(COLORADO SPRINGS) — In a world that is becoming exponentially internal and self-focused, those fighting human trafficking say it’s time to look up.
“Often people think trafficking is only happening over there, somewhere else,” said Jennisue Jessen, a human trafficking survivor. “Human trafficking is happening right here in Colorado Springs. We are blind to what is happening. Eyes open. See something, say something. It seems so trivial, but we go through our lives scrolling and rushing here to there and back again.”
Jessen started being trafficked when she was just four years old and she said there were people in her life who noticed something wasn’t right, but they never asked questions or got involved.
“I would say to anyone who suspects something is happening to invest time in a relationship with that person and not be afraid to ask the hard questions,” said Jessen. “Just as simple as, ‘I see you look really tired today,’ or ‘I see you seem sad lately, is there something going on? How can I love you today? How can I serve you today?’ And, those are great questions that you can ask a little bitty kid and you can ask a 45-year-old woman. ‘Something seems off, are you ok? What do you need?’ And, that opens the door.”
Special Agent Nathan Schilling, the Resident Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations said, he agrees that it takes people paying attention to others and looking for red flags to get victims the help they need.
“Someone who doesn’t have identification documents, or they can’t provide identification documents, if they’re under the control of someone else or the person is telling them where they can and can’t go, no freedom of movement,” said Schilling.
Other signs include someone being malnourished or working extremely long hours.
“Look for scars or bruises, or injuries that just don’t make sense,” said Jessen. “Look for people that may be used to being outgoing and bubbly and happy and now they’re withdrawn or sad or depressed.”
More red flags include substance abuse, a new cell phone, new clothes, or other gifts that can’t be explained. Also, communication changes or being cut off from friends and family.
“Anything that appears to indicate a significant change in their behavior where maybe they don’t have the same freedom or ability to outreach to their friends or public as they used to,” said Schilling. “Not one indicator is necessarily going to be a sign that it’s a trafficking victim.”
Schilling said if you suspect trafficking is taking place you shouldn’t get involved, rather report what you know to the National Human Trafficking Hotline or call local law enforcement.
“Just call 911, let the local authorities deal with it,” said Schilling. “We have great partnerships with them and are willing to work those investigations jointly with our local partners.”
Jessen said you can also help empower victims to reach out for help themselves.
“They have to be ready,” she said. “It will blow up their whole world in the best, devastating, ways.”
Tips can be reported 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at humantraffickinghotline.org, or at 1-888-373-7888. There’s also a text option that can be used. Text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733.
One misconception about human trafficking is that victims are yanked off the street, but Jessen and Schilling said that often times the victims know their trafficker.
“It’s just who they thought they were in a relationship with, was not who they actually are,” said Schilling. “A lot of times it’s a slow process where the trafficker begins to take control of that individual, and whether it’s taking away their means of communication, takes away their freedom of movement, coerces them in some nature. But it’s a slow transition from having freedom, having self-identity, to moving into a position where that person controls everything about you.”
Schilling said runaway children are at a greater risk of falling into human trafficking, noting often traffickers take advantage of them and use alcohol or drugs to control them.
Schilling said anyone committing commercial sex acts under the age of 18 is considered a trafficking victim because a minor cannot consent to providing sexual acts.
Sex and labor trafficking are happening in Colorado and Jessen said it’s going to take a group effort to make a difference.
“I think the biggest myth and misconception is that it’s not happening, or that it’s not happening here, and the reality is it’s happening in our schools, it’s happening in our neighborhoods, it is happening all around us in our community,” said Jessen. “The only solution is the community, the only solution is our willingness to put down our phones, to engage with the people we are with, to ask the hard questions, to be vulnerable with each other, to be honest, to see one another. That’s the solution.”
“If you see something suspicious, report it,” said Schilling. “I feel like there’s a lot of people who probably see suspicious behavior, which is potentially indicative of human trafficking. We’ll do the investigation, that’s why we’re here. That’s within our investigative purview, and there are a lot of state and local partners and nonprofit organizations who are there to assist as well.”