Sex trafficking of Native women a concern in Michigan tribal communities
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — Modern-day slavery continues to exist.
Currently, millions of adults and children around the world are victims of human trafficking: The use of force, fraud or coercion to exploit a person for labor or commercial sex.
Native American women and children are at high risk of becoming victims.
In comparison to other racial and ethnic groups, Native women and children remain the most frequent victims of physical and sexual violence in the United States and Canada (www.rainn.org).
For continued education on the topic, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe (SCIT) and United States Attorney’s Office (EDMI) presented “Shedding Light on Human Trafficking” on Jan. 28 in the Eagles Nest Tribal Gym.
Prosecutor Sara Woodward, human trafficking and project safe childhood coordinator from the United States Attorney’s Office in Detroit, discussed her recent federal prosecution of Willie Curry, 36, who found his 15 and 16-year-old victims in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, after they had run away from a group home.
On Aug. 3 2013, Curry was fishing in the Chippewa River at one of the local Mount Pleasant parks when the two girls approached him, asking if he had a cell phone they could use.
Curry lured his victims to Detroit with promises of clothing, cell phones and once there, he physically and sexually assaulted his victims, forcing them into prostitution, Woodward said.
He “gave the girls drugs and alcohol, took explicit photos of them and posted their photos online,” Woodward said. “Some people are appalled sex trafficking is posted online (Craigslist and other sites) but it is helpful for law enforcement because it is evidence.”
According to Woodward, on Aug. 14, 2013, when one of the victims refused to comply with Curry’s demands to engage in sex acts with strangers for money, he raped her.
The next day, that victim climbed out of the bathroom window at 5 a.m., and ran to a gas station where a woman drove her to meet her dad in Okemos, Michigan.
Michigan State Police interviewed the victim and compiled information which lead to the rescue of the two other victims in Curry’s home Aug. 19, 2013.
“Typically, vulnerable victims are not traditionally ‘good witnesses’,” said Woodward, who also serves as deputy chief for the General Crimes Unit. “Cases can be frustrating, messy and labor intensive. Traffickers know that their victims are not ‘good witnesses’ and expect law enforcement not to believe them.”
Curry and his girlfriend, Tammy Pollard, who also played a major part in the crime, plead guilty to charges of: sex trafficking minors by force/fraud/coercion, production of child pornography and felon in possession of a fire arm.
Woodward explained bonds often form between traffickers and the victims.
“One of the victims thought Curry was great,” Woodward said. “She needed male love that she had been lacking in her life, but she hated Tammy… The longer the victim is with the trafficker, the harder it is to break that bond.”
During questioning, Woodward said law enforcement should not ask the victim about the trafficker right away, because they might become defensive.
“Instead, ask about the first time they [the victim] ran away,” Woodward said. “If you are law enforcement, hear her out and find out what caused her to run away in the first place.”
Woodward said “Curry was nowhere near as bad as one of the victim’s fathers, who had raped her for 10 years.”
Sen. Judy Emmons (R-Sheridan) and SCIT Tribal Council Member Lindy Hunt attended the discussion.
Woodward said “in Grand Rapids, Michigan, alone, there are about 1,100 children for sale on the internet.”
Woodward suggests that hotel staff watch for signs of human trafficking. Signs could include individuals who seem like they may not be free to go wherever they want, or if many visitors are in and out of the same hotel room over the course of the night.
On behalf of the Soaring Eagle Waterpark and Hotel, General Manager Bonnie Sprague said that she and Bernard Sprague, director of hotel operations for Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort, have joined efforts to stop human trafficking at the hotels.
“Our properties are members of the Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association,” Bonnie said. “We have teamed up with MLTA and the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute’s SAFE Action Project to safeguard adolescents from exploitation; a crime often unknown to hospitality management.”
In learning that Michigan is the number one state to experience human trafficking in the hotel industry, the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute provides trainings for hospitality teams, specifically teaching the general hotel, security, front desk/reservation, food and beverage, housekeeping and maintenance, Bonnie said.
“This training will help our teams recognize warning signs and properly report suspicious behavior,” Bonnie said. “Once all of our team members have been through the training, our hotel properties will receive a decal to place on our hotel doors, letting our guests know that we are a safe place to stay.”