Synopsis: Sex and labor trafficking are big business in the U.S. and around the world. Often it’s young people and immigrants who are forced to work in the sex industry or in sweatshops, restaurants and hotels with little pay, horrible hours and horrible living conditions. We talk to an author who’s experienced dealing with young people caught in this web, and a university lecturer who’s an advocate for trafficked victims, about the extent of the problem, how desperate people become ensnared in the trafficker’s trap, and how law enforcement and communities can help the victims escape from a life of slavery and abuse.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Ellen Hopkins, author of the young adult verse-novels, Tricks, and Traffick; Tony Talbott, director of Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives at the University of Dayton.

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Human Trafficking: The problem and some solutions

Gary Price: When we hear about men, women and young people brought over from foreign countries to work in sweatshops or being lured into the sex trades, it seems so distant – like something that happens in a movie or only in the seediest stretches of large cities. The reality is, however, that human trafficking is a crime that happens everywhere in our country – from large urban areas to small cities and towns – and it’s not just foreigners who are trapped in this lifestyle, either…

Ellen Hopkins: The statistics are on any given day between 150,000 and 300,000 young people are being trafficked into the sex trade, and that’s just domestically, that’s just here. We kind of have this idea that, oh, it’s all about foreign countries and bringing them in and that’s not the case.

Price: That’s Ellen Hopkins, author of the young adult verse-novel about child sex trafficking titled Tricks. Her latest novel about child survivors of the sex trades is Traffick. Hopkins says that kids get mixed up in trafficking in a number of ways.

Hopkins: There’s some gang activity involved, there are some young people who don’t know any better, that’s maybe where their parents are, where their mother has been so that just seems like a natural extension of who they are, like maybe there’s no other way for them to make money. There are young people who are wealthy who just don’t feel like they have enough love or affection or attention at home, who are very vulnerable as far as a handsome pimp picking them up and making them feel loved and cherished, and that’s kind of another way in. It can be many different ways.

Price: There is also a big market for trafficked labor outside of the sex trades. Tony Talbott is the director of Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives at the University of Dayton.

Tony Talbott: With labor trafficking you can still have some of the big international enterprises that are going on, that are moving people from one country to another for the purposes of trafficking, but when people are labor trafficked it’s generally for legal activities, not illicit activity. For example, a sex trafficking victim is trafficked for the purposes of prostitution, which is already illegal. A labor trafficking victim, for the most part, it trafficked for legal activities such as underpaid or unpaid work in a garment industry or doing work in a restaurant or a grocery store or nail salon, etc. So I the cases of labor trafficking, the perpetrators are generally business people and individuals who are willing to exploit others for their own profit.

Price: Hopkins’ books are fiction, but the experiences of her characters are based on real people. Even young people who look like they have a great life can be trapped in a hellish situation. One of her characters, Seth, is a farm boy who is taken in by a wealthy man in Las Vegas. Hopkins says a relationship of this kind can foster a feeling of relief in the young person who tells himself that, “Someone cares for me, loves me”.

Hopkins: Then it’s even more difficult for them to get out because that’s not always a comfortable place to be. Sometimes the expectation of those people involves selling them on the side or, you know, other people, you know and there are activities that are involved that may be they’re very uncomfortable with but they feel like they need to go ahead and do what’s requested of them, I guess. The way the man kept him under control was to make sure he had no resources of his own, no way at having his own money. I mean he lived very comfortably in a very nice house and very nice circumstances, but he didn’t have a way out. He didn’t have transportation; he didn’t have money. He had no way out.

Price: Young people trapped in prostitution find it just as difficult to leave. Their handlers often use violence to keep them working and in line. And stories of how they’ll go to jail or back to an abusive home are drilled into them so they feel like they have nowhere else to go. Talbott says that people who are trafficked for legal labor markets don’t have it any easier.

Talbott: Here in the U.S. most labor trafficking victims are foreign nationals so they are immigrants – legal and undocumented immigrants. The typical scenario: They’re living in a sense of desperation or fear. Fear is one of the most common ways traffickers use to control victims. Victims are often isolated; they have not social networks; they don’t speak the language; they’re kept away from people as much as possible; they’re told not to interact with people or customers. They are told that if they don’t do what they’re ordered to do, there could be punishment, they could be turned over to immigration and forced out of the country or, in extreme cases, they’re sometimes threatened with physical harm or death or their relatives back home are threatened with physical harm or death.

Price: So, are those threats valid? Will the F-B-I or immigration officials deport trafficked laborers? Will police throw prostituted young people into jail? That used to be the way things were done, but both Talbott and Hopkins say that things have changed for trafficking victims…for the better.

Talbott: The FBI agents that I’ve spoken with who have done these types of raids or operations, they get tips, they get a few, maybe, informants who have led them to believe that labor trafficking is taking place in a factory or in a warehouse or whatever. They get as much information as they can first, then they get ready to do the raid. They set up the law enforcement who are going to come in and do the raid and right behind the law enforcement waiting outside ready to come up on the scene are the social workers. They have victim service specialists who work with the FBI, for example, that work as a victim advocate for the people that are found. They get them instantly into case management, into housing, new clothes. They have translators on hand, they’ll rent a whole wing of a hotel if there’s a large number of victims to be able to put everybody in for multiple days until they can get it all sorted out and they can all get interviewed.

