MAYS LANDING — Survivors of human trafficking can be children, adults, friends or neighbors and may not even know, or be able to admit, they are being or have been trafficked, Atlantic Cape Community College students learned during an informational session Wednesday morning.
“Human trafficking is the use of humans for the purpose of sexual slavery or labor exploitation,” Assistant Prosecutor Erika L. Halayko said. “But it’s so much more than that. It’s about manipulation and control. It’s also about abuse on so many different levels — physical, emotional, psychological.”
During the symposium, a collaboration among the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, the FBI and the college, panelists spoke about the different types, signs and mental effects of human trafficking, as well as how prosecutors and investigators work these types of cases.
Chief Assistant Prosecutor Danielle S. Buckley, the first prosecutor to charge human trafficking in Atlantic County, explained that in its most basic form, human trafficking is forced labor.
“This is a crime that thrives in the shadows,” Buckley said. “It thrives in the shadows, and we have to pull it out into the light and shine light onto it.”
She said migrant workers and labor camps on blueberry farms in the western part of the county can be susceptible to human trafficking if they’re forced to work without pay or under harsh conditions.
However, commercial sex exploitation — in which victims can be lured with drugs and alcohol and then forced into sex — may be the most well-known type, she said.
Dozens of students packed the auditorium to listen and ask questions.
Kendall Elliot, a criminal justice major, said the event “opened his eyes.”
“We could be walking by every day and not even know it’s happening,” the 21-year-old Mays Landing resident said.
“New Jersey is the perfect place for human trafficking,” said Judge Susan F. Maven, of Atlantic County Superior Court’s Family Division. “We have various ways that people can move through the state very quickly by highway, by train, and it makes it very easy for traffickers to move into an area, recruit, do their business and then move on before they’re detected.”
The court created a program called YES, or Youth Empowered for Success, to help juveniles who are at risk for sexual or labor exploitation. Maven said they’re working with 10 young women identified as being at risk.
Monica Kristen, a social worker at Avanzar, formerly the Atlantic County Women’s Center, said they work with clients all over the state who have experienced human trafficking.
“Most clients don’t even ever admit that they’re really a victim of trafficking,” Kristen said. “It is oftentimes formed in a way that makes it seem as though it was their choice, when really this is a situation that occurs because of a lack of choice.”
She said the mental side effects can be long-lasting.
“When you really stop and think about what would happen mentally to a person who is being taken or being tricked into doing something that they don’t want to do, they’re 12, 13 years old,” she said. “What kind of lasting impact is that going to have on a person? It’s major.”
She said they focus on the mental aspects of dealing with the trauma human trafficking can cause, connecting them with services, counselors or just a safe place to stay.
Kamaryn Johnson, 19, went to the event at the urging of her ethics teacher, she said, but came away from the program with a lot more than she expected.
“It can happen right under your nose,” she said. “It’s the real world. You have to stay aware.”