• 79°

Updated policies give DSS new tools to screen for trafficking

New updates to Department of Social Services policies at the state level will give local child protective service workers better tools to help identify possible victims of human trafficking. The updated child welfare policy manual takes effect in May 2019 but locally, many of those practices are already being put into place.

“The state has revised its child welfare policy, so now, when we’re doing child protective services intakes, our workers are actually trained to ask questions about human trafficking,” Beaufort County Social Work Program Administrator Lori Leggett said. “We’ve really modified our tools so we can look for it.”

Human trafficking is defined as the use of force, fraud or coercion to force someone into labor or commercial sexual exploitation. When minors are involved in commercial sex acts, North Carolina state law automatically defines that as human trafficking.

Historically, Leggett says perceptions of human trafficking were often tied to the idea that trafficked individuals were coming into the country from abroad in the sex trade or for forced labor. In recent years, however, it has become clear that human trafficking is happening domestically as well.

“It’s the children off the streets, the runaways, the children in foster care — it’s the children at risk,” Leggett said. “It’s the ones you see wandering around with no parents. They’re easy prey for these people who bring them in and get them caught up in that lifestyle. It’s not until someone brings it to our attention that we can go out and try to help them.”

While DSS plays a role in responding to instances of child sex trafficking, the agency’s response to trafficking involves a host of other players — the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons, local law enforcement and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

For DSS specifically, their work with human trafficking is specific to children and those with physical or mental disabilities. Some risk factors for children to be exploited include homelessness, being kicked out of their homes or schools, history of sexual or physical abuse and delinquent behaviors.

While Leggett says her office has not dealt with any cases of human trafficking in Beaufort County, she says the public has a role to play in reporting suspicious circumstances to authorities.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had one that has been classified as human trafficking,” Leggett said. “I think it’s there, but I don’t think we know about it. Now that the laws have changed, maybe they can start prosecuting better under those laws.”

To report suspected instances of human trafficking, call 1-888-373-7888, text 233733 or visit humantraffickinghotline.org. To contact the Beaufort County Department of Social Services, call 252-975-5500.