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Human trafficking: 'It happens everywhere in the world ... and most certainly in Central Illinois'

 Carol Merna
Jody Holtz
Carol Merna, CEO of the Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria.

Every 15 seconds, five people are abused by an intimate partner. That’s a staggering number of 40 people who have been abused in just a two-minute time period. This is the reality that CEO of the Center for Prevention of Abuse Carol Merna wants people to be aware of, and she says this is exactly why the center was founded nearly 50 years ago.

January marks Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and the Center for Prevention of Abuse has been leading the fight against trafficking not just in Peoria, but over 46 counties. Although the center has been providing care for trafficking survivors ever since its opening, the human trafficking division wasn’t opened until 2018, which is when there was a greater need for it in Peoria.

Since that division opened in 2018, the center has provided care and support for 100 survivors of human trafficking. However, there’s many more people in need of help out there, some of which the center will never see.

“Victims of human trafficking are fairly invisible. We’ve all seen it, sometimes we see it every day and we don’t even know it … We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Human trafficking is a grossly underreported crime. We’re probably seeing about 2% of what actually exists. it’s difficult for people to identify themselves as a human trafficking victim,” says Merna.

She says many victims are trauma bonded with their abusers, which makes it hard for them to separate themselves. Traffickers also tend to prey on people who are most vulnerable, or who express some sort of need.

“You might think of someone who needs something that they can’t get on their own. Might be drugs, might be alcohol, might be a dignified place to lay their head at night to sleep. It might be someone who needs access to money,” Merna said.

She says the biggest thing to understand is that abuse doesn’t discriminate. Victims range from all age groups, backgrounds, genders, and races. She says a common misconception is that trafficking only involves people from other countries.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth. It happens everywhere in the world, most certainly in the United States, and most certainly in central Illinois,” explained Merna.

CEO Carol Merna (left) with Celsy Young, director of marketing and communications for the center
Jody Holtz
CEO Carol Merna, left, with Celsy Young, director of marketing and communications for the center.

Illinois ranks 9th in the nation for human trafficking. In 2020 in the state of Illinois, there were about 300 cases of human trafficking reported, but there are estimated about 25 million victims of human trafficking globally.

Another myth about trafficking is that the abuser is always a stranger the victim doesn’t know and that it's a very violent situation. While she says those situations certainly do happen, there’s a harsher reality behind many of them.

“Our youngest survivor is 8, and she was trafficked by her aunt. So, it happens in a variety of places and a variety of ways, but it is basically stealing someone's freedom, and 1 in 4 victims are children, which is a travesty because a lot of these kids are growing up thinking this is normal,” said Merna.

Some situations where human trafficking is commonly found within is illicit massage parlors, residential brothels, labor trafficking, panhandling, construction industries, and commercial sex, like prostitution.

In addition to knowing some common places where trafficking is prevalent, it’s also important to be aware of some red flags that often come when someone is being trafficked.

“Someone that isn’t allowed to speak for themselves. It could be someone who has no documentation. It could be that they don’t know where they’re at. You’ll find that sometimes panhandlers or people that go door to door for sales have no idea what community they’re in,” explained Merna.

She says to also be aware of the physical signs of human trafficking, like bruising, sprains, and a big one: tattoos.

“That’s branding. That’s someone saying this person is my property … it could be a bag with a dollar sign on it, it could be a king's crown, it could be a number of things that are considered to be that trafficker's brand,” she said.

She tells the story of a 21-year-old woman she was working with who had been trafficked for sex. Her abuser had tattooed his name across her forehead and upper cheek bone.

“She's living with that for the rest of her life. It’s not a tattoo that can be removed. It was a jailhouse tattoo, so the ink was made at home … to constantly be reminded of the tragedy and the trauma,” says Merna.

This is the grave reality of a criminal situation that is exploding in communities with many people not even knowing it. Merna offers some steps to take if you feel like you may know of a trafficking situation.

“You see something that doesn’t seem quite right. We ask people to pay attention to that…if you hear the conversation pay attention to what's being said. Write down license plates, pay attention to what someone's wearing, what they look like, and then make that phone call,” she said.

This phone call could be to law enforcement if the situation is emergent, the national trafficking hotline, or the Center for Prevention of Abuse. Merna notes that you should never put yourself in danger, and that the victim is likely being watched even if it seems like they’re alone. However, if you feel like something is off and you’re wondering if it's worth a phone call, Merna says chances are it is.

“It’s a crime, and it's something that’s incumbent upon all of us to take an interest in."

You can find more information on human trafficking as well as resources if you or someone you know needs help on the center’s website.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.