By Alexandra Golder
April is sexual assault awareness month, and one Wilmington organization is working to end sex crimes, one phone call at a time.
A Safe Place was founded in 2011 and focuses on prevention, advocacy and restoration to assist victims of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic sex trafficking in the southeast region of North Carolina.
Victims are broadly defined as people sold for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Most are females, many of them underage and lured by traffickers into the sex trade where they are exploited and frequently sexually abused.
To directly reach out to local victims of sex trafficking, Dawn Ferrer, direct support services coordinator with A Safe Place, has called the phone numbers listed for Wilmington and Jacksonville in online escort ads on a widely used internet classified advertising site. She and an intern, a University of North Carolina Wilmington social work major, began placing the calls in February.
“I hate for Backpage.com to continue for what it’s currently being used for,” Ferrer said, “but it is an avenue to reach out to victims.”
Ferrer said they are making a difference by letting victims know they’re here for them.
“A majority of girls have said, ‘I’m good for now, but give me your number just in case,’” she said.
Ferrer said she gets a gut feeling on the phone.
“If the girl sounds stressed, I’ll reach out again in a week,” she said.
More often than not, the girl does not answer the second call.
In 2015, A Safe Place helped 52 victims in Wilmington, Ferrer said. Most recently, two females from the southeast region of North Carolina, aged 20 and 26, were referred by a social worker in the emergency room at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. The women were placed in the organization’s transitional housing program, which founder MaLisa Johnson Umstead describes as “the heart of A Safe Place.”
The transitional housing program provides counseling as well as educational and vocational training for residents to help them escape a life of sexual exploitation and define their personal and career goals. This stability is crucial, as many have been victimized and lured by sex traffickers with promises of food, shelter and other basic necessities. Some victims of sex trafficking have even been bailed out of jail by their pimps.
“If girls are in jail for two or more days, pimps will come and bail them out,” said Jackie G. Gore of Stand Against Trafficking (StAT), a faith-based prevention organization with a chapter in Brunswick County. StAT aims to create advocacy for jailed victims of sex trafficking.
Lindsey Roberson, trial lawyer and board member of A Safe Place, explained that commercial exploitation starts out as “survival sex.”
“They’re already in a place of vulnerability when traffickers approach them,” she said.
Since beginning her work with A Safe Place, Ferrer has seen the average age of victims getting younger, going from the mid-20s to now around the age of 16. She is unsure as to why this is the trend, but Umstead has a theory.
“Family trafficking is happening in Wilmington,” she said, meaning that victims are being trafficked by parents, stepparents and siblings.
Through hotel and motel outreach, A Safe Places teaches employees to look out for signs that a girl may be a victim of human trafficking. When a girl first arrives, hotel staff are made aware to look for signs of physical abuse, to observe the girl’s behavior, be aware if an older male is with her and doing all the talking, and take notice if the girl does not know where she is. Housekeeping is trained to watch for the ‘do not disturb’ sign staying on the door for days and if multiple people go in and out of the room.
For additional information about A Safe Place, the toll-free anonymous help hotline number, or to make a donation, visit www.asafeplacetogo.com
To learn more about Stand Against Trafficking, visit www.standagainsttraffickingus.org