Human Trafficking Awareness Day is January 11, but trafficking happens every day in the Washington region. It often goes unnoticed, as vulnerable people are manipulated into a life of abuse and fear.

Sex and labor trafficking are big business, generating $150 billion a year worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization.

Groups like the UMD SAFE Center and the NOVA Human Trafficking Initiative are supporting survivors of trafficking, and educating the public about how to spot trafficking in our area.

If you think you have witnessed human trafficking or are a victim in need of assistance call 1-888-373-7888 (TTY: 711) | Text 233733

Produced by Victoria Chamberlin


  • Susan Esserman Founder and Director, UMD SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors
  • Chelsey Trevino Disruption Team Member, NOVA Human Trafficking Initiative
  • Barbara Jean Wilson Sex Trafficking Survivor


  • 12:00:10

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast medical trials are key to scientific advancement. We learn more about the volunteers who make them possible. But first Human Trafficking Awareness Day is January 11, but trafficking happens every day in the Washington area. It often goes unnoticed as vulnerable people are pulled into a life of manipulation, abuse and fear. How can we identify the signs of labor and sex trafficking and what are local agencies doing to help survivors of this kind of abuse?

  • 12:00:43

    KOJO NNAMDIA word of caution to our listeners, this discussion may contain language that could be triggering to survivors of sexual abuse and may not be appropriate for children. That said joining me in studio is Susan Esserman, Founder and Director of the University of Maryland's SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors. Susan Esserman, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:03

    SUSAN ESSERMANThank you, Kojo. It's an honor to be here.

  • 12:01:06

    NNAMDIBarbara Jean Wilson is a Human Trafficking Survivor. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:09

    BARBARA JEAN WILSONThank you, Kojo, for having me here.

  • 12:01:11

    NNAMDIAnd Chelsey Trevino is a Disruption Team Member with the NOVA or Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:19


  • 12:01:20

    NNAMDIChelsey Trevino, I'll start with you. What are some of the more common forms of human trafficking that you see in Northern Virginia?

  • 12:01:28

    TREVINOYeah. So thank you, Kojo. Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative we are here to fight what it looks like here and to bring awareness. So there's two main types of trafficking, sex trafficking and labor trafficking. What we mainly see in Northern Virginia is sex trafficking. Three main types that we see is illicit massage business or brothels. They're one in the same. These are places hidden in plain site next to doctor's offices, chiropractors. They're within strip malls. Literally hidden in plain sight advertised on websites in which men and women can go to find services in this place.

  • 12:02:05

    TREVINOAnother type that we see is family trafficking. Victims being trafficked by their own family members in a variety of different ways, which as we know can be very disturbing and heart wrenching. Then the last one we see is teen and young adult sex trafficking.

  • 12:02:20

    NNAMDIHow do traffickers get access to and identify their potential victims?

  • 12:02:26

    TREVINOSocial media is a big platform as it is with a lot of other types of communication with vulnerable populations such as teens and young adults. The nature in which our society is today a hyper sexualized world creates a very ripe grooming ground for traffickers and pimps to go after their victims and to identify them.

  • 12:02:51

    NNAMDIWe got a Facebook post from someone who says, "I'd like to ask this question anonymously. I'm very concerned about human trafficking in our area. I live in Arlington and there is what looks like an illicit massage parlor just outside our neighborhood. It has the neon sign described the Loudoun Now article and it has raised eyebrows, because most legit massage parlors would not routinely have a limousine parked outside at 10:00 p.m. at night. Neighbors have called the police out of concern, but have been told that they don't have the resources to investigate. I'm not satisfied with that, but don't know where to go from there. The idea that people are being victimized in a place I drive past daily and there's nothing we can do is horrifying. What can I do to help?"

  • 12:03:34

    NNAMDIChelsey Trevino, what is your organizations approach to disrupting sex trafficking in Northern Virginia and what can you -- what kind of advice can you offer our Facebook poster?

  • 12:03:44

    TREVINOAbsolutely. That's one of our initiatives, disruption, because we want to identify these networks. We want to identify these places, and put a stop to it. So one of the initiatives that we have is we work very closely with law enforcement to identify and then give them the information they need to respond. That's a complicated manner. We can do things that law enforcement can't do as far as go into these brothels. Create different environments to collect information. Talk with the women. Even talk with the men as they're going and coming to collect information that we pass on to law enforcement. So community keep your eyes out. You can contact us at directly. We can work with you to continue to provide that information to law enforcement.

