A Safe Place helps victims of sex trafficking by providing a safe house, counseling, and transition to an independent life. The group holds a yearly fundraiser, coming up on Friday, August 11 at 1:00 at Coastline Conference Center. Tickets go on sale June 1st; A Safe Place seeks sponsors for the event. Listen above to Board Member Sena Preziosi talk about the organization and read an extended transcript below.
Sena: I became involved with A Safe Place in 2012. That was when we first started and I had gone to see a documentary about sex trafficking. And in that documentary, it talked about sex trafficking all over the world. But then it also talked about sex trafficking here in the United States and I had no idea of the problem that it was here.
It just it hit my heart and I knew. I've got to do something about this. And a safe place was there and they were asking for volunteers so I signed up then.
There's a lot of different types of human trafficking. But what we do at a safe place is we focus on domestic sex trafficking. So we focus on working with girls and young women and some boys who have been trafficked in the United States, so they're not brought in from other countries. They're American children who are trafficked within the United States for sex slavery or sexual servitude or sexual exploitation of some kind.
Gina: Now how big of a problem is this?
Sena: It's just...you would never believe the amount of children that are being exposed to this. One of the statistics that really blows my mind is that 300,000 American children every year are brought into the sex trade. The typical age of entry into sex slavery is 13 years old so you know that's 300,000 children every year. And the typical time that they are in the slavery is seven years. So it's not like 300,000-it's 300,000 plus the 300,000 from the year before…. And you know go on for seven years so hundreds of thousands of children and young women are stuck in this sex trade right here in the United States.
Gina: What is driving this business?
Sena: There are a lot of men out there that are willing to pay for sex. And obviously, or it wouldn't be the second most prominent crime in the country. I mean, next to the sale of drugs it's the sale of people, and then the sell guns after that. So it's a $32 billion industry. So yeah, it's kind of alarming and and the girls we talked to you know because it's hard for me to wrap my head around that too. There has to be that many men willing to pay for these services. And I'm thinking, what kind of men are going to hotel rooms and when did they go and how do their wives not know? And they say, we see doctors, we see lawyers, we see businessmen, salesmen. We see your everyday Joe that goes to church. We see everybody you can imagine, and they say their busiest time is lunchtime because it's their lunch break from work and that's how their family and friends and whoever-they don't know, they just think they're on their lunch break at work.
Gina: So where is where is this happening? Are there hotspots in the United States? Why do we need a place like this here in Wilmington?
Sena: OK so it's happening everywhere. And if you think it isn't, you're wrong--it's literally happening in huge cities. It's happening in small towns, it happens everywhere. The FBI has North Carolina on the top ten list for places where people are trafficked. And the southeast is also a huge area, there's a couple of different reasons. Vacation spots are really hot spots for sex trafficking, people come for vacation they want to have a good time. Also because of how the highways are, we have 95 and 40 and 17 and so it's kind of like a place or they can stop and sell and then move on. And then also because of the military bases. Nothing against the military. But the fact is it's men that are having sex with these girls. And so wherever there's large groups of men, there's going to be a lot more sex trafficking. So Wilmington is a major hub for trafficking and that's why our founder, when she found out about it and and realized and started doing research and realized how big of a problem it was in Wilmington and how many kids were were getting into this industry, she just really felt like she had to do something, and so she left her job at the bank and she started working on this.
And we have seen firsthand how many women and young girls are going through this. Once we opened and our information started to get out, I mean it was like they just came flooding in. There was such a need. So we're really glad we did it.
Gina: How does this begin?
Sena: I'll give you a typical story, but saying that I want you to know it can happen to anyone, it can happen to a 13 year old girl who’s meeting someone on Facebook, it can happen to you know a kid at the mall who's in a fight with their parents. That's not typical. What's typical is most of the girls that we see come from homes where they've been sexually abused. That's a major major part of it because they've already have that you know kind of twisted view of what sexuality is. And so they're much more easily tricked or manipulated and brainwashed. You know they typically have one or one or two parents that have been in jail, abused in other ways, poverty. So most of these girls are coming from desperate situations already and then they meet a guy who claims to be someone who's going to take care of them and who's going to be their family, because you know if you're a child and you've been abused and kind of neglected and then this you know handsome man comes along and wants to take care of you then it's almost like he's your savior. And so oftentimes they will manipulate the girl for a couple of days, a couple of weeks, depending on how hard it is to get the girl. They'll talk. We've talked to a lot of these traffickers and they've talked about how they do it, but it's not it's not like they're chainiing them to a radiator and forcing them to do it what they're doing...they're manipulating them, brainwashing them, making them think that they are their family now. And then after a few days or a few weeks they say hey, can you do me a favor. We need to make some money so we can go get some more clothes. You know I've I've already bought this nice dinner and you've got your nails done and you've got all these new clothes. But you know we're running out of money so can we just have sex and my friend this one time and we'll make a lot of money and it will be for us.
