QUINCY — As the director of human trafficking services at the Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria, Ill., Sara Sefried knows all too well the stories of human trafficking.
She shared some of those stories on Tuesday during a roundtable with community leaders, who represented elected officials, public schools, Illinois State Police, local and regional law enforcement, Blessing Hospital, Quincy University, the city of Beardstown and Chaddock, hosted by U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-18th District, at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Quincy.
She told of an 11-year-old girl from near Peoria who was sex trafficked by her mother, who willingly gave her daughter to the family's landlord in exchange for reduced rent and drugs.
She shared the story of a 62-year-old housekeeper who came to United States on a work visa from Southeast Asia in hopes that her American employers would treat her with respect and dignity. Instead, the sexagenarian was harassed, denied pay and forced to sleep on a yoga mat in the family's laundry room for more than seven years before she finally escaped.
Sefried also shared the story of a woman, who after three days of communicating with a man online, agreed to meet him for a causal date. When he picked her up, he beat and drugged the woman, whom he later branded tattoos of his name on her face.
Stories like those shared by Sefried may seem farfetched for some, but Center for Prevention of Abuse CEO Carol Merna said they are very much real.
"Human trafficking is something that happens everywhere in our country," Merna said. "We know that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg, and human trafficking is hiding in plain sight. We want to get people to really see things with new eyes that recognize the signs of abuse."
She said last year, a national hotline recorded 10,949 calls regarding possible human trafficking, which can be either sex or labor trafficking. In both cases, people are held against their will and must complete tasks. Of those calls, 296 cases were reported from Illinois. Those cases make the state one of the nation's worst offenders when it comes to human trafficking populations.
"Since Illinois ranks in the top 10, we know that human trafficking is a problem in many areas of the state and that it is quite prevalent in the central area of the state," Merna said.
LaHood said he knows that talking about human trafficking in Quincy and the other stops of the roundtable in Springfield and Bloomington-Normal will surprise people.
"While rural areas like Quincy are not major hubs for human trafficking, America's roadways, railways, airways and waterways are being used to facilitate the trafficking of human beings -- adults and children," LaHood said. "Human trafficking touches a lot of parts of our community, which is why today is about raising awareness to this crime, where it occurs and how it occurs. Trafficking is known as a hidden crime because victims rarely come forward to seek help, and community members rarely have the training necessary to see the signs to help."
Statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline reveal that about 1% of callers have received some kind of formal training. Center for Prevention of Abuse officials say one-third of the callers typically are community members who are bystanders.
"We know that the National Human Trafficking Hotline receives most of their calls from 'Joe' off of the street," Merna said. "That means it is people like you and me, it's a neighbor, it's a teacher in the schools, it is someone who every day sees something that in the pit of their stomach they know is not right. They need to know that feeling may be because human trafficking is involved and who to contact, whether that is calling the Center for Prevention of Abuse and or the National Human Trafficking Hotline."
Merna said she hoped the roundtable may spark a community conversation about human trafficking as well as training opportunities for local employers.
Blessing Health System CEO Maureen Kahn said, "Our emergency room physicians and pediatricians would welcome the training."
Center officials said training health care providers to recognize signs of human trafficking is crucial for the center's ultimate goal of eradicating human trafficking. Health care providers may be the only people with whom victims of human trafficking are allowed to be alone.
Both LaHood and Merna offered words of encouragement to any potential victims of human trafficking.
"As with any victim of abuse, we want you to know that you have options," Merna said. "There are people to help. Whether it is the Center for Prevention of Abuse, or local groups like Quanada, there is a way for freedom, and we are willing to help provide that."
Lahood added, "If you are out there, there are people to help you. Know that it is not just you; you are not alone, and that there is hope out there."