The photos accompanying this article are from Hope in the Valley, New Hope Ministry’s annual fundraiser. This year’s event, on October 18, was its third year at Lake Dardanelle State Park. Local restaurants provided food and music was courtesy of the Arkansas Tech University Jazz Ensemble. It was a night of reflection and remembrance for those who are still victims of trafficking with a candle light vigil. And it was a night to recognize the part we can all play in making a way for them to find hope in the darkness.
When you hear the phrase “human trafficking,” you may think of it in terms of illegally moving people — usually minors and children — from one location to another and often across borders. You may think that it’s something that happens only in other, more populous places or, perhaps, even only in other countries.
But human trafficking is best defined as slavery. It’s a psychological and emotional manipulation or coercion that results in the exploitation of vulnerable young people as forced labor, forced begging, in a forced marriage, as sexual slaves, forced prostitution, and even organ removal. And trafficking isn’t a crime that happens just “somewhere else,” as New Hope Ministries executive director Art Heathcock explains.
“I think most people think it can’t happen here,” says Heathcock. “But the reality is that it does. That’s why we do what we do. Trafficking is here, and people don’t know. Your kids don’t see it, you may not see it, but we need to. We need to be educated. Education can change everything.”
According to Heathcock, quantifiable statistics regarding trafficking are difficult to come by.
“We don’t have any hard data regarding how many kids are being trafficked here in Pope County,” Heathcock says. The reason for the lack of data is because of the psychological/ emotional manipulation, a naive victim of trafficking often doesn’t even realize that they are a victim.
“They’ve been manipulated so much,” says Christie Moore, treasurer for New Hope Ministries. “They think, ‘this person is taking care of me,’ and they believe the situation is temporary. They’re doing this with the belief that they’re providing funds to help that person take care of them.”
Traffickers use promises of money and security along with friendship or romantic bonding to lure young people who are often dissatisfied with some aspect of their life. Heathcock says that victims of trafficking are often children trying to escape a bad situation. “Unfortunately a lot of the kids who wind up in various systems have been trafficked,” Heathcock says. “Perhaps they were in troubled homes or were runaways who find themselves in this situation. Maybe parents are detached, the child is socially awkward and doesn’t have many friends at school. They may have been bullied. They don’t have appropriate anchors or grounding.”
For a calculating, predatory trafficker, these are the vulnerable young targets most easily manipulated. “These people [traffickers] will put in the weeks and months of time to manipulate these kids,” Heathcock says.
And the psychological/emotional hold on the victims is difficult to break even as the truth about the relationship is revealed. Heathcock says that often when victims are rescued they’ll be asked about certain characteristics of the trafficker who controlled them. And often their response is that the trafficker was a friend or boyfriend
New Hope Ministries is the counter to this insidious and growing crime.
“The vision for New Hope is very much the same today as it was when we began,” Heathcock says. “Our current thrust is to partner with DHS (Arkansas Department of Human Services) to serve child trafficking survivors who are in foster homes here in our county. We have mentoring programs, and we have ways to help support families who are helping these victims. Heathcock says that one of the goals of New Hope Ministries is “ to bring the community in and rally around the kids.”
The process New Hope uses to assist child victims is one of supplemental support to foster families. “We serve the foster families through training and activities built specifically for them,” Heathcock says. “These families and these victims face so much, and we want to assist in any way we can.”
“We have a dream of housing these kids in the future,” Moore says. “Over the last few years, we could have more than filled a shelter with the number of calls we have received. The shelter is absolutely a goal for us.”
Moore believes that despite the weight of the subject, the community — working together — can tackle the problem. “I realize this is heavy,” she says. “I realize this can be difficult to talk about. I know some people get anxious or just shut down because it’s too much. But I think the best way for us to go is forward together. It’s not too big for the community. It’s too big for one person, or two people, but our community can do this.”
For more information about New Hope Ministries, visit their website at newhopyouth.org.