  • 12:04:31

    NNAMDISo if an individual like this contacts you, you have the ability to go into that massage parlor?

  • 12:04:37

    TREVINOWe do. We do. One of the initiatives and outreaches that we do is we set foot inside of these brothels or illicit massage businesses. Not only to gain an understanding of what's going on inside, but also to develop relationships with the women inside and let them know that there is help. There is another way for them to live their life and wanting to provide resources to them. Another initiative we have for this very issue is our buyer outreach where we're talking with the men as they're coming and going from these massage parlors. Not to give them shame and guilt, but to do two things, educate them on what's going on inside and also offer them resources for this sexual addiction that they're wrapped up in.

  • 12:05:17

    NNAMDISusan Esserman, you founded the University of Maryland's Safe Center for Human Trafficking Survivors where you assist survivors of domestic servitude. How prevalent is labor trafficking in this region?

  • 12:05:29

    ESSERMANLabor trafficking is prevalent, but it is under investigated and underreported. People are generally now aware of sex trafficking. But they're not aware of labor trafficking. It's complex to investigate, and it requires different stakeholders at the table to understand it and to investigate it. We have seen three types of labor trafficking cases in our three and a half years in which we've been open at the University of Maryland SAFE Center, which by the way we serve all types of trafficking sex and labor, men, women, youth, adults. We're open to all who are victims of human trafficking, but the most prevalent form of labor trafficking is domestic servitude.

  • 12:06:22

    NNAMDICan you describe what domestic servitude typically looks like in this area?

  • 12:06:26

    ESSERMANYes. I can. And in fact I want to give a case that's unique to this region, which is labor trafficking perpetrated by diplomats. In that case you have workers coming in under a legal visa under the promise of a job at minimum wage. The perpetrator is presented in this case a false contract to the U.S. government. And in one of the worst cases that I handled they're two women were captive in a very large home in Potomac where they were isolated. The perpetrator monitored their movements, made them afraid to leave, forced them to work seven days a week.

  • 12:07:12

    NNAMDIProbably took their passports.

  • 12:07:14

    ESSERMANExactly, that is the classic sign of trafficking -- both sex and labor trafficking and paid them very little money, and by the time they escaped they were emaciated. And even worse the trafficker set up a system where he would create a bank account, put the money in the bank account and force them at gun point to withdraw the money. That's how deceptive the traffickers can be.

  • 12:07:42

    NNAMDIThen after they withdraw the money the trafficker would take the money.

  • 12:07:44


  • 12:07:45

    NNAMDIHow does the SAFE Center support survivors of human trafficking and how are they referred to you?

  • 12:07:51

    ESSERMANWe provide comprehensive services to sex and labor trafficking survivors, legal, social services, basic medical, mental health, critical economic empowerment services and crisis intervention services. We receive our referrals primarily from state, local and federal law enforcement, from other services providers, from law firms and from hospitals.

  • 12:08:21

    NNAMDIGo ahead.

  • 12:08:22

    ESSERMANAnd we, you know, we are so privileged to be at the University of Maryland where we draw upon the clinical and intellectual expertise of the many schools from the schools of law and social work and nursing, public health and dental school in designing our services so that they're truly comprehensive. And the idea of it, the mission is to help the survivor to emerge from the trauma of trafficking and be independent.

  • 12:08:55

    NNAMDIBarbara Wilson it's my understanding that you have survived horrific sexual abuse and trafficking at the hands of a family member. What do you think is the most important thing people should know about survivors of sex trafficking?

  • 12:09:07

    WILSONWell, for me it began when I was eight years old, and my mother was the one who was trafficking me out. And instead of going out she would bring the men into the home. And this went on till I was 13 years old. And because it was my mother there was no one that I could turn to for help. Because she was my first line of protection, of trust, and because she broke the trust and because she wasn't protecting me, in my mind it was just going to be that way if I sought help from someone else because with me being a child why would you do this and allow this to happen to me?

  • 12:09:58

    WILSONWhat I can tell -- you know, whether it's a parent, whether it's teachers or even in a workplace, but mainly when it's young victims, like myself, you notice a change in them. You notice how they withdraw from people. They don't want to be around anyone. In my case I started acting up in school. And also with me being trafficked by my mother I was also fed drugs and alcohol so that it would take my mind off of what was happening to me. And by the time I was 13, when it stopped, I also became pregnant. I was thrown out of the house.

