By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — In 2011, when Salvation Army of Wake County launched a program to rescue foreign-born victims of human trafficking, it served 12 individuals in its first three months — a number it had expected to serve in its first two years.
So it expanded the project, known as Project FIGHT, to include clients born in the U.S. and now has served 207 individuals, including victims and their family members. It also has trained over 4,500 people across the state to help identify individuals caught in the web of human trafficking, and raise awareness about the issue.
Now, with a two-year, $458,000 federal grant, the Salvation Army is expanding the program to New Bern and Salisbury.
“It’s modern-day slavery, which a lot of people don’t realize still exists,” says Christine Shaw, director of social ministries at Salvation Army of Wake County. “There are more slaves in the world that at any other time in history.”
Wake’s Salvation Army first got involved in statewide anti-trafficking efforts in 2005.
“Those efforts were mostly focused on foreign-born victims,” Shaw says. “But we quickly began to realize the domestic side as well — trafficking within our own borders.”
Foreign-born victims, many of them from Latin America, South America and Asia, often arrive in the U.S. “believing they are coming legally,” she says. Their families often pay for their travel, and they believe they are coming to work in a hotel or restaurant or as a nanny, for example.
But once in the U.S., many victims are put into organized brothel rings that may move them frequently up and down the East Coast. They are cut off from their families, and threatened that if they don’t do what they are told and pay off what they are told is their “debt,” their families will be hurt. And room and board are deducted from whatever “pay” they may receive.
Victims born in the U.S. often are befriended by someone who becomes a “boyfriend” before making the relationship commercial.
Most cases, especially in the Triangle, involve forced or coerced prostitution or pornography, Shaw says. Some cases involve labor trafficking.
Project FIGHT — an acronym for “Freeing Individuals Gripped by Human Trafficking” — partners with 150 groups such as hospitals, clinics, domestic-violence shelters, and agencies that focus on law enforcement, legal services, job-readiness and emergency assistance for needs such as clothing, food and housing.
For foreign-born victims, Project FIGHT works to get their documentation for residency.
And working with the North Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking, Wake’s Salvation Army is part of an effort to create teams of professionals across the state that can respond within 24 hours after a victim is found.
“We first try to stabilize people, make sure they have services they need,” Shaw says.
Operating with an annual budget of $350,000 and a staff that will grow to five people from three, Project FIGHT raises money through grants, contributions and an annual event, Just Art, a project of Red Light Film and Art, a nonprofit arm of Ekklesia, a Raleigh church.
In 2014, Project FIGHT served 66 victims, and likely will serve 75 this year. Just over a fourth of its cases involve minors, 37 percent are ages 18 to 25, and most victims trapped in commercial sex trafficking began at ages 12 to 14, Shaw says.
What is driving human trafficking, she says, is “the demand for cheap labor and commercial sex.”