Mark Mitchell, of the Noah Group, gives a self-defense  demonstration after the panel discussion on human trafficking.

Mark Mitchell, of the Noah Group, gives a self-defense demonstration after the panel discussion on human trafficking.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Experts want to raise awareness of human trafficking

By: Brendan Losinski | C&G Newspapers | Published January 17, 2020

 District 1 state Rep. Tenisha Yancey moderates a town hall presentation on human trafficking at Harper Woods High School Jan. 10.

District 1 state Rep. Tenisha Yancey moderates a town hall presentation on human trafficking at Harper Woods High School Jan. 10.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


HARPER WOODS — District 1 state Rep. Tenisha Yancey is working to educate people on what human trafficking is and how to protect people from it.

Yancey hosted a public forum at Harper Woods High School Jan. 10 to educate the public about the topic of human trafficking.

“I think there was a feeling of hopelessness on my part and I wanted to act,” she said. “Anytime there’s an issue in this community, I try to think about what I can do as a state representative to help resolve it. Most of the time, it’s to introduce a bill; however, the laws here are pretty solid. Crimes like kidnapping, (criminal sexual conduct) and sex trafficking carry high offenses. It’s not a matter of deterring those committing these crimes; we need to resolve the issue through education.”

Yancey was joined onstage by a panel of experts including representatives from the FBI, the Detroit Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

“There’s a lot of challenges when fighting human trafficking,” said Sarah Pettey, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security. “One of the biggest is that you are dealing with victims, and whether it’s labor trafficking or sex trafficking, they can be very reluctant to take help from anyone. It can take a lot of time and talking to people several times.”

Also on the panel were Mel Baggett, the president of Night Angels, a group that works with trafficking victims; and Twyla Baggett, his wife and the chief operating officer of Night Angels.

“(The Detroit area) is a huge manufacturing hub, and we’re on a border and waterway,” said Mel Baggett. “We have an infrastructure for moving people and things, and they can easily and quickly move them elsewhere, so this makes Michigan susceptible to traffickers.”

The panel answered questions and tried to dispel some of the misconceptions about human trafficking. Among these misconceptions is that trafficking requires a person to be moved from one location to another.

“It does not require travel, as some people think,” said Yancey. “It just requires the presence of exploitation. … Some victims are never taken out of the city they come from, but they are still victimized.”

Another misconception the panel focused on is that victims are all young women.

“It may sound strange to some people, but I’ve encountered victims in their 50s; I’ve encountered victims who are teenagers; I’ve encountered male victims and female victims,” Pettey said. “It’s in the ghetto; it’s in multimillion-dollar homes. It’s U.S. citizens; it’s both documented and undocumented immigrants. Don’t get stuck on an idea that victims are only one gender or only one age group.”

“It’s all around you,” added Mel Baggett. “It doesn’t matter what age, what race, what sex, what nationality, what socioeconomic group you belong to; it’s there. You have to learn about it, you have to educate yourself about it, and you have to learn to be aware and become abolitionists. If we don’t all become abolitionists, we’re never going to make a dent in this problem.”

The panel members stressed vigilance.

“The signs (of trafficking) can vary depending on what group you’re talking about,” said Pettey. “Some people are trafficked for labor; other people are trafficked for sex. … There are some common signs, like them being withdrawn, having bruises or signs of beating; but that can all be signs of other things.”

Pettey said to look for things that are out of the ordinary or indications that a person is being controlled or not being allowed to communicate freely.

Panel members also stressed that traffickers don’t always fit into a stereotypical mold. Pettey and her fellow law enforcement officers said they have encountered high school students guilty of the crime, by victimizing fellow teens.

“There are vulnerabilities,” Mel Baggett said. “There are reasons traffickers pick their victims. It’s because they have some sort of vulnerability they can exploit. Some vulnerabilities are inherent and some are man-made or condition-made. Children who are coming out of the foster care system, children who have been raped or abused, people who have financial issues or home issues. Traffickers see these things and target them. We need to look for that and help so they don’t become the targets and victims of traffickers.”  

Pettey said the best advice is to pay attention and be open to communication from others.

“You have to talk to other people; you have to talk to your kids, your moms, your aunts, your uncles,” she said. “Let your children know they can talk to you. If they come to you, don’t have a horrible initial reaction; they need to know they can come to you and that they can share things with you and ask questions. Be open-minded when someone comes to you with something they want to talk about, because that’s the best way to keep out of that kind of lifestyle.”

They all advised to reach out to law enforcement or to a human trafficking watchdog group if someone might be a victim. Pettey suggested the Polaris Project, an independent organization that works with law enforcement.

“The Polaris tip line is one we always find reliable,” she said. “It’s specifically for human trafficking and can be reached at (888) 373-7888. Several agencies — federal, state and local — are involved in it and it’s a nongovernmental organization. They go through it and they give it to whichever agency can respond to it first.”