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Human trafficking in Grand Rapids continues amid pandemic

Through recent research and observations from anti-trafficking leaders, a sketch of where human trafficking stands in the city can be found.
I-196, passing downtown Grand Rapids.

I-196, passing downtown Grand Rapids. /Jack Amick

Anti-trafficking resources

An online directory of local resources for those dealing with sex or labor trafficking is available at The directory is run by Women at Risk, International in collaboration with the the Kent County Area Human Trafficking Coalition.

Need help now? The National Human Trafficking Hotline is available 24/7 at 1.888.373.7888 for immediate, on-the-ground support.

WAR, Intl.'s space, featuring its survivor-led WAR Chest Boutique and Tea Trade Café supporting women trafficking survivors.

WAR, Intl.'s space, featuring its survivor-led WAR Chest Boutique and Tea Trade Café supporting women trafficking survivors. /Women at Risk, International

Warning Lights' Jenn Amo giving a presentation to community professionals on trafficking prevention.

Warning Lights' Jenn Amo giving a presentation to community professionals on trafficking prevention. /Warning Lights

As Grand Rapidians and Americans continue openly confronting the issues of COVID-19 and systemic racism, the issue of human trafficking lingers on behind the scenes.

It’s an issue not disconnected from the pandemic’s impacts or centuries of racial oppression. In fact, here in Grand Rapids, like much of the world, it’s evolving along with them.

What does human trafficking in Grand Rapids look like today? How has the pandemic altered the problem? Where do racial disparities within it now stand?

While a full picture may be impossible to find, a sketch can be gained through recent research and observations from local leaders in the fight to end this form of modern-day slavery.


Recurring challenges in tracking trafficking

Globally, the trafficking of humans for sexual or labor purposes is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry, with an estimated 40.3 million victims according to the International Labour Organization. Most of its victims are women and girls.

Estimates from organizations studying and fighting human trafficking, however, are what they are – just estimates.

A great challenge in combating human trafficking is the lack of reliable, high-quality data. Victims don’t often self-report, whether because of fear of physical violence, psychological manipulation, or fear of being treated as a criminal. It’s a hurdle in Grand Rapids, during the pandemic and before it.

“Overall in our community, we’re not keeping track of trafficking victims,” said Rachel VerWys, Co-Founder of Grand Rapids-based nonprofit Solutions to End Exploitation (SEE). “And often trafficking victims don’t identify as such when they’re in the middle of the exploitation.”

SEE aims to eradicate local trafficking through research and fostering collaboration between area organizations sharing this goal. Its research often looks at factors it knows contribute to human trafficking to better understand the problem’s scope, such as economic vulnerability, isolation, and immigration.

Stories of discovered victims in Grand Rapids may point to more still undiscovered in the area. Women At Risk, International (WAR, Intl.) is one local nonprofit sharing rescue stories to help illustrate the issue’s possible scope.

“It’s rampant, and many don’t know,” said Rebecca McDonald, WAR, Intl.’s Founder and President, of area trafficking. “The last five girls we rescued all went to Sunday school. One of their mothers hunted at churches, got close to their nurseries and their families, so she could babysit. She ended up selling both her daughter and their kids.”


Grand Rapids area research

Despite challenges in measuring human trafficking in Grand Rapids, local research in recent years is out there – particularly regarding sex trafficking.

Sacred Beginnings, a nonprofit rescuing victims in Grand Rapids, teamed up with SEE for a January 2018 report called The Data Project. The report measured the prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation on the streets of Grand Rapids and online.

For Sacred Beginning’s part, its Founder and President, Leslie King – a sex trafficking survivor – conducted street interviews with individuals involved in Grand Rapids’ commercial sex trade, to identify how many were involved against their will. SEE, for its part, analyzed sex trafficking indicators through local online sex ads on

King’s 2018 findings have since been updated on SEE’s website. Now, as of July 2020, 89% of the 242 individuals she's interviewed in the city reported being controlled by a trafficker, gang, or organized crime. 97.9% reported experiencing violence in the sex trade, with 91.2% claiming it at the hands of a trafficker.

SEE’s part of The Data Project further informs. During the three months in 2017 it studied Backpage’s escort section, 50% of the 171 unique ads logged for the Grand Rapids area showed sex trafficking indicators, such as geographic transience and third party language. The report adds that, averaged over 12 months, the find adds up to potentially 1,000 new victims being advertised online, every year. Backpage, shut down since 2018 by U.S. authorities, was replaced by alternatives.


Racial disparities in local trafficking

King’s street interviews also show people of color being disproportionately impacted by human trafficking in the area – unlikely to have significantly changed since her 2018 findings.

In King’s initial 125 interviews, 60% engaging in the area’s sex trade were people of color – 46% Black, 12% Latinx, and 2% other. With 94% of interviewees reporting control by a trafficker, gang, or organized crime, it’s likely the proportion of people of color being trafficked in the area is similar to their proportion of engaging in the local sex trade overall. For context: Grand Rapids’ population is around 60% White, 20% Black, 15% Latinx, and 5% other.

