A decade ago I was confronted with a devastating reality in my own community - the heartbreaking crisis of human trafficking. It is modern day slavery, trading humans for forced labor, sexual slavery, and exploitation. This is a global crisis that has found its way to our community.
I was hired as a broker by a real estate firm and tasked with managing an extended stay hotel in Charlotte. Early on I realized the presence of illegal activity in the hotel: drug dealing, theft rings, illegal gun sales, and prostitution. I began working with police to clean up the hotel.
I was approached by members of an organization aware of the presence of one woman in particular who was being trafficked and the imminent danger she was in. I agreed to help get her out. The timing was fortunate. The next week police stormed the hotel to execute search warrants for drugs and arrested nine drug gang members and the young woman was freed.
The images I saw that day burnt a lasting imprint of the horrors the victims endure in this crisis.
The young woman rescued was the same age as one of my daughters. While my daughter was following her dreams attending Appalachian State and making memories and lifelong friendships, the rescued young woman was living a nightmare every day and afflicted with diseases at the hands of men who abused her. I later realized many of the prostitutes in the hotel were forced to perform sex for money with no hope of getting out short of dying.
Several groups, mostly women, some former victims, approached me about the problem and how prevalent it is in our area. They were speaking to legislators looking for help. As I relived the horror I had seen and realized that young women like my daughters were suffering every day, I became convinced that I had to do something. If not now, when? If not me, who?
I sponsored legislation last year that would train law enforcement officers to identify human trafficking, train students to avoid being trafficked, fund shelter beds for victims, and provide needed mental health services for victims. While all of the provisions were not ultimately signed into law, we made progress. North Carolina has expanded and strengthened protections for victims of trafficking by providing an affirmative defense. We secured funds to help anti-trafficking advocacy groups to rescue and rehabilitate victims. Victims will be able to sue their abusers for lost wages and damages for being sold. Children who are trafficked by adults other than their parent are now eligible for services from DHHS as an abused child.
North Carolina is one of the ten worst states for trafficking, and there is much work left to do. I will continue this fight.