PEORIA — A $750,000 federal grant will expand anti-trafficking efforts in 46 central Illinois counties.
The Illinois State Police coordinates law enforcement efforts, while the Center for Prevention of Abuse (CFPA) in Peoria heads up victim services response for the Central Illinois Human Trafficking Task Force.
Tim Shelley talked with CFPA Executive Director Carol Merna; and Sara Sefried, CFPA Human Trafficking Department director, about what the expansion means.
Tim Shelley: So we’ve we’ve got a new grant here, which Congressman LaHood helped facilitate for the center, which will help you expand your anti-human trafficking efforts. If you can just tell me a little bit about how this grant helps.
Carol Merna: Sure, let me. I’m gonna kick us off because Sara is our expert on human trafficking here. So I’m going to turn a lot of this over to her. But Congressman LaHood has been a really nice partner with the Center for Prevention of Abuse and facilitating three human trafficking roundtables over the course of the last couple of years, to help bring education and attention to what is really one of the most important human rights causes of our time.
So we were very happy to have him announce a grant that we worked very hard for our grants writing team and our human trafficking team at the Center for Prevention of Abuse, put a lot of hours and effort into writing a federal grant that is going to serve a lot of people. It fits our mission beautifully of helping all people live free from violence and abuse. But you know, this is going to allow us to serve a greater population, a larger population, and bring vital client services and protections that survivors of human trafficking deserve. So we are particularly excited to be able to receive this grant. We feel very fortunate. And we’re looking forward to putting it into action.
TS: Sara, if you want to expound a little bit, because I know human trafficking has already been a priority for the center for quite some time. But what does what does the grant allow you to do that you couldn’t do before? Or how does it allow you to do it better?
Sara Sefried: Yeah. So, you know, we opened our human trafficking division in January of 2018. And our priorities from the beginning were to build community partnerships, and really strategize with key stakeholders on how we could enhance our community’s capacity to provide services to this population. And so what this grant allows us to do is expand our victim service population so as to be able to expand our services to survivors of both sex and labor trafficking, as well as coordinate with law enforcement and other key stakeholders to identify victims, as well as prosecute the offenders. So it really is a collaboration, a partnership through the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state police.
TS: So, if you could just talk a little bit about how the whole process works. Does it usually start when a survivor of trafficking comes to you (and) says, ‘I need help’, and then you help them get involved with the police in the criminal justice process? Or does it work the other way around, or a little bit of both?
SS: We operate a 24-hour crisis hotline. And what this grant will do is ensure that within the 46 county service area, if a survivor of sex or labor trafficking is identified, that survivor will get connected to our crisis hotline, and then we can act as a sort of triage to either provide safety planning or resources to that survivor.
And our referrals come from a variety of places. So we certainly get a lot from law enforcement, hospitals and other medical providers, social service agencies. We get referrals from the community as well. So the goal would be there will be no wrong door for a survivor to reach out for help. And if they do reach out for help, that all of our key stakeholders within our service territory will know to call our organization to get that help started.
TS: And that service territory is basically the 46 counties in the central part of Illinois.
TS: So can you talk a little bit about some of the some of the survivors you’ve already helped in the past? I can’t even imagine what kind of emotional process that would be to work through.
SS: Well, we’ve been fortunate enough to provide services to over 75 individuals within the last two years of opening this division. Our youngest was 11 when she was being trafficked. She was a victim of sex trafficking by a family member. Her mother provided her to a landlord for sexual services. And our oldest client came about from a referral from federal law enforcement. She was actually our oldest client at 62. And she was a victim of labor trafficking–the number one venue currently for our state, which is domestic servitude. So she was held basically as a household slave for seven years, by her employers forced to perform domestic chores.
TS: How can I help if I believe someone is in one of these situations–because that might not always be immediately apparent. If I believe someone’s in one of these situations, how can I as a third party help or intervene?
SS: Most of the tips to the National Human Trafficking Hotline come from concerned community members. So citizens like you or I who see something suspicious, and they report it. If you were to suspect a trafficking situation is occurring, I would advise you to be safe in your response. So it’s not always safe for you or the victim to reach out to them directly.
If it is safe for you to do that, I certainly would encourage you or anyone else to provide them with the center’s crisis hotline number. And if it’s not safe for you to reach out to them, I would consider calling law enforcement to make sure that they at least have the information, and that they can act if warranted.
TS: Since we are living in these times with the pandemic, has the pandemic had any kind of impact? Obviously, we’ve seen some changes with domestic violence. But has there been any impact specifically in the human trafficking realm related to COVID?
SS: Most definitely. You know, we are receiving reports throughout the state in the country of the impact that COVID has had on individual (survivors) of this crime. We know that traffickers are targeting vulnerable people.
So within the pandemic, individuals are experiencing an increased incidence of homelessness and poverty. And traffickers are exploiting those vulnerabilities. For our services, in the beginning of the pandemic, we certainly saw a decrease in the number of referrals that were coming to our organization. (But) I just spoke with my case manager this morning. And we’ve got three pending referrals now. So I’m hopeful that that means that individuals are reaching out for our help, and that they’re finding us, amidst this time of isolation and uncertainty.
TS: Carol or Sarah, I would open it up to either or both of you. Anything else you would like the WCBU listeners to know about this?
CM: I think it’s important for everyone to know that over 80% of the people that we’ve served for human trafficking services at the Center for Prevention of Abuse have been from central Illinois. I say homegrown people from right here at home.
But fighting the crime of human trafficking is a whole society effort. That means it’s this great partnership that the Center for Prevention of Abuse has with the Illinois State Police. But it also involves Congress at the highest level, especially to help bring these funds to us.
But it also involves our neighbors. So they can keep a close eye on what’s going on with the people that they know, their friends, their colleagues, to make sure that people are as safe as they can be. And being aware of what human trafficking looks like goes a long way. So the education that we provide, in addition to the services that we provide clients, is key to making sure that we do everything that we can.
SS: And Tim, I would want to encourage your listeners to check out our website. Our website has information on specific indicators that might suggest a trafficking situation is occurring. We also have information in our website about our upcoming multistate educational conference, which is called Light 2021. So we’re really proud to be able to offer that in the spring of next year. And so, information can be found on our website.
TS: Absolutely. Carol and Sara. Thank you all so much. much for your time. I appreciate it as always.
SS: All right. Thank you.
CM: Thanks, Tim.