Bryttani Debro has always had a passion for raising awareness of the harsh realities of human trafficking.
She started at Ohio University in 2009 and studied sociology and criminology, and in 2014, Debro returned to receive her master’s degree in public administration. During her graduate schooling, Debro worked at the Athens County Child Advocacy Center and helped pioneer the Athens County Human Trafficking Coalition.
When the position of anti-human trafficking program coordinator became available at the Salvation Army in Franklin County, Debro applied and was offered the job. Although she now works as the program director for the Rapid Rehousing Department at the YMCA of Central Ohio, Debro’s efforts in the anti-human trafficking movement were the reason she was given the Notable Alumni Award by OU in 2019.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, but people such as Debro continue to raise awareness of the issue every day. As an anti-human trafficking program coordinator, she oversaw case managers and responded to a telephone hotline where victims could be directed to case management, housing or mental health services in the county they were in. Different types of human trafficking occur and each must be understood in a certain way.
“There are two forms of trafficking; there is sex and labor trafficking, and as stated by the Polaris Project, sex trafficking is a crime that uses force, fraud or coercion as well as labor trafficking,” Debro said. “So when you’re wanting to know if somebody is potentially being trafficked, or has been trafficked, you want to see if you can identify force, fraud or coercion.”
Some types of sex trafficking can be discovered in escort services, pornography, illicit massage businesses, strip clubs, brothels and more, according to Debro. Common types of labor trafficking include and can be seen in domestic work, restaurants, cleaning services and agricultural work.
“When you are talking about what is trafficking you have to remember that trafficking can happen to anyone, any race, gender, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class or status,” Debro said. “It does not just target one population and if trafficking is happening at one county, it’s happening in the next county.”
While the crime can affect anyone, there are more vulnerable populations at risk of being trafficked. The Polaris Project, an organization dedicated to dismantling the systems that enable human trafficking’s existence, states that people of color and LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be trafficked than other groups. Debro said this is due to historical and generational oppression and trauma, ultimately allowing traffickers to take advantage of people's vulnerabilities and insecurities in life.
To eliminate some of the barriers survivors may have to finding safety resources, organizations such as Haven of Hope, which serves as a member of the Southeast Ohio Human Trafficking Coalition, ensure survivors are being helped throughout their journey.
Michelle Carpenter Wilkinson, chief executive officer of Haven of Hope, described the social service organization as an advocacy center for survivors.
“We were formed 38 years ago and we provide direct trauma informed services to all victims of crime to rape victims, domestic violence, stalking, families of murdered victims, you name it. Basically, there isn't a crime that doesn't have a victim,” Wilkinson said.
Haven of Hope became a part of the Southeast Ohio Human Trafficking Coalition after human trafficking gained more attention in the state. The Ohio Attorney General’s Office asked if the organization would form a task force in order to respond to human trafficking cases specifically in Guernsey County.
The people who work at Haven of Hope and serve the community are registered advocates in the state of Ohio. Wilkinson is a credential advocate with the National Office of Victims Assistance at the advanced level as a comprehensive victims specialist.
“Our protocol basically would be that if someone in our community reports or is deemed to fit the federal guidelines of being a human trafficking victim, then our first concern as advocates, always, is safety,” Wilkinson said. “So do we need to provide emergency shelter? Do you need to put someone in a hotel room? Do we need to make sure there's been an arrest made so there’s some bond conditions that would protect the victim? But really our goal here is to make sure they're safe.”
Wilkinson believes survivors who have sufficient resources can make the best decisions for themselves. Jomel Spurlock, director of Victim Services for Human Trafficking Initiative for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, brings awareness to the importance of providing survivors with appropriate support.
“I have a heart to serve others, and when it comes to victims of crime, my mantra became to be a voice for the voiceless,” Spurlock said.
Her job is to assess and strengthen survivor services throughout the state. Ohio is among the top 10 states with the highest number of calls made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, according to the Polaris Project and Ohio Department of Health.
A common myth about human trafficking, Spurlock explained, is that most incidents happen with strangers and deal with random kidnappings. In reality, a trafficker is most likely to be someone who a survivor has a relationship with, such as a family member or someone who plans to build a relationship with a survivor. This is what Spurlock called “boyfriending in” and “girlfriending in.”
“And so what a trafficker does, they come in and they start to learn and be a part of this: ‘I’m interested romantically’ or ‘I’m a friend’ or ‘I recognized that you didn’t have a place to go’ or that you’re in need of these different kinds of things.”
Some people may feel human trafficking is too big of an issue for them to prevent individually, but there are means of helping. Spurlock said a beneficial starting point is initiating conversations with friends and family about the myths of human trafficking because accuracy can contribute to the support of survivors. People can also not traffic others or buy goods that are made from forced labor.
“You can’t have a supply without a demand,” Spurlock said. “That means that there are usually men who are willing to buy sex. People want to buy sex, and that's what's driving traffickers to have a supply of victims. So we can impact the way that our boys and our men and our social circles can think and hold each other accountable.”
Annually, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office hosts a Human Trafficking Summit and this year it will take place virtually on Jan. 13. There are 16 workshops and the keynote speaker, Cyntoia Brown, is a trafficking survivor. If people cannot attend the workshops the time they are happening, they will be available after online. The cost of attendance is $25 per person.
“Our topics can range from somebody who's a beginner in the learning about human trafficking or they are working in a particular role where they are working already with vulnerable populations,” Spurlock said.
Debro, Wilkinson and Spurlock all agree raising awareness about human trafficking is a crucial step anyone can take in helping survivors and becoming better educated on the systems in place in which permit the crime. Spurlock said the issue is actually much more relevant to everyone’s lives than people would think.
“Every single one of us has felt vulnerable at some point in our lives,” Spurlock said. “Whether that's for a season of life, a couple weeks, maybe it's health issues, maybe financial issues, family things, insecurities, you name it. And the fact that we can all feel vulnerable in some capacity and that you have traffickers that are actively always looking for someone that's in a vulnerable situation, you just think about how much I can actually connect with this.”