And then it goes from there. And that's just a very general story of how it could happen And the statistic is, if you're a runaway, within 48 hours one in three girls are picked up and trafficked and so at that age you're so impressionable anyway. But if you've been abused and you don't have anywhere to go then you're much more likely to say OK I'll give this a try and I'll do it. And then before they know it he's got that control and it's kind of like Stockholm syndrome where you feel like you can't leave and you love them and they tell you they love you. They actually have books on how to get girls which is very interesting. They do things like they get them pregnant and you know make them have their baby and then that's a way that they can use that, they can threaten them if you leave, I’ll hurt the baby. They have all kinds of ways that they manipulate. And they tell them, if you go to the police you'll be put in jail for prostitution. So it kind of goes from like I'm going to save you. Everything is going to be OK to Now you're mine and you have to do what I say or else, because I did all of this for you.
And we're family.
Gina: It's like the girl is in a in a relationship with the pimp. Did you call them pimps?
Sena: We call them traffickers, but they're pretty much one and the same.
Gina: How big is this problem here in Wilmington or New Hanover County or in southeastern North Carolina?
Sena: I don't have specific statistics on how many people are being trafficked right now. All I know is we we have an 800 number, it's a toll free number and we have material with that phone number on it, we put them in all the hotels. Anybody who will take our business, like gas stations and fast food restaurants and specifically hotels because that's typically where it happens. And there's certain hotels that we know it's happening. And we've literally had thousands of people call us- and between clients because they have to be very careful, I mean these girls are scared to death. So when they see our card in our number you know they want to call but they cannot do it if that traffickers anywhere nearby. So we just pray that they'll see it and that they'll call and we've had thousands of calls in the last couple of years since we started that hotline. So I think about that and I multiply that by all the girls who've seen that card but didn't get the chance to call or who were too afraid to call.
Gina: And what do you do if somebody calls?
Sena: We try to quickly assess the situation if it's an emergency. But typically what we do is have law enforcement and someone from A Safe Place come out and meet the girl in a public place like a restaurant, like a McDonald's or something, and we sit down and we talk to them about what the situation is and we found out what's going on. Unfortunately, right now we don't have an emergency shelter. Thanks to a very generous donor, we just got the keys to our emergency shelter last week and we are going to be renovating it and opening it this year. So that when we do get these calls from these girls in the middle of the night instead of having to you know scramble to figure out can who can take them where, can we get them to a place that’s safe. We'll actually have an emergency shelter that's open 24/7. So that's really awesome news and we're very excited about that. But that's what what we do when when they call us we meet with them we assess the situation.
And you know we have law enforcement that are very aware of what's going on. We've been very lucky to have an amazing board member named Lindsey who actually wrote the Senate bill for North Carolina and changed the laws for traffickers and buyers. and what I say quote prostitutes unquote used to be very different. And she wrote this bill and it was passed in October of 2013. So now for one thing the penalties for the traffickers and the buyers is much higher, much worse than it used to be. Also the girls who are being trafficked and get busted for it are not immediately sent to jail. It used to be that if you got caught prostituting even if you were 16 or 17 years old they would incarcerate you for prostitution. What we have now is that the age has been extended to 18, which is obviously still too young to be incarcerated for prostitution if you're being trafficked. But it is progress. And also we have a deferred prosecution program where if they're 18 or older and they do get arrested for prostitution they can go through our program. And if they complete it successfully then all of their charges are dropped and then we can help them. And that's another way we get a lot of these girls. But we're really lucky because the law enforcement, Lindsay and other people at A Safe Place, after this the Safe Harbor Act was passed, we were able to train over 4000 police officers and law enforcement officers in this county and other surrounding counties. So now they're really aware of the problem and instead of just throwing these girls in jail and giving the buyer a slap on the wrist or a warning and given the trafficker like a misdemeanor. You know, they're really taking it seriously, so we're very thankful for the law enforcement here and what they're doing with us.
Gina: Let's talk about what all do you all do at A Safe Place.
Sena: So we originally wanted to have housing and counseling and things like that for these girls. And then once we got our first referral from the FBI back in 2012 and we opened our first safe house...she was a young mother. She had been trafficked since the age of 14 for three years and we realized that it was a much deeper problem than just having a house to stay that was safe, that no one knew where she was, getting some counseling and things like that...we realized that these girls are deeply traumatized and need housing but they also need life skills. They need help with getting jobs, applying for jobs, they need access to the internet. They need group counseling so they can get together with girls who've been through the same thing. So what we did was we decided, OK, well we need to do the housing thing but we definitely need to do an outreach center because we want them to have all of these different options and we can't have it all at the safe house because nobody can know where that is because it's a safe house. So basically what we do is we have a brand new safe house where we house up to three girls. There's only 100 beds in the entire country for victims of sex trafficking who've been rescued. So we've added three more to that. And we would love to expand over the next couple of years. So we have the housing. Then we also have our Outreach Center. And we have direct support services, so we have caseworkers who come in and work with the girls. You know some of these girl, because they were so young when they came into the business, they need help with getting an I.D., they need help with getting a GED or going back to school or filling out job applications things like that. And the caseworker will help them with all of those things. Some of them need government assistance. You know there's lots of different things that these girls need. So we have social workers that will help them through that.
