Barry Richards gets it. He gets that it takes more than throwing money at a problem, that it takes getting people involved, educating them, changing their thinking and heightening their awareness.
As executive vice president of TravelCenters of America, Richards has been in the truck stop and travel plaza industry for many years. But he says it wasn’t until he heard Kendis Paris, national director of Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), speak last month and saw a preview of TAT’s 28-minute video on human sex trafficking, that he actually put a face on the problem.
“We’re aware of this kind of activity from time to time but it never struck me as a crisis or an emergency in that somebody’s life is being taken from them,” Richards told us.
In the video, he was especially moved by the story of a Toledo, Ohio, teen who with her young cousin was abducted while walking home from a neighborhood Wendy’s restaurant. The girls, 14 and 15, were forced into prostitution in Toledo hotels before being transported in an 18-wheeler to a Michigan truck stop where they were brutalized into having sex with numerous truckers. Finally, an observant and concerned OTR driver called the police and the girls were rescued.
“This story about the cousins really grabbed me,” said Richards. “We’ve been building fences, putting up lights trying to combat the problem but really didn’t understand what was happening. It takes getting people involved, not just money to fix up facilities.”
So, he said, “We took the [TAT] video and filmed an introduction and a couple of remarks and it’s now part of all our required training for anyone who works in the field and all our people who travel on company business.”
“We track everyone’s training electronically and we’ll know how many have seen it and I’ll be getting reports on it until we have 95 percent compliance.” TA also will place TAT’s wallet-sized cards at all its fuel desks with a sign for truckers to take one. The cards describe how to spot a human trafficking victim and list the hotline number to call should trafficking be suspected (888 373-7888).
“I think truckers will be responsive,” he said. “They’re a patriotic, family-oriented group of people and if they see what the problem actually is, what the driving force behind it is, they have big hearts … I think they’ll respond well. I know my employees will respond well.
“The general public doesn’t seem to know about this problem, yet, but an awareness is starting to emerge out of the darkness. We’ll do our part to educate our 15,000 to 16,000 employees and make sure truckers understand. We’re not going to stop the trade but can certainly snuff it out in our parking lots.”
Evan Nicholas, FBI supervisor with the Innocence Lost Initiative to rescue children who have been sold into sexual slavery, said in the video that there is no such thing as being a willing participant in human trafficking. Women and children are driven into it by “force, fraud and coercion.”
They can come from any background, any race. Some are as young as nine years old, Nicholas said. Their handlers or pimps call them family and they never get a penny from what they earn.
They’re forced to be totally dependent on the man who calls himself daddy for the clothes on their backs, their food and a roof over their heads. Just in case they may not be getting the message, they’re daily beaten and raped to “break them down and get control,” Nicholas explained. He said trafficking is mostly a team effort, with a person who lures the children in, a person who transports them and a person who is the “enforcer” and doles out physical punishment.
“This is driven by old-fashioned greed,” Nicholas said. “You can sell a drug only once but you can sell a person over and over.”
“We’re extremely encouraged by TA’s participation to help get our message across,” said Paris, adding that Michael McConnell, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association, also has come on board to help TAT with its mission to educate members of the trucking and travel plaza industries about human trafficking and how they can help fight it.
TAT’s initiative includes a website, www.truckersagainsttrafficking.com, where the video may be viewed; webinars; human trafficking 101 seminars; posters and the wallet cards.
Human trafficking is a $32 billion criminal industry than spans the globe, with an estimated 27 million people enslaved.
It’s been reported in all 50 states and the number of victims in the U.S. is thought to number in the hundreds of thousands, according to TAT.
“It surprises people because it’s happening right here, in our own backyard,” said Laurie Cook Heffron, who volunteers with a central Texas group against human trafficking.
Dorothy Cox of The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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