When you take a close look at the global problem of human trafficking, it turns out to be a lot closer to home than you might expect.

A highway sign says human trafficking express lanes.

Photo illustration: News Decoder

 This article, by high school student Sabria Streett, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Sabria is a student at the Tatnall School, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.

This story won first prize in News Decoder’s 14th Storytelling Contest.

Many Americans believe that human trafficking occurs exclusively on the other side of the world.

As a student who lives in the U.S. state of Delaware, I was shocked to find out that it occurs right in our own backyard. On 27 February 2023, three people were charged with conducting a human trafficking-related massage parlor in New Castle County, the county where I live.

The FBI and Delaware State Police discovered an illegal massage parlor operation in North Wilmington. Female victims were obligated to perform sexual services for clients while living in filthy conditions.

Yolanda Montgomery, the founder of Zöe Ministries, a Delaware-based nonprofit that combats human trafficking, spends her days assisting survivors in any way she can. “We do anti-human trafficking work,” Montgomery said. “We serve marginalized and oppressed populations. One that most Delawareans are not even aware exists. We use our services to plug into whatever victims need if we are able to.”

Montgomery’s work is important because it helps with anti-human trafficking work. Our state plays a significant role in the national trafficking epidemic on I-95, an extensive roadway system that has become a hotspot in the eastern part of the United States.

Catching up to people who traffic in sex

I-95 is the longest north-south Interstate and the sixth-longest Interstate highway in the United States overall. I-95 passes through 15 states and provides a convenient path for human traffickers to transport those they exploit to larger cities such as Philadelphia and New York.

Human trafficking has been a federal offense since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000, but Delaware legislation did not take effect until 2014.

“We are way behind many other states, especially on the 95 corridor,” Montgomery said.

Traffickers will go where they will be less likely to be arrested or prosecuted, she said. That’s why awareness is important.

“Our surrounding states have law enforcement-based task forces, and they are making arrests and prosecuting consistently every year,” Montgomery said. “If someone doesn’t want to be prosecuted for trafficking, [they go to] the one state on the 95 corridor that isn’t as active, and that is Delaware.”

Victims of sex trafficking are not given a choice.

Many victims of sex trafficking go through many different circumstances that affect their mental and physical health.

“I always thought of myself as an object, not a person, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t even get treatment till 2020,” said Amanda Mendoza, a victim of sex trafficking. “It’s more than just sexual abuse. It’s the coercion; you’ve kind of been brainwashed.

<p”>Mendoza said that child protective services told her she couldn’t go into a foster home because she was promiscuous.</p”>

“They called me a child prostitute, which is how they classified me because they said you were having sex with these men, and I could’ve said no,” Mendoza said.

Today, more people are enslaved than at any other moment in history. At least 27 million adults and children work as slaves or in slave conditions in countries all over the world. The vast majority are women and children.

Human trafficking as a global problem

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) works with several organizations including UNICEF to develop global initiatives to address human trafficking. UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration are co-leading an Anti-Trafficking Working Group to map and analyze incidents of trafficking and to enhance coordination.

Many places across the world have drastically different sex trafficking presentations compared to Delaware. In most cases, the increase in sex trafficking has to do with the country’s history and whether it is stable.

According to the 2009 book Half the Sky: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, it was destabilization caused by civil war in Cambodia which increased the prevalence of sex trafficking there. The nation is also one of the poorest countries in the world, so corruption is widespread and it is not uncommon for parents in Cambodia sell their children to brothels for money, the two journalists found.

In Delaware, sex trafficking is less public; it is hidden in establishments such as a massage parlors. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Delaware has reported 85 cases of human trafficking since 2012, including 16 in 2022.

Ian McConnel served in the Department of Justice from 2008 until 2016. “During that time, it was apparent that human trafficking in Delaware was an increasing problem that needed to be addressed,” said McConnel. “Delaware has a large Hispanic immigrant population that provides a cheap workforce for the agricultural industry. Young women, many of them undocumented, would be caught up in the sex trafficking industry and would be victimized in ‘massage’ parlors in the state.”

Mendoza said that the years that she was forced into prostitution were like living in black and white. “There was no color in my life,” Mendoza said. “I constantly stayed busy because if I stayed busy, then I wouldn’t have my thoughts. The system failed me for 20 years; we need to do better. What if this was your daughter or your sister? Would you want them to suffer in silence for 20 years?”

Three questions to consider:

  1. What is human trafficking?
  2. What makes the U.S. state of Delaware a geographic hot spot for human trafficking?
  3. What can be done to combat human trafficking?
Sabria Streett

Sabria Streett is in her final year of high school at The Tatnall School. Her favorite subjects are English and Health Science. She finds that art is a great way to use creativity to de-stress. She wants to go to college for nursing.  

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