Human trafficking is one of the most hidden crimes. A lack of understanding encourages many to deny the existence of and doubt the magnitude of this horrific crime.
The most prevalent misconception is that human trafficking is only a problem in other countries. That this abomination is happening right here in the U.S. simply doesn't seem possible. The reality is very different. In the U.S. alone, the sex-slavery trade is a multi-million dollar industry. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that each year 200,000 U.S. citizens, mainly children and young women, are at high risk of being trafficked for sexual purposes. Nevertheless, the perception of human trafficking as an “overseas” issue persists.
To put it bluntly: We need to get the word out that human trafficking for sex is a problem not just in Thailand or Cambodia, but right here at home.
The only way for our nation to begin to understand that human trafficking is occurring in our own country, even in our own communities, is for prosecutors to label these crimes for what they are: human trafficking. When that happens, not only will the jurors and judges seated in the courtroom become educated but so will the community through news reports and community chatter.
A first step was the shocking case of Shaniya Nicole Davis. Finally, human trafficking went public. As you've undoubtedly read or heard, North Carolina police allege that Shaniya's mother sold the five-year-old as a sex slave. According to arrest documents, Antoinette Davis “knowingly provided Shaniya Davis with the intent that she be held in sexual servitude” and that Davis "permitted an act of prostitution.”
Human trafficking is not new to the Charlotte area. In fact, the FBI has a team specializing in human trafficking positioned in the city. In addition, a Durham County department of social services report from this past April reads: "Baltimore police closed down a brothel that used Mexican women imported into the country through Durham County.” The report also cautions: “we cannot ignore this issue locally.... North Carolina has been identified as among the eight most common destination states for human trafficking, due in part to its location along I-85 and I-95 highways.” This acute awareness to the problem by local officials may have contributed to the swiftness of the charge brought against Davis.
Police spokeswoman Teresa Chance said after Davis's arrest that she was “prostituting her child.” The implication with these words was that the act was for commercial sex purposes, that Davis was trying to make money from selling her daughter for sex. It's the monetary motive that separates trafficking from other sex crimes against children. While any sex crime involving a child is horrendous, it is additionally horrific to think that a mother would hand over her daughter to someone like Mario McNeill in exchange for drugs, cash, or to payoff a debt.
I applaud the prosecutors in the Davis case for calling this crime what it is and not labeling it as another offense. In legal terms, in North Carolina the charge of human trafficking is equivalent to a felony child abuse charge for prostitution, a class E felony, with a conviction carrying a minimum sentence of 98 months in prison.
In the chain of law enforcement command, prosecutors decide what charges (if any) apply to a certain set of facts in any given case. They have tremendous discretion in deciding which charges to file. It's not unusual for prosecutors to decide against human trafficking charges in favor of other types of charges, including kidnapping or prostitution. Why?
Prosecuting human trafficking cases can be more difficult to prove. One problem is that many of the victims live on the fringe of society, such as prostitutes and illegal immigrants. Sometimes officers are reluctant to intervene in sex and labor trafficking situations due to a belief that victims were complicit. That, of course, isn't an issue in Shaniya’s case. How could a 5-year-old be complicit? But there can be other concerns. For instance, in Shaniya's case, it may be difficult for jurors to believe any mother would sell her young child for sex.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many are still reluctant to accept that evil can lurk in women. That reluctance is multiplied when the accused is a mother. But not all women are true mothers, nurturing and caring for their children. Some women are willing to victimize their own children.
Perhaps Shaniya's tragic death will open eyes and minds, forcing law enforcement and society to realize that human trafficking isn't an issue reserved for other countries. It's right here, in our own cities and towns, and the first step toward stopping it is to acknowledge that it exists.