  • 12:10:43

    WILSONAnd so the only way that I knew how to survive was to do what was being done to me. And so I got deeper into drugs, alcohol and I started prostituting my own self out in order to survive. And it went on for a long time. It went on for a long time. And because for victims once the trust is broken you don't trust anyone. It's hard to let anyone in. For me, I was literally saved by -- I actually OD'd and that's what helped me to get myself together for my daughter. And, you know, God through his grace and mercy sent someone into help guide me, but the signs you should look for ...

  • 12:11:54

    NNAMDIThe withdraw you talked about earlier.

  • 12:11:55

    WILSONIf you notice today that children are playing in there doing their normal kid thing, but then tomorrow they're acting up, because for me I started talking back. When I went to school the next day I was talking back to the teacher. They sent me to the principal talking, because I see them as adults causing harm to children. And I started acting out. But instead of them asking me the question, what happened? You wasn't like this yesterday. Instead they labeled me, why are you being bad? We're sending you to the principal's office.

  • 12:12:33

    NNAMDIAnd they should have noticed that change in your behavior.

  • 12:12:34

    WILSONThey should have noticed a change.

  • 12:12:35

    NNAMDIAnd attributed it to something else. Susan Esserman, what made you decide to start the SAFE Center?

  • 12:12:41

    ESSERMANI began working the area by taking on on a pro bono public interest basis representations of sex trafficking victims at my law firm Steptoe & Johnson. I was shocked by what I saw, especially the number of victims in our region, especially in Maryland and the severity of the cases that you just have heard from Barbara. I also came to realize that legal services alone were not at all sufficient, and that survivors faced fractured services. So I came to the University of Maryland with this concept of developing a comprehensive services center. And in the three and a half years that we have been opened we have served 150 victims of sex and labor trafficking survivors in our region and their families.

  • 12:13:39

    NNAMDIThe Center has advocated for policy changes. How has recent legislation changed the way anti-trafficking laws are enforced?

  • 12:13:46

    ESSERMANWe worked very hard last year and over the last couple of years to promote a significant legislative change. And in the Maryland General Assembly last year there was several important bills. First and importantly Maryland finally passed a law criminalizing labor trafficking. We were one of three states in the country that did not have a specific statute in that way, and having a statute is critical to motivating law enforcement and others to work together to investigate labor trafficking.

  • 12:14:23

    ESSERMANAnd that is one of our main missions this coming year. We're having a big conference at the University of Maryland SAFE Center January 29, focused on labor trafficking. And our Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh will be headlining it, because under the statute he shares enforcement responsibility. And I'll just mention one other that passed, which was a law that mandates services for youth, who have been trafficked or are vulnerable to traffic so that they can create a path out of trafficking.

  • 12:14:56

    NNAMDIBarbara what resources did you find most helpful in your recovery and journey to not being a victim and becoming a survivor?

  • 12:15:05

    WILSONWell, for one I wish back when this was happening to me that there was a safe house that I could have runaway to or at least someone that I could have reached out to. As far as the resources and the help it came to me later in my adult life when -- there was NOVA for one. And, you know, so many other organizations reached out to help me to find my voice and to share and to open up so that in telling them and sharing with them what to look for they would know how to be able to help the victims, but I do wish that it was something like that.

  • 12:15:53

    NNAMDIDespite the trauma that you've experienced in your life you went on to earn a college degree, write a book and work as an Executive Coordinator for Freddie Mac's Legal Division.

  • 12:16:01


  • 12:16:02

    NNAMDIWhat message do you have for people in distress who went through this ordeal or are going through it right now who may struggle to see a light at the end of that tunnel?

  • 12:16:11

    WILSONTo first of all take the blame off yourself, because you're to blame and take the shame off of yourself, because there's nothing to be ashamed of, because you had no control. And just like me you too can survive. You too can go on and live a productive life. And when you open up your mouth to speak it's also part of your healing. And in healing you you're also helping someone else who's going through -- because for a long time I didn't want to share my story, because it meant becoming transparent, and how would people view me, how would people judge me.

