarczyk, a high school history teacher in Grand Rapids.
Rybarczyk said over 10 young boys from her classes have come out as victims of sexual assault.
Michigan is ranked 13th in the country for child sex trafficking by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
As of 2011, sex trafficking crimes can be charged in conjunction with other crimes and criminals serve a 20-year sentence, said Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan, Forrest Pasanski. If the traffickers kidnap and kill the victim, they serve a lifetime sentence behind bars. Human trafficking crimes may be ordered to be served consecutively with other convictions.
Patti Schafer, a retired florist attending the event, suggested a human trafficking list, similar to a sex offender list.
“I don’t think people realize it’s right in their backyard,” Schafer said. “I could’ve been trafficked 40 years ago. I was right there. It was me.”
Sara Morley-LaCroix, founder of the Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, suggested a name change for people who are trafficked.
“I don’t want to call them victims. I want to call them survivors.”
Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline number at (888) 3737-888 if you are a victim of human trafficking or suspect a human trafficking case in your neighborhood.