Published 1/31/21 in Frederick News Post

The difference between helping and hurting a survivor of human trafficking can be as simple as keeping a promise, which is why Amanda Rodriguez knew it’d be worth traveling to seven fast food restaurants to find a specific milkshake.

Before becoming executive director of TurnAround, Inc. — a Baltimore-based organization providing therapy, case management, shelter and more to survivors — one of Rodriguez’s jobs was prosecuting human trafficking cases.

During the third annual Frederick County Human Trafficking Response Team Summit, conducted virtually this year on Friday, Rodriguez told the story of a young woman who was reluctant to talk to a room full of adults about her trafficking experience, when Rodriguez was a prosecutor. The survivor asked for food from McDonald’s, and when she got it, she pointed out they’d forgotten her eggnog milkshake.

“If you make a promise to a survivor, you better be willing to keep it,” Rodriguez said, because up until that point, the only person a survivor may trust to keep their promises is the person who trafficked them. That cycle must be broken to gain trust.

Human trafficking includes trafficking people for sex or labor, according to the summit’s experts. In its 2019 report, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 22,326 victims and survivors.

Meaghan Tarquinio, a social worker in the forensics department at Frederick Health Hospital, is one of the first people a survivor sees after coming to the hospital for help. She said encouraging a person who has experienced trauma to open up to a stranger is difficult. Their basic needs — food, shelter and safety — have to be met before they can think about anything else.

Recently, Tarquinio’s found many adult survivors are coming to her from the behavioral health unit. Patients who were admitted for psychosis, substance abuse or feeling suicidal sometimes disclose their trafficking experience later on. In those cases, the reasons they came to the hospital are likely symptoms of the trauma they experienced.

“These survivors need a system that takes into account their lived experience,” Tarquinio said.

Wilnisha Sutton, a survivor who works to help other survivors, said those who’ve experienced trafficking need to be treated with an extra spoonful of grace and understanding. Sutton has a background in case management and working with diversion courts. She is a member of the Maryland Survivor Network.

Sutton recommends being authentic and honest with survivors, and not rushing them to tell their story. She feels the media sometimes focuses too much on a survivor’s trauma instead of the solutions.

“Treat them like a human. They are opening up and telling you their story,” Sutton said. “We’re more than our trauma.”

In Maryland, the trafficking of immigrant children is a great concern to immigration attorney Rebeca Garcia Gil, of University of Maryland’s SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors.

“Maryland is one of the top destinations for unaccompanied children in the country,” she said. “Unaccompanied children are extremely vulnerable.”

Gil is currently working on five cases of minors being trafficked, two of which were trafficked for labor and three for sex. Immigrant children who leave their home countries without their parents are in danger of being taken advantage of by their sponsor or falling prey to other untrustworthy adults, according to Gil. What’s more, she said an immigrant child may be afraid to go to the police for help because they fear deportation.

Gil tries to help her clients understand their rights. Even if someone is not a U.S. citizen, if they’re in this country, they have a right not to be trafficked, she said.

Some solutions to curbing human trafficking come in the form of legislation, according to Amelia Rubenstein, director of research and programs at SAFE.

In 2020, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to prohibit soliciting consent from the parent, guardian or custodian of a minor to sexually abuse them. Another victory last session, Rubenstein said, was the approval of legislation that will make it easier for unaccompanied minors to access shelter and supportive services.

On the horizon, House Bill 182 seeks to require the Maryland Department of Education to implement curriculum on promoting awareness of and preventing human trafficking, for grades 6 to 8.