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School awarded $1.24 million grant to address child trafficking in North Carolina

Researchers at the UNC School of Social Work have received a $1.24 million grant to address child trafficking in North Carolina.

The U.S. Children’s Bureau, Office of the Administration for Children & Families awarded the five-year grant to Research Prof. Dean Duncan to launch Project NO REST, a collaborative effort focused on increasing awareness of sexual and labor trafficking among children and youth involved in the state’s child welfare system, especially those in foster care.

The project, which stands for “North Carolina Organizing and Responding to the Exploitation and Sexual Trafficking of Children,” aims to reduce the number of youth who are trafficked in the state—which ranks 8th in the nation in potential cases—and to improve the outcomes for those who are.

“Human trafficking has devastating consequences for victims and our entire community,” said Duncan, who is leading the project with co-principal investigator Joy Stewart, a research assistant professor. “Project NO REST will enable North Carolina to get in front of this critical issue.”

Several factors contribute to the state’s climate for trafficking, including the convenience of major highways and ports, which make it easier to transport victims, Duncan said. Easy access to and from tourist areas, where there is a high demand for labor and sex trafficking, and the state’s large military presence, which often attracts nearby adult businesses that fuel or front for sex trafficking, also make North Carolina an appealing place for the slave trade.

“We also have an expansive agricultural community that has a high demand for manual laborers and large isolated, rural areas in which trafficked laborers can be easily concealed,” Duncan said. “So all of these features make it easy for predators to locate, coerce or seize, move, and sell vulnerable victims.”

Although the total number of youth in North Carolina lured into modern-day servitude is unclear, the U.S. State Department estimates that 800,000 people are trafficked worldwide every year—50 percent of which are children age 13 on average. Many victims are runaways who have been in foster care or who were living in abusive homes, Duncan said. Youth with multiple experiences in foster care are especially at risk for trafficking.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, studies have shown that about 1 in 3 runaways who do not return home are trafficked or forced to trade sex for basic needs. Such traumatic experiences in childhood can have life-long negative effects, Duncan added, which is why Project NO REST aims to identify potential trafficking victims more quickly and link them with culturally appropriate services that promote recovery and healing.

That work will launch over the next year and in cooperation with a team of public and private agencies, including law enforcement and justice department officials, social workers, mental health workers, nonprofit agencies, and religious organizations. These “stakeholders” will develop a state strategic plan to address trafficking and to provide needed services to child victims, including screening, assessment, therapeutic care, medical and oral health care, housing, employment, education, and life skills.

Once that plan is in place, three to five counties from across the state will be selected to pilot it, Duncan said.

“These counties also will look at establishing procedures and protocols for how to handle issues of trafficking to minimize trauma, how to perform outreach and provide a safe space for victims,” Duncan said. “One of the big issues that we will need to try to work through is if you bring these children into care, where do you want to put them?”

Some have suggested that because traffickers stand to make a lot of money off these children that they may not be safe in foster homes, Duncan added. “At the same time, you don’t want to put them in a secure facility or even in a group home because they could think they’re being put in jail, and we don’t want them to feel like they’re being locked up,” he said.

Over the next few years, Project NO REST also will explore ways to collect reliable data on the number of children and youth trafficked to get a better idea of the size of the problem in the state and ways to widely distribute information and raise awareness of the issue.

“The stakeholders I have met,” Duncan said, “will not rest until all systems are aligned to prevent further human trafficking of children in child welfare, to identify those children who are victims and to quickly connect them to culturally competent, effective services to begin their healing process.”