We like to think that big problems such as human trafficking don’t affect small towns like Buffalo, said Alexandra Stevenson, co-founder of the Sheridan-based nonprofit Uprising.
But the truth, Stevenson said, is that no community is untouched by this form of modern-day slavery. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 12 cases of human trafficking were reported in Wyoming in 2018, with 65 cases reported in the state since 2007. Trafficking cases are currently under investigation in both Sheridan and Johnson counties, Stevenson said.
“I think it is remiss of adults to assume that, because you’re in a small town, you and your family are 100% safe from this problem,” Stevenson said. “Nowhere is completely safe, but the best thing you can do to prevent trafficking is to educate yourself on it. The more people that are educated, the stronger safety web you have in your community.”
Uprising and Compass Center for Families are set to provide that first line of defense for Johnson County parents and guardians during a human trafficking awareness class at the Johnson County Library at noon Jan. 30.
Stevenson and Terri Markham founded Uprising last fall in order to “confront human trafficking through awareness, education and outreach,” Stevenson said. In just a matter of months, Uprising has trained more than 500 people on human trafficking prevention and awareness, Stevenson said.
Over the past few months, Stevenson realized that many locals don’t have a clear idea of what human trafficking looks like. Stevenson defines trafficking as “any commercial sex act done for anything of value.”
“A lot of people think human trafficking just happens overseas or in a white van,” Stevenson said. “That definitely falls under trafficking, but trafficking can happen by friends, family or loved ones. When people realize what falls under the umbrella of trafficking, it really opens their eyes.”
The internet and social media also play key roles in the ever-evolving world of human trafficking, Stevenson said.
“Anywhere there’s internet, there is a risk of it,” Stevenson said. “It is incredibly easy for traffickers to just blanket message everyone at a school, and while a good chunk of adolescents will just ignore the message, some will respond and add that person as a friend. Then their friends will add the trafficker as a friend. From there, it is very easy for the trafficker to make his move. The internet is definitely becoming one of the main ways that traffickers find their victims.”
If the medium has changed over the years, the basic methodology of traffickers remains the same, Stevenson said.
“Traffickers find their victims through preying on their vulnerabilities,” Stevenson said. “So that’s an important thing to discuss with your kids. What are their vulnerabilities? Because we all have them. Being an adolescent is a vulnerability in itself.”
So how do you know if your child is in a potential trafficking situation? There is no easy answer to that question, Stevenson said.
“Everyone wants to know what is that one thing I can look for, and how can I pinpoint if this is happening to my child,” Stevenson said. “Unfortunately, a lot of the indicators are also indicators of sullen teenagers – they’ll become more withdrawn and less talkative. So it can be hard to tell sometimes. I would say that parents should keep an eye on any major changes in their kids’ lives. Are they hanging out with new groups of friends? Have they brought home a lot of new stuff, and you’re not sure who gave it to them? Those can be signs that you might need to have a conversation.”
Education and conversations are key when it comes to fighting human trafficking, Stevenson said. As adults inform themselves about trafficking, they will be better equipped to engage in intelligent conversations with the youth in their lives.
“We realize this is a really distressing subject to talk about,” Stevenson said. “But the best way to create safety is to have these conversations and not shy away from them.”