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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].”
Federal officials say more than 100,000 women and children fall victim to human traffickers in the U.S. each year. They’re often forced into prostitution or other sex work, or other jobs, against their will. A Kalamazoo woman hopes to make a dent in that modern form of slavery, at least in southwest Michigan.
Sara Morley LaCroix is a real estate agent by day. But last March she founded theKalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition. Morley LaCroix says she started the project after meeting three survivors of human trafficking, including Theresa, who became a victim of traffickers at her high school in Birmingham at the age of 16. Another was Melinda of Muskegon who was exploited by her mother from the age of five until she was in high school.
It happens across the nation but much of it goes unreported.
In fact, only 4 of every 1,000 human trafficking victims are identified, according to statistics from the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic.
But that’s just one of the battles facing the Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition (KAHTC), an organization formed in May.
Human trafficking is when someone is forced by another person into sex or labor by threats, emotional abuse or physical abuse.
Sara Morley-LaCroix, co-founder of the coalition, says the biggest misconception about human trafficking in America is that it isn’t happening.