Julia Koch is the Director of Development and Advocacy at the Hope Project, an outreach program dedicated to raising domestic and global awareness of human trafficking. Serving the West Michigan area, the Hope Project is currently working to open one of the first therapeutic safe houses for trafficking victims, under the ages of 18, rescued in Michigan. Catch the upcoming Sex Slaves marathon on Sunday, November 9th, 6-10 p.m. ET.
Q: News coverage typically focuses on sex trafficking within the Detroit metropolitan area. What is something people do not realize about this issue in suburban or rural regions?
A: That it’s happening. It’s not just in Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, and New York. One of the survivors on our advisory board was trafficked in a rural farming community, and she was also trafficked from inside her own home. Also, with regard to cities being hubs for trafficking, I think ‘hubs’ is a word thrown around loosely. Where is there pornography and prostitution? And where do we mainly see it? It’s everywhere. The Internet has expanded the opportunity for traffickers.
Q: When we spoke with the Michigan Abolitionist Project last week, they referred to themselves as a ‘prevention’ organization in the fight against sex slavery. How would the Hope Project identify itself in such a fight?
A: Originally, we intended to work in survivor services and open a safe house, but what quickly happened is that we realized we couldn’t get people to support a home when there was a lack of awareness about the issue. From there, we moved into awareness mode and haven’t left that since. In some respects, the Hope Project is a full-service organization, except that we do not physically remove individuals from a trafficking situation like law enforcement. Instead, we conduct awareness events and work to train people like front-line workers, educators, foster parents, and medical staff. We also bring in trainers for local law enforcement.
Q: What strategies are taught in training?
A: We want to cover the question, “What is human trafficking?” Not just sex trafficking, because labor trafficking and organ trafficking also occurs. We typically train individuals on what these topics look like in our local communities. We teach them how to recognize signs of trafficking, and gear our training toward the audience we’re working with that day. With child welfare workers, we’re teaching whom they might deal with from inside the home. If it’s a medical staff we say, “In the ER, what might a [trafficking] victim look like? And what would you do to connect with the individual?” The medical profession is a rare because it’s one of the few professions that can actually see a person who’s still being trafficked. If someone’s going into the ER because they have broken bones or bruises, how do you approach it? It’s similar to a domestic violence situation. If they’re exhibiting behaviors where they are timid or unable to answer questions about him or herself, that could mean they are being controlled by someone around them. There are warning signs and red flags to watch out for.
Q: You mention covering what human trafficking looks like in your local community. What have you encountered over the years?
A: We’ve met survivors who have been lured by older male individuals. We have survivors who have been trafficked in their own homes or were runaways. We have a survivor who was abducted and later trafficked. One of the things that we use to help new victims is to connect them with survivors who have already reached out to us and revealed what has happened in their past. Last year, we were working fairly consistently with three survivors. Now, we’re working with sixteen adult women and one tennager.
Q: Are there any existing statistics behind these stories?
A: We don’t have a lot of data because it’s such an emerging field. In 2000, Congress passed a law making human trafficking a crime. But up until January 2013, there was no box to check for law enforcement when someone had been trafficked. There is a lag in knowing just how many victims, because we lack data for those 13 years. In Michigan, we also didn’t have a box to check until January 2014, since it works hand-in-hand with the federal database. Even more, for victim service providers, there is no reporting mechanism. We only know when the situation must be resolved by law enforcement, and the perpetrator needs to be charged.
Q: Why do you believe sex trafficking is a prevalent issue around Michigan?
A: One reason is that Michigan lies on the Canadian border, with three border crossings that make us susceptible to traffickers. The freight moving through the Great Lakes makes us further susceptible. The problem remains that trafficking cases are handled in a way that hasn’t been reportable.
Q: The Hope Project is building a safe house for child victims of sex trafficking. That’s a huge undertaking. Could you speak about the process of starting a home, and why there are not more safe houses around Michigan.
A: Right now, there is one safe house open in Grand Rapids. I believe they have 12 beds. The next nearest one is in Chicago. That has 10 beds. The issue is not that there are not victims, but that safe houses are very difficult to open and stay sustainable, which is why we are being very diligent in raising funds so that will not be a factor for us. The cost to operate one year in a therapeutic home for one girl is an estimated $80-85,000 per year. We will need to raise at least $250,000 to open this facility. You can see why in the U.S. there are less than 550 beds in specialized treatment centers for these girls. You don’t do something like this haphazardly or whimsically. You have to be dedicated and willing to work extremely hard, which we are.
Q: Considering there are such few beds, how will someone determine who gets a space inside the home?
A: The home administrator will have a process, and it will depend on the makeup of who is inside the home already. It will be family style living, so it’s important to be aware that bringing in someone will have an impact on the atmosphere of the home. Even more, the girl needs to be ready herself, and she needs to be ready to address what’s happened to her and be willing to work on it. It’s not an easy thing for someone who’s immediately coming out of trafficking to do. Their willingness is going to make this program work, which is why it has to be voluntary and not mandated.
Q: To further combat the issue of human trafficking and child exploitation, what do you believe should be the ‘next step,’ so to speak?
I think awareness is key. The more people become aware, the more able they are to protect themselves and the children around them. The issue goes beyond sex trafficking, though. Why does sex trafficking happen? Why does someone feel like they can traffic another individual? If they’re trafficking, they’ve objectified another person. They are treating them as a commodity. What we need to teach is respect, and we need to deal with the demand. Where there’s a supply, there is a demand. Most of all, we need to we need to stop blaming the victim. This is going to take understanding that human trafficking is something that has to be dealt with. It can no longer be ignored. That’s a paradigm shift, I think. Speaking with people directly makes a difference. They hear what really happens, if they’re willing to hear it. Sometimes people don’t want to. We’re really good in our society about ignoring what we don’t want to hear. With the Hope Project, we reach out to organizations and individuals and we’ll continue to do that. It takes a broad base. I don’t think there’s any silver bullet. I wish there was.