Nonprofits Alternatives For Girls and WC Safe worked with Homeland Security to recover 14 victims in January

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When some 200 law enforcement officers raided the Victory Inn on Jan. 12, they recovered more than just narcotics.

They also rescued 14 victims of human trafficking who were being provided drugs in exchange for “commercial sex dates” in filthy rooms filled with needles, crack pipes and guns.

And they had expected to find even more victims.

“Traffickers move people, and it just so happened that some of the women were working elsewhere,” said Deena Policicchio, director of outreach and education services for Alternatives For Girls, which joined the operation 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Detroit-based nonprofit serves high-risk girls and women and partnered with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations to offer the victims crises counseling, hygiene supplies, clothing, drug treatment referrals and transportation to safe lodging. WC Safe, a Wayne County nonprofit that helps sexual assault survivors, and the University of Michigan Human Trafficking Clinic also assisted the victims.

“They’re still in trauma and crisis mode,” Policicchio said shortly after the raid.

According to court records, Michael Randol, a 41-year-old convicted felon from Detroit, distributed drugs to women in exchange for sex dates at the motel. One woman described as a frequent Victory Inn resident told police she worked as a prostitute to pay back a man called “Q,” who sold her cocaine and heroin, and to “work off a drug debt she owed” to another man called “T.” She alleged the men had as many as 20 women “working for them.”

Melissa Novock, a WC Safe human trafficking specialist, said a lot of traffickers use drugs to manipulate women who have or develop addictions. But there are a number of reasons women fall victims to trafficking. Some fall behind on rent and need money. Others can’t get a job because of criminal histories. Some become involuntarily controlled.

“(Some)times what happens is a woman is selling herself, a pimp finds her, decides he wants to own her and he’ll just go in a hotel, rape her and then say she is his,” Policicchio said. “...and he will beat her and control her from that day forward.”

Pimps often target vulnerable young girls and women, though boys can be victims, too, Novock said. There’s also a misconception that victims are snatched from malls or bus stops.

“Sometimes that does happen. But a lot of the times...the young girls are not in a great situation,” Novock said, rattling off examples: They’ve been sexually abused, live in foster care or a homeless shelter, or suffer from an abusive relationship. “They’re looking for some type of attention, some type of love and a pimp takes advantage of that.”

Trafficking happens everywhere

While The Victory Inn sits next to a topless bar in an area known for prostitution, authorities say human trafficking occurs everywhere.

“We’re always thinking that this is happening somewhere else or to someone else, but it’s happening in Michigan, and it’s happening in the city and the suburbs,” Novock said.

Policicchio said she went on one raid with law enforcement in an affluent Wayne County suburb. They were looking for women forced to prostitute at a hotel full of families staying there for a soccer tournament.

“So often we like to relegate the bad things that humans do, the atrocities of humanity, to urban centers and to places with lots of poverty, but it’s not just the urban centers,” Policicchio said.

HSI special agent Jim Klawitter assisted with The Victory Inn case and said HSI targets trafficking in hotels, businesses and residences. For instance, HSI has investigated indentured servitude in Detroit suburbs and cases involving home caregivers.

“(Trafficking) can be created in just about any place you can think of,” he said.

The number of human trafficking victims is difficult to track, experts say. The Polaris Project, which collects data through the National Human Trafficking hotline, provides the only “tangible” statistics, Klawitter said. Polaris reports the number of sex and labor trafficking victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands.

As “trafficking” connotes, victims are often moved across state borders. In Michigan, Novock has assisted young women from Florida to Colorado. However, “you don’t have to be taken from state to state for it to be trafficking,” she said.

By legal standards, people 18 and younger who are traded for sex are human trafficking victims. People 18 or older have to prove force or coercion “for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery,” ICE states.

Yet it’s important to consider the age of entry, Novock said, giving the example of 20-somethings working in the sex trade business.

“A lot of those women were brought into the life when they were 11, 12, 13, 14...they were young when they were forced into it,” she said. “No young girl chooses that.”

Policicchio said the women discovered at the Victory Inn were over 21, but stresses not all victims were at the hotel during the sting.

“We were expecting people who were under the age of 21,” she said.

Focusing on the victims

HSI takes a victim-centered approach with human trafficking victims.

“Our first concern is always getting them to a place where they’re safe, and then from there finding out what their basic needs are and what resources they need,” said HSI special agent Amy Tanana, who’s on The Victory Inn case.

A victim assistant specialist acts as a liaison between the victim and agent and connects the victim to housing, food, medical care, legal assistance and transportation.

Victims often don’t want to talk with law enforcement, and nongovernmental organizations HSI partners with — such as Alternatives For Girls and WC Safe — help establish trust and dialogue, Klawitter said.

“It has led to a lot of cases being investigated,” he said.

In fiscal year 2016, HSI arrested 1,952 individuals for human trafficking. Those cases led to the identification of 400 victims.

Last year, HSI established the Michigan Human Trafficking and Transnational Crimes Task Force — comprised of the Taylor Police Department (where the task force is based), U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — to take a multiagency approach to fight human trafficking in the state.

Through outreach efforts in fiscal year 2016, ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls said they’ve reached over 7,000 stakeholders to spread awareness about human trafficking red flags. Those include the inability to freely leave employment, being forced to perform sexual acts as part of employment and the inability to contact family and friends.

“The public has a stake in this too,” Walls said, “so understanding and recognizing some of the indicators could very well save somebody’s life.”

The road to recovery

“There’s a common path for survivors of trauma,” said Novock, “but everyone’s path of healing is a little different.”

That might mean seeking shelter, counseling or a substance abuse program.

Relapse is also part of the healing. With survivors of human trafficking, there’s often a “trauma bond” that can cause victims to return to abusers, Novock said.

“This person gives you shelter, food, clothing and at times, the abuser or the pimp will say that they care about them,” she said “...it takes a lot of work and time to break that bond.”

Appearing in court to testify can also setback any steps forward.

“When you have to testify, when you have to recall the abuse and the violence, every time you tell that story you can be revictimized,” Novock said.

On Jan. 27, Wayne County Circuit Judge Robert Colombo Jr. ordered The Victory Inn to close for one year and for furniture to be removed from the 42 rooms. Randol and Bryant Daugherty, 45, a convicted sex offender, have been charged in federal court.

None of the victims have appeared in court, but Klawitter said “it’s always a possibility” they may have to testify.

While testifying can sometimes be seen as a negative, Tanana said, it can be a positive experience for victims.

“These human trafficking victims have been held down and told what to do for so long,” she said, “and this is finally their moment to have a voice and to speak again and to tell their side of the story.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

National Human Trafficking Hotline

(888) 373-7888

Alternatives For Girls Crisis Line

(888) 234-3919

WC SAFE Crisis Pager

(313) 430-8000

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