By Tessa K. Hessmiller, Chairperson, Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force
Human trafficking is touching every sector of our community and the organizations serving our community’s most vulnerable populations are on the front lines. It was those experiences and the shared desire to do a much better job helping victims of human trafficking and holding offenders accountable that brought all of us to the table.
Building on the work of numerous organizations, some specifically designed to address the needs of trafficked individuals and some ready to expand their service array to better support victims, an initial task force comprised of organizations from across the sectors was convened in March 2015 and hosted by the YWCA West Central Michigan. The modest intent of the meeting was to assess interest in forming a body to integrate and coordinate local efforts; the actual result was an enthusiastic gathering of 25 organizations who assumed the need for a formal task force, and got right to the business of setting an agenda for change.
Soon after, the YWCA secured a five-month, $50,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Community Health to build the structure of the task force and run a local awareness campaign. In under five months, the task force established an organizational structure, a mission, a goal for the year, an elected seven-member leadership team, a professional website, a Facebook following of over 400 people, a 24/7 local hotline, and a monthly meeting. We launched a media blitz to generate discussion about the issue and involved local news stations, movie theaters, city bus signs, and a “red flags” campaign around the county. Our task force has grown to over 65 people from 25 agencies, including representatives from social service and victim service organizations; mental and medical health practitioners; federal and county prosecutors; local, state, and federal law enforcement; juvenile probation; and concerned citizens.
We are passionate about building awareness, collaboration, and investigative capacity to address sex and labor trafficking in Kent County. The leadership team is working to develop a comprehensive, modular curriculum to train people from all sectors of the community on becoming informed and effective community first responders to human trafficking. Wherever you are in the world, we invite you to help us #stopthistraffic and follow us on Facebook.