Raleigh, N.C. — A measure backed by state House leaders would put tens of millions of dollars into a pilot program to help victims of sex trafficking and to educate youths, teachers and law enforcement officers about what to watch out for.
House Bill 910 would set up a pilot program in Wake, New Hanover and Mecklenburg counties to develop educational materials about recognizing and avoiding traffickers for sixth-, eighth- and 10th-graders. It would also include training for law enforcement officers and school personnel on telltale signs that a person is engaged in trafficking or a victim of it.
The bulk of the funding in the measure – about $50 million – would be allocated to providing shelter beds and mental health services for victims of trafficking who are rescued or able to escape.
According to materials from anti-trafficking group Polaris, the problem is on the rise in North Carolina. In 2015, 181 cases were reported. The majority was sex trafficking, but agricultural and domestic labor trafficking were also reported.
"We think the 180 is a ridiculously low number," said primary sponsor Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, who said he expects the pilot program will serve 300 victims its first year and 600 the next.
Brawley noted that the state has a "safe harbor" law protecting victims who report being trafficked from prosecution for any crimes they may have been compelled to commit. But he says that's not enough to push victims to leave.
"What do you do with the women when they get out?" he asked. "They don't have a good home to go back to, and in many cases, they don't really have a skill, and they're bearing psychological scars."
Brawley said, once support for victims is in place, he expects future legislation will target the traffickers themselves and the "boyfriends, husbands and fathers" who are paying for the services, believing they're consensual when they are not.
"Every day in North Carolina, women are being raped for money, and we want to make it stop," he concluded.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, also a sponsor of the legislation, said the figures in the initial bill may be adjusted as the measure moves through the House.
"It's a work in progress," Dollar said. "It's a good starting point."
But Brawley said it's critically important that the program be adequately funded.
"A concern would be, if a woman tries to get out and we can't help her and she goes back, she becomes a cautionary tale," he said. "We don't have to spend it all, but we definitely don't want someone to be beaten to death for trying to get out on a program we underfunded."
The measure is in the House Rules Committee, where Brawley and Dollar anticipate more changes will be made as they receive more feedback from rescue organizations and law enforcement groups.