‘We have to continue the conversation’

Living in seedy motel rooms along the Black Horse Pike and walking the streets of Atlantic City after nightfall are young victims of human trafficking forced by captors to prostitute themselves.

Essentially they’re slaves, experts say.

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But help has come since 2020 from the Volunteers of America Delaware Valley (VOADV). The organization partnered in October of that year with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) to create and implement the Atlantic City Human Trafficking Pilot, according to VOADV Senior Vice President Amanda Leese.

“As a provider of social services in New Jersey, we cannot ignore human trafficking,” she explained, “and we have expanded our efforts to ensure we are equipped to best help survivors. Also, we do not focus solely on sex trafficking, but any form of human trafficking.”

VOADV hosted its third annual Human Trafficking Summit on March 13 at Rowan University. The topic – Forging the Path to Effective Legislation – was explored with state legislators and subject matter experts from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

“Human trafficking is a stain on our society’s conscience and an affront to the ideals that we all hold to be sacred,” said state Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, the summit’s keynote speaker. “This abhorrent crime targets the most vulnerable in our society and takes away their rights.

“Any form of trafficking, whether forced labor or sex trafficking, must never be tolerated, and we must remain steadfast in the fight to end human trafficking.”

Other lawmakers taking part in the panel discussion included state Sen. Vincent Polistina and Assembly members Carol Murphy, Cody Miller and Andrea Katz.

“VOADV is focused on human trafficking in New Jersey,” Leese remarked. “We did not host the summit with the intent to see specific legislation get passed, but to host an open conversation with our legislators about the efforts of law enforcement and providers in the community, and the barriers we have to overcome.

“We did talk about current legislative efforts,” she added, “but this summit, like the two preceding it, was focused on relationship building among various stakeholders. The only way to effectively help victims of human trafficking is to make sure the right people are at the table having that conversation.”

A pilot program started in 2020 allowed VOADV to utilize its services-based mindset of immediate, direct services, paired with law enforcement-guided outreach efforts to best aid trafficking surivors, according to Leese. Additional components of the pilot enabled VOADV to host youth education and awareness events to prevent future victimization.

Partnerships were key to the VOADV Atlantic City Human Trafficking Pilot. The state attorney general’s office – along with the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City, the city’s police department and Pine Hill police – were all instrumental in launching anti-trafficking efforts, as were education and awareness events paired with community engagement.

Studies show that trafficked women and girls encounter high rates of physical and sexual violence, memory loss, sexually transmitted diseases, and traumatic brain injuries. Depression, anxiety, and PTSD rates are also high among sex- and labor-trafficking survivors, with higher rates typically reported by females.

VOADV has continued with its program by expanding growing services for trafficking victims in Atlantic County and enlarging services through the Navigator Program.

Utilizing the New Jersey Department of Human Services appropriation, VOADV placed human-trafficking specialists throughout South Jersey to ensure survivors have care delivered quickly and with dignity, according to Leese.

The most recent expansion of the VOADV human trafficking program is the Human Trafficking Awareness and Education Campaign, a partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and local law enforcement. Its appropriation was facilitated by Congressman Donald Norcross.

“VOADV and its partners will provide education and awareness to children and their families about the dangers of human trafficking, its early signs, and what to do if you suspect someone you know is being trafficked,” Leese pointed out.

As for the main plan of action to come out of the summit, “We have to continue the conversation,” she maintained. “The active collaboration between stakeholders at the state and county level is key to long-term solutions.”

For more information about the efforts of VOADV to help the survivors of human trafficking, go to www.voadv.org.

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