Academics and activists often link racial disparities in U.S. trafficking to poverty, domestic violence, and immigration issues perpetuated by centuries of oppression and racism in the country. Additionally, as a recent Reuters article points out, a historical bias against Blacks in law enforcement can often lead to suspicion of Black victims during anti-trafficking raids – viewing them as criminals, treating them as such, and reinforcing conditions that keep them in the cycle.

More recent data on Grand Rapids-based trafficking disparities since the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t yet available. However, with anti-trafficking leaders warning of a trafficking increase since March, and Blacks being hit harder by the pandemic through systemic inequities according the Pew Research Center, the potential for exacerbated trafficking disparities exists.


Pandemic-related concerns in Grand Rapids

Since COVID-19’s outbreak across the U.S. in March, human trafficking risk factors such as economic vulnerability, isolation, and immigration issues have all been magnified. Leaders working with trafficking in Grand Rapids are concerned this may be increasing trafficking activity in the city, or have found indirect signs of it already.

“With this pandemic, we’re worried about youth who are stuck in really abusive, traumatic homes and situations that might otherwise be discovered by them walking into our building, or by a teacher, a social worker,” said Ben Kaiser, Housing Director at Arbor Circle, a nonprofit with a shelter program for youth facing homelessness. “We’re concerned about what we don’t know.”

A local leader finding recent evidence of online predatorial activity increasing in Grand Rapids and across the country is Warning Light’s Founder, Jenn Amo. Such activity can lead to youth being lured into sex trafficking.

“Based on my experiences during the pandemic, the risk for youth and young adults skyrocketed as the online predator activity was in full force,” Amo said. “The pandemic and stay-at-home gave online predators more time at home and more time to prey, which increased the activity of online predators to a new level.”

“The increased risk was so high that the FBI actually sent a press release cautioning of the danger.”

SEE, the nonprofit from The Data Project, also knows much about the illicit massage industry in Grand Rapids. Often, massage parlors can be fronts for sex and labor trafficking.

“Those businesses all closed during the pandemic, or were supposed to be closed,” said Co-Founder VerWys. “So in some ways we saw a decrease there in exploitation in that type of trafficking,”

VerWys acknowledges, however, that the pandemic increased economic vulnerability and isolation. This has created huge barriers for those trapped in exploitive and abusive relationships, which may result in increased trafficking numbers in Grand Rapids being discovered down the road.


New constraints for local anti-trafficking operations

The pandemic also created new hurdles for Grand Rapids organizations fighting trafficking through advocacy and victim aid. Money was lost and in-person outreach was scaled back.

An example is the Kent County Area Human Trafficking Coalition losing funds from the state of Michigan this year, in light of the state’s reprioritized efforts to combat COVID-19. The coalition facilitates partnerships in the community to address sex and labor trafficking. Partners include nonprofits, medical professionals, police officers, teachers, prosecutors, and more.

“Unfortunately that money was lost because of the needed resources that the state needed to purchase PPE and address the emerging crisis,” said SEE’s VerWys. SEE acts as the fiduciary of the coalition, overseeing its operations.

“In some ways, that’s put a lot of constraint on our ability to collaborate right now,” she continued. The funds would’ve not only went into the work of facilitating collaboration, but for direct service care for survivors and victims. “Things like housing vouchers and increasing shelter resources for victims. We have a very limited number of beds right now in our region.”

In-person outreach efforts were also reduced in compliance with physical distancing measures. This impacted not only spreading awareness about sex trafficking, but labor trafficking as well. Migrant farmers coming into the Grand Rapids area for the growing season didn’t have as many points of contact to help prevent exploitation, VerWys noted.


Adjustments by local anti-trafficking organizations

Despite pandemic-induced challenges for many of these organization’s operations, their shared mission continues. Adjustments have been made to their on-site work and the ways they’re conducting outreach.

“Our shelters continue to be open,” said Arbor Circle’s Kaiser. “We definitely have extra protocols in place like youth having their own rooms and who can be in and out of the building, but we are open 365 days a year.”

“We never close, and the pandemic’s not going to keep us from supporting youth either. We’ve done everything we can to make it safe, and so far so good.”

For outreach, the Kent County Area Human Trafficking Coalition was able to adapt its work in a couple ways. One of them was bringing Michigan State University and Movimiento Cosecha GR together to do an online training in Spanish on internet safety for youth. Another was partner Migrant Legal Aid creating trafficking awareness materials in Spanish that were handed out at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan’s food distribution days. These food distribution days served over 1,000 different households facing hardships because of COVID-19.


Spreading awareness

Where human trafficking in Grand Rapids stands right now isn’t fully knowable, but it’s here. Is it a simple issue? No. Do we know how many are being impacted? No. What is known, however, is that there are signs we can learn about to identify and prevent it around us, local resources we can turn to for victim support, and people around us to whom we can remind the problem exists.

Warning Light’s Amo spends her life spreading awareness about the reality and dangers of human trafficking. For protecting ourselves, loved ones, and community, she offers some advice:

“Protection comes by shining light on this dark crime through acknowledging it exists, being bold enough to talk about it, and taking action to become educated on the lures and signs.”

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