And our our office, it's a drop in center. They can come in. They can get on the internet. They can come in for the group which is once a week where the girls get together and talk and have a meal together and there's a counselor there, a social worker there, but we try to make it more survivor lead so that they can just talk and say you know this is what's going on in my life. The house is open for girls who are pregnant as well or who have children and we have parenting classes for them. We have childcare if they need it during when they go to work. Then we also have our hotline which I spoke about, the toll free hotline so that we can identify victims and help
them. And then the next thing our next step is our emergency shelter, which we are excited to be opening in the next couple of months. That's the main stuff we do we do, a lot of other stuff too. I mean we have a lot of really dedicated volunteers and staff that work really hard to try to make sure that all these girls needs are taken care of.
Gina: The safe house can hold three girls. They're basically hiding from from the trafficker?
Sena: Right. Because the trafficker you know really wants her back because, when you think about it, you can sell a drug or a gun one time you can sell a girl, they say an average of for these girls is 20 to 48 times a day. So you can make so much more money on selling sex than you can on selling anything else. So I mean these traffickers are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. And if they lose a good girl who brings in good business they want to get it back. And so you know a lot of times, I mean it's a very dangerous situation when we have to go and rescue a girl sometimes, we're lucky enough that she's been arrested and we can just take her from there. But he's still going to try to get her back. He's going to try to Facebook or her phone. So yeah it's it's really dangerous and scary.
So that's what makes me so proud of the women that work for us ,that they're willing to put themselves out there and put themselves in danger to help these girls and young women.
Gina: How many girls do you think that the organization has helped?
Sena: I would say typically about a hundred a year is what we've been doing. And again you know, that's the girls who have found the courage to call us or have been arrested and have been able to learn about our programs.
Gina: Do you ever have girls who come to you but then they're like, No no I'm going to go back you know kind of like, let's say in an alcoholic type situation?
Sena: Unfortunately. It's a really sad statistic, but because they've grown up, like I said, typically most of them have been sexually abused. And this is just the only distorted love that they've ever known. The average is 7 times that they go back before they leave their trafficker. So that's why we only have three residents and then a lot of the other girls that come to the Outreach Center, we’re trying to continually help them and encourage them not to go back. And some of them do and then they come back, and then they go back, and they come back. So yeah I mean it's tough. Some of it just totally depends on the individual, some, the second they leave, they are never going back. And then some really struggle with it because I mean it is it's like Stockholm Syndrome, I mean it's a real thing, these people these traffickers, are trained to manipulate and make these girls think that if they're not with them then they can't survive. So it's a lot of work for our social workers to try to break that and help them to see that there is there is an opportunity for them to live a better life there's a better future for them.
Gina: You know what I wonder... the hotels. I mean, they're making money off of this too.
I'm not going to say they're complicit in it, but in a way it seems to me that if they wanted to stop this, they really have a lot of power...they know what's going on.
Sena: Yeah. Unfortunately they do. And actually my main job was to train hotels. So I have talked to almost all the hotels on Market Street and I've had many owners say, no thank you. We don't want to be trained. We know it's happening and we're making money.
And it's really, you know, it's really disheartening.
And then there are a lot of hotels who are great and there's ones that are like, absolutely we will put your information in every single room, if we see anything suspicious we will call you.
Gina: When you think about it..people just making money. It all comes down to greed really. It all comes down to greed.
Sena: It's making money.
Gina: How are you funded?
Sena: So we are we do one fundraiser a year, our fifth annual A Day In The Life luncheon is coming up on August 11th. It will be at the Coastline Conference Center from 12 to 1 and it's a luncheon where we talk about our program. We have lunch. And that's our our main fundraiser. We also have we have churches we have organizations. We have people individuals that donate. We do apply for grants and often get grant money. So you know most of our money comes from people in the community and then also grants.
What we typically do at the luncheon is we have a catered meal and this year we're going to have a video about one of our members. And so you get to see what where they're coming from. Hearing one of them tell their story is really powerful. We also have different people who speak, we've had a lot of different speakers come to talk about different things but it's only an hour long so we don't have that much time. We try to give as much information about our program and who we help and what we do in that one hour. So it's I mean it's a fun event and it's for obviously a really great cause. And we just really hope a lot of people will show up.