What authorities say unfolded at the Macomb Township mobile home park this year seemed almost too far-fetched to believe: a 29-year-old disabled woman held captive in a couple’s shed in a tidy neighborhood, forced to perform sexual services with strangers.
But Michigan activists say the incident that led to charges this month against the pair illustrates the reach of human trafficking — a crime under international, federal and state laws that some call “modern-day slavery.”
“I go all over the state, talking to groups, and every time I speak to a group, regardless of the size, someone comes up to me and relates an experience,” said state Sen. Judy Emmons, who has sponsored human trafficking legislation in Michigan. “There has been some kind of connection to this that tells me this is pervasive.”
She and others who monitor trafficking in Michigan say the Macomb Township case underscores the need for more robust measures to crack down on the crime.
“You have to make sure the community is involved,” said Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, which includes members from more than 100 agencies. “Laws themselves will never solve the issue and we need to do more in terms of prevention.”
The Macomb County Sheriff’s Office has released few details about how long the woman was held at the Westbridge Manor mobile home park before an anonymous tip arrived in September.
She had apparently been staying with the couple — identified as Misty George, an acquaintance from high school, and Michael Welch — until they allegedly forced her outside when the 29-year-old couldn’t pay rent. For a time, investigators claim, the couple advertised “dates” with her online and several men showed up, paying to have sex.
Such an arrangement isn’t unusual in trafficking, White said.
“There’s this assumption that trafficking is an impulsive crime. It’s not. … The only reason one is a trafficker is to make money,” she said.
Since there are complex issues related to identifying victims, White and others note it is difficult to track exactly how many are affected in Michigan at a given time.
“There is no such thing in the U.S as a data collection process” for human trafficking, she said.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline operated by the Polaris Project, 136 cases were reported in the state so far this year. The group tallied 249 in 2016 and 151 the year before. But those are reports to the hotline and don’t necessarily reflect all incidents, White added.
Among the more horrific examples exposed this year in Metro Detroit was running out of the Victory Inn in Detroit when it was raided in January.
“Our ability and infrastructure to recognize and report and prosecute perpetrators is being strengthened every day,” said Celia Thomas, CEO at Alternatives For Girls, a Detroit-based nonprofit serving homeless and high-risk girls and young women. “And as a result, we’re finding more (cases) and we’re able to unearth this at a higher level than what we had been historically.”
There have been legal gains, as well. Gov. Rick Snyder signed 21 bills in 2014 that crack down on human trafficking and help victims. Provisions include harsher penalties for perpetrators and state protection for juveniles rescued from the sex trade.
The measures allow victims’ convictions to be set aside, legally presume that minors with prostitution offenses were coerced into it and ensure victims have access to medical, psychological and other services.
Under the law, state caseworkers must report abuse and neglect cases involving trafficking to police, and health workers are being trained to identify potential victims.
The laws extend the statute of limitations for trafficking offenses, stiffen criminal penalties for pimps and people who pay money for sex, and classify the restraint of a minor for producing child porn as kidnapping. Those soliciting sex from minors are added to Michigan’s sex offender registry.
The Michigan Human Trafficking Commission works to review laws and make recommendations to toughen them, among other pursuits.
Emmons hopes more legislation will target those who make trafficking possible. “There’s something wrong when you don’t focus on the buyer, because he is just as depraved as the person selling,” she said.
Meanwhile, as part of its work, Alternatives for Girls has worked with officials to help victims and last year received a grant from the S.H.A.U.N. Foundation for Girls to support the group’s work, Thomas said. “We are part of collaboratives that have us at the table trying to be responsive when victims are found, and we’re absolutely committed to trying to help victims move along their continuum to becoming survivors.”
The woman police say was held escaped and relatives called police after learning about her ordeal, investigators said. Her name has not been released.
Like others who fled trafficking, she could face a long road to recovery.
“The greatest harm is the psychological damage done to victims,” White said.