  • 12:16:51

    WILSONBut then I learned the first time that I shared there was so many people coming up and just hugging me and saying, you know, it takes courage and boldness and bravery and you're a beautiful person. And then there were others, who actually whispered in my ear, you don't know how you helped me in sharing your story. And that told me that I need to keep speaking, because there were so many people still living in silence.

  • 12:17:19

    NNAMDIChelsey Trevino, many people are shocked to hear that trafficking is something that's happening right here in this region and in the nation's capital and in fact, in communities all across the U.S. People tend to think that it's something that happens only in the developing world. What kind of challenges has that created for you in your work and how do we change that misconception?

  • 12:17:39

    TREVINOIt is a big misconception. In fact, the victims that we have served -- the clients that we work with 90 percent of them are U.S. citizen in Northern Virginia, 90 percent. While we do serve clients of foreign decent the majority of what we're seeing in Northern Virginia is people that look like me, people that look like you that are born and raised here. And so helping to break down that misconception opens people's eyes up to look at trafficking in a different way. It's really important to understand that trafficking is not what we think of in the movies. You know, the kidnap situation and movies like "Taken." While that's good TV it doesn't portray reality.

  • 12:18:20

    TREVINOThe biggest type of -- or the biggest way that trafficking is perpetrated in Northern Virginia is through manipulation tactics not through kidnapping not through force, and that can look a lot of different ways. But the main way that we see is what we call Romeo Pimps. And a pimp is trafficker, a trafficker is a pimp, same person. And so the Romeo Pimp persona is befriending a girl, more of a boyfriend type relationship, and over time introducing different concepts trying to pull them away from friends and family.

  • 12:18:52

    TREVINOAs Barbara had mentioned some red signs, maybe they're giving gifts that are a little above and beyond the expected type of gift from a boyfriend, and just going through that manipulation recruitment grooming process to get their victims, their trafficking victims into a situation where they can really be -- have control over them. So really important for the greater community to be armed with that knowledge so they know what to look for. And when the red flags present themselves they know what they're looking at.

  • 12:19:27

    NNAMDIWe don't have a lot of time left. But I wanted to get in Sarah in Ashburn, Virginia. Sarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:33

    SARAHHi. Thank you for taking my call. Last summer, I had newborn triplets and I was leaving a doctor's appointment at a pediatric facility where anyone with children would be. I was trying to get my kids back in the car by myself when suddenly I noticed that there were gentlemen on either corner of the parking lot. And one, seemingly out of nowhere, approaching me offering very aggressively to help me get my kids in my car. And my suspicion immediately arose and I aggressively pushed him away and tried to make as much noise as possible. And eventually they got away from me.

  • 12:20:08

    SARAHI loaded my kids in the car and then I sat and I wondered if I was being paranoid. I wondered if I had made something out of nothing, and after a few hours I called the police and I reported it. And I felt very nervous that I was wasting police time and resources. And they reassured me that my instinct was probably correct, and that they were grateful that I was reporting these incidents. And they said that they wished that more parents felt the power to call and express this concern. And I was just really reassured by that. I don't know what came of that, but the next few weeks there was a police presence around the building and I was really grateful for that.

  • 12:20:44

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. As I said, we don't have a great deal of time left. Susan Esserman, but did she do the right thing?

  • 12:20:50

    ESSERMANShe did do the right thing. And just for -- it's very important if you see something to say something.

  • 12:20:57

    NNAMDISay something.

  • 12:20:58

    ESSERMANAnd for the listeners if you see something the signs of trafficking of the sorts of things you heard from Barbara, people not in control of their documents, money, forced to work long hours, not sure of their address, signs of physical abuse, emotional abuse, work related abuse, hunger, malnourishment, a key sign for labor trafficking, living in the same place as your employer, call, say something. And a place to call is the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The number is 1-888-373-7888. Text BeFree or 233733.

  • 12:21:42

    NNAMDISusan Esserman is Founder and Director of the University of Maryland SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:21:48

    ESSERMANThank you for raising awareness to human trafficking.

  • 12:21:50

    NNAMDIChelsey Trevino is the Disruption Team Member with the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:21:56

    TREVINOThank you so much. Honor.

  • 12:21:57

    NNAMDIAnd Barbara Jean Wilson is a Human Trafficking Survivor. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:22:02

    WILSONThank you for having me.

  • 12:22:04

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back medical trials, they're a key to scientific advancement. We'll learn more about the volunteers who make them possible. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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