Human trafficking: ‘Always be vigilant’ says director
MUNCY – “Be informed!” That was the message given last month to members of the Muncy Rotary when guest speaker, Rev. C. Angelique Labadie-Cihanowyz, spoke on the tormented subject of human trafficking. Accompanying her was Ray Kontz, now a part time police officer in Muncy with 22 years of experience behind him in crime management.
Recently Labadie-Cihanowyz took over the operations of Sojourner Truth Ministries in Williamsport. With a background in education and ministry, and having moved to the area four years ago, she implemented Bort2Fly, an educational program for children that teaches them to be safe. It is an effort to stop child abductions and human trafficking, making them aware of the perilous outcomes.
“It is slavery, forced labor,” she told her audience as they met at Orlando’s in Muncy. Money is turned over to an oppressor for sexual services, and the average age is between 11 and 14. “This is a prime target. They are perceived innocently, emotionally and easily manipulated,” she added. To a perpetrator, “a middle school is a buffet line. They eat, sleep, and drink to trick young people.” They are average looking, clean-cut and well dressed, not a thug.
Someone can easily be targeted from home, the bus, or walking. “They use threats and trickery and kids believe it.” There is a power disparity. Victims are groomed, showing low self-esteem, or they may already be a victim. Sometimes it can be someone they know and trust, perhaps meeting them in a gaming room or even a house of worship according to Labadie-Cihanowyz who was on the pastoral staff at Stroudsburg Wesleyan Church. Holding a large sheet of scripts written by victims, she shared their outcries and how they met their traffickers. Some were at a foster home, others said a neighbor, another said a friend of her parents. “Areas we generally think our kids are safe,” Labadie-Cihanowyz said.
Body language is another risk factor, as well as low income, minority, race and age. Maybe there are struggles at home.
She went into Megan’s Law, a website that shows where reported sex offenders live, and it showed 47 convicted registered sex offenders within the Muncy area of a one mile radius, and 52 in the 17756 zip code area. Lycoming County is the second highest in the state for sex abuse, according to Officer Kontz. If they move and do not report their new location to authorities, then it is a 5 year violation he said. “No sex offender can have social media,” he added. “We keep the best eye on them we can without violating their civil rights.”
“Nine out of ten sex offenders don’t get reported,” added Labadie-Cihanowyz. “They are predominately male, and many struggle financially.”
“Trafficking knows no boundaries, and don’t post personal information about your kids online or Facebook,” she advised, and spoke of a 42 year old woman she met who trafficked in Stroudsburg where she used to live.
“Wherever there’s drugs, there’s sex trafficking,” she informed and related a story of a mother who was a drug addict and trafficked her 12 year old daughter for drug money. “It is a common practice seen here in Williamsport,” added Officer Kontz.
New laws in Pennsylvania make it harder with harsher penalties. Often when one is abused for so long, they don’t know how to get out of the situation. “There’s a tremendous amount of mistrust. Years of emotions can be totally messed up.”
A human trafficking response team has been established to focus more on awareness, prevention and advocacy. Correct the abuse, advises the experts. “Talk to females with respect and don’t put them down. Correct the abusive language,” she said. Watch how they dress, watch the language, share stories, watch the documentaries on YouTube. “Talk to your kids and share the resources. Take photos. Perpetrators are controlling, and it may not just be one person. “They like to approach young girls. Be assertive and aware of your surroundings.”
“Reinforce that we are all equally valued,” she concluded. Watch for a change in friends, dropping grades, body bruises, or maybe someone dressing differently, more provocatively, or receiving expensive gifts. “Do they seem fearful, or won’t hold a conversation?” These are all warning flags, or patterns that something may be very wrong.
She also suggested to walk the neighborhood, establish neighborhood watches, and follow up with conversations to raise more awareness. “Those that don’t want to have anything to do with you, may be the one who is guilty.”
An open house is scheduled for June 7 from 5 to 7:30 to welcome Rev. C. Angelique Labadie-Cihanowyz into the community. It will be held at the Sojourner Ministry at 501 High Street in Williamsport.