The Role of the Community

Victims of human trafficking, rarely, if ever, go to law enforcement and self-identify as victims. There are many reasons for this, including fear of law enforcement, based on their own experiences in their native land. Fear of the trafficker or of what the trafficker has told him will happen to him in this country prevents them from seeking help. Domestic victims may be forced to commit crimes by their traffickers and will be frightened or ashamed if they leave their traffickers. Victims are often told that no one will believe them, that they will be deported or jailed for the crimes that they may have been forced to commit while enslaved, such as prostitution or violations of labor or immigration laws.  And, unfortunately, many law enforcement agencies are not familiar with the parameters of human trafficking and may misidentify victims as criminals. Domestic victims may be arrested for prostitution and released back to their pimps. They will be treated as criminals, delinquents by the system and sometimes their victims or their families may be traffickers themselves....

Fortunately, all 50 states in the United States, as of March 2013, now have anti-trafficking legislation which protects the victims and punishes the trafficker, but victims don’t know that. These state laws are written to fit the state and are not the same state by state. Law enforcement has been trained to recognize the signs of trafficking in many places and attitudes are changing. Many now understand that any child under the age of 18 involved in the sex trade is legally assumed to be a victim of human trafficking, not a criminal. The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act was first passed in 2000 and was recently reauthorized and is now part of the Violence Against Women Act. If you are interested in reading your state’s law, you can go to and see all the state laws and read the federal law. Unfortunately, victims don’t know their rights and are usually too terrified to find out.

If victims don’t turn themselves in, how can they ever be found or, if found indirectly, be identified as victims of human trafficking? If law enforcement doesn’t recognize the signs of human trafficking, how can traffickers be arrested? If service providers, hospitals, schools and other agencies which may see a trafficking victim, don’t have trusting relationships  with law enforcement will they report suspected cases or, as has happened in SW Florida, will they instead  “help” victims by giving them bus tickets back home, thus preventing their protection and the prosecution of criminals?

Victims will only be found if the community is aware of the signs of human trafficking and if citizens feel confident that they will be taken seriously if they report their suspicions. That is what happened in Lee County, Florida, when media, law enforcement, service professionals and community groups organized to bring attention to the issue and trained themselves to work effectively in their own capacity. It is what is happening in hundreds if not thousands of communities across the country. Hidden crimes that can be explained away as smuggling, delinquency, etc. will often not be paid attention to by the authorities unless the community demands their officials take action. 

The Community Action Model

One of the primary missions of HTAP is to help communities form their own unique organizations to combat human trafficking. We believe that each community has its own needs, knows who is important to be part of the effort, and what legal structure their effort should take to be most effective. We can point out some of the key players: federal and local law enforcement, U.S. Attorneys and state equivalents, churches, non-profit organizations, human service providers, service clubs, media, but community leaders are the ones who can involve those that they think will be most crucial to an organization’s success. We can also work with the community as they go through the initial organizing and help during the growing pains

HTAP has now helped over 20 communities initiate community coalitions by working with community activists who were willing to lay the groundwork, organize a kick-off event, invite community members and incite action that is appropriate to their community. Many of those original coalitions have promoted and energized other communities. Just because your community and law officials have worked on this crime in the past doesn’t mean they still are actively investigating the crime.  Crimes are often “flavors of the month”. When attention is paid by the community, law enforcement and government agencies will take notice. Often one county’s law enforcement agencies will find that they need the assistance of a neighboring jurisdiction and if they are not taking the crime seriously, the case may fall apart. That is why we need regional task forces and efforts on a statewide basis and why federal agencies need to be involved.


Clearwater-Tampa Area

The Clearwater Task Force was organized in 2006 based on the Lee County model. It has successfully investigated and prosecuted cases and rescued and cared for many victims. It also formed a Community Coalition that has a speakers bureau, conducts events, raises money for local non-profits. Nola Theiss has conducted many community trainings since that 2006, including many 4-hour trainings through the Florida Regional Policing Institute and many independent groups have organized community events. In April 2012, HTAP conducted a 1.5 day long Train the Trainer program for a group of 6 adult volunteers who want to conduct ARTREACH programs in the area. The event was organized by June Wallace, Facilitator of the Community Coalition in the Tampa Bay Area. Other groups like the Pinellas Area Zonta Club sponsored multiple billboards in the Tampa area in coordination with Shared Hope International which show a middle-aged white man with the statement: “This Man Wants to Rent Your Daughter” which were displayed during the 2012 Republican National Convention. Other groups sponsored these billboards in Charlotte, NC during the 1012 Democratic Convention.