Hopkins: The good thing now is that we are starting to look at them as victims rather than as criminals, especially young people. So law enforcement is coming around to that. And, you know, in the past I would say that was not necessarily the case. This is a new kind of viewpoint from law enforcement; this is new coaching on the law enforcement end. You know the FBI has a taskforce that is charged just with getting young people off the streets and out of the life. But to know that law enforcement isn’t the enemy, that something that’s going to change with time. And it is starting to change now.

Price: Talbott says that trafficked laborers who cooperate with law enforcement can even be put on the path to U.S. citizenship for themselves and in some cases their families. Federal officials can also notify police in the home country to help protect loved-ones there who have been threatened. Trafficked young people are also helped by social workers and various organizations when they’re rescued, but they often need more assistance to maintain a normal lifestyle moving forward.

Hopkins: The past, it will always inform your future, but it doesn’t have to define it. So the future is something that you can make for yourself and you can change for yourself. It takes support to do that, though. And sometimes these kids, you know if you have family support, that’s awesome, but that’s usually not the case, so then you need support almost like an AA kind of person that you can talk to. So these rescue services, a psychologist, a therapist, those helpers are hugely important to survivorship. You need to believe that somebody cares about you, that someone, you know, is willing to take a chance on you, that you can go forward.

Price: Talbott says that young people who were subjected to trauma by their handlers in the sex trade can often suffer from alcohol and drug addiction as well as PTSD, and need mental health and addiction rehab services. They also need to make up for the schooling they’ve missed so they can become employable in legal enterprises. So what’s in store for the perpetrators caught trafficking young people and laborers? Talbott says that it’s difficult to prosecute these criminals, and not many are even captured.

Talbott: It’s a very small percentage, most criminologists estimate of the total number of criminals out there. There’s a lot of reasons for that. For one thing, this crime, seeing it as a crime, human trafficking, is actually pretty new. The U.S. federal law didn’t pass until the year 2000, and all 50 U.S. states now have laws against human trafficking, but that’s just s of, I think, 2013 the last state passed a law, so this is still new. A lot of law enforcement, judges, prosecutors aren’t fully aware of human trafficking and don’t understand it completely. And then, unlike drug trafficking, this can be a much harder crime to investigate and to prosecute, or to even find someone.

Price: And when they do find someone who is trafficking young people for sex, victims often won’t testify against their handler out of fear of retaliation. As with all crimes, the best road to take is prevention. Talbott says that the community can help in that regard by being vigilant for unusual activity in their own neighborhoods, such as homes where the children never go out and play, or women who are escorted in and out of the house and never talk to neighbors.

Talbott: There’s a lot more of us then there are of them; a lot more of us than there are of the criminals, the traffickers. And this is a crime, we say it’s a hidden crime, but it’s essentially hidden in plain sight. It’s things that are occurring in front of you that what the average person does is sort of looks at something and thinks that doesn’t look right. They have a gut feeling, an intuition. And then instead of following up on that feeling that something’s wrong they just look the other way and keep on going. Well, we have intuition or gut feelings for a reason, I mean it’s because we have thousands and thousands of years of living in situations where that gut feeling maybe kept you alive. It’s part of our humanity. You know, we notice when something is wrong. So use that gut feeling; look at the situation a little bit more clearly; try to figure out why you feel something’s wrong. Write down any potential information that you can find like license plate number, addresses, descriptions of individuals there, without putting yourself in danger. And then make a call. You can call the local police and you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Price: Hopkins says that schools can also do more to make young people aware of the dangers and risks of running away or going off with someone they don’t know well.

Hopkins: In health classes I think it would be a good place to open a discussion about what would put you at risk for this. Having books like this available where they can read fictionalized versions which don’t feel quite as “in your face” because these characters, they’re not necessarily real, but to be able to see what’s at stake for them. I mean, I would hope that parents would pick up copies of Tricks and Traffick and read the books with them so they can talk about how vulnerable they are; what’s at stake if you make this choice; this is what the lifestyle is. And, you know, we’ve glamorized prostitution in some ways with TV shows and movies and, you know, it makes it look like maybe this is an okay way to make a few extra bucks. And it’s really not. It’s not a pretty lifestyle at all. It’s not something that you want.

Price: There are also educational materials and information that various organizations offer including the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at You can also call their hotline to get help if you are a victim and to report suspected trafficking. That number is 1-888-373-7888. That’s 1-888-373-7888. For a look at the lives of sex-trafficked young people, pick up Ellen Hopkins book, Traffick, and visit her website at To find out more about Tony Talbott and the Anti-Human Trafficking Initiative at the University of Dayton, log onto their site at For information about all of our guests log onto our site at You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.