Hamilton, Ontario

In 2009, Nola Theiss went to a meeting of the Watertown Human Trafficking Committee and did a training for their nascent speakers bureau. Since then, this group has spoken to hundreds of citizens and professionals and has held 5 large annual awareness events. In 2012, Theiss was invited to co-present with MP Joy Smith who has introduced landmark human trafficking legislation in Canada. This event drew over 170 participants. The same weekend that the event took place, the local newspaper published a 3 page story about a major labor trafficking case which happened in Hamilton and which required the cooperation of law enforcement and social service agencies. Since then, the Committee has held two additional conferences.

Glen’s Falls, NY

In Glens Falls, NY, a small town with a long history, one hour north of Albany, the local Zonta Club organized a human trafficking event in 2006. Their plan was to take the next step of organizing action in 2007.  Working together with HTAP, it developed a plan for an event which included inviting all levels of law enforcement from the FBI to local police, all levels of prosecution of the US Attorney’s Office to district attorneys, service providers of all types and community organizations, including Zonta Clubs from surrounding areas — over 100 participants. As a result of that event, local activists now work with the regional task force. In addition, a possible trafficking case was identified involving multiple victims and more than one state.

Birmingham, AL

In Birmingham, AL, a similar sequence of events took place. HTAP worked with local women who used their business and community contacts to draw 90 people to an afternoon event where they learned about human trafficking and how to organize. They also organized concurrent events for college students and a faith community. At the keynote event, there was representation from all the necessary components of an effective community effort, including federal, state and local professionals and activists. The US Attorney’s Office offered to take the lead in the formation of a task force and a state legislator and law enforcement and state prosecution offices agreed to formulate state legislation. Until this meeting, Alabama was one of the few states which had not begun any work on state legislation. Now the task force meets monthly at the US Attorney’s Office. The hosted a 2 day Human Trafficking Conference at Samford University in 2008 with speakers from the federal government, state and local experts as well as HTAP. They continue to be active with full commitment of the US Attorney’s Office. In 2010, a strong state law was passed.

Stuart, FL

In Stuart, FL, Soroptimist Clubs organized events to draw attention to the issue. The Stuart Club organized an evening event for community leaders featuring Linda Smith of Shared Hope International and Nola Theiss of HTAP. At that meeting a Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant attended. He and Theiss organized a 4 hour “Many Faces of Human Trafficking” through the Regional Community Policing Institute which drew law enforcement from 4 counties and 5 cities as well as many community members. That training is being followed up with an 8 hour training for professionals and a special event at a local church for community members. Law enforcement and community members continue to meet and work together on this issue. Nola Theiss was recently recognized as a Ruby Prize winner by the club.

Raleigh, NC

In Raleigh, NC, another Soroptimist Club organized an event in early 2009. This was followed by meetings of a steering committee. In September 2010, they held another event, focusing on elected officials and law enforcement as well as human service providers and citizens from the “Triangle Area”. Nola Theiss, former Mayor of Sanibel and Shirley Franklin, former mayor of Atlanta, co-presented at the event. They now have a very active coalition working to fight human trafficking.

Colorado Springs, CO

Activists in Colorado Springs saw that unlicensed massage “therapists” were creating an environment which often led to prostitution and/or human trafficking. They advocated for laws to prohibit this practice. Together with a faith based group, the Zonta Club there organized a day long event in 2008 which drew over 300 people in 2008. Their task force has been meeting regularly and will hosted similar event in October, 2009 and 2010 to continue building community participation. They work closely with the Polaris Project’s Denver Office and contact HTAP regularly as they plan their efforts. Nola Theiss spoke at two of their events and works with coalition leaders to help them find speakers for their upcoming conference as well. They continue to develop new ideas to support victims, such as their Wings program that collects frequent flyer miles and donations to pay for victims to be transported in safe havens.

Savannah, GA

In 2009, Theiss worked with the local Zonta Club in Savannah and helped them organize an all day event and an additional trainings for students at the local university. This event led to the formation of SWAHT which has been meeting on a regular basis. Theiss was asked to return in 2011 for a 4 hour refresher training, focusing on domestic minor sex trafficking and the new ARTREACH program. Theiss conducted a day and half long program on the ARTREACH and TIPS Train the Trainer program. They have worked with many other agencies and locales in Georgia and South Carolina.

Philadelphia, PA

Through a local woman activist in Philadelphia was asked to speak at a Child Rights Conference at Columbia University in 2009. In 2010, the same activist initiated contact between Theiss and the Philadelphia Coalition and Theiss was invited to lead a workshop on the ARTREACH program to 40 representatives from many human service organizations in the city. Materials were shared.

HTAP often becomes an advisor to groups like these as they go through the process of building coalitions. There are many obstacles to success, such as changing leadership, budget considerations, changes in priorities among law enforcement and service providers, differences among participants, changes in laws or goals.

The seriousness of this crime and the commitment of community leaders can overcome and sometimes just outlast these obstacles. As a clearinghouse for the concerns of groups like these, HTAP can help or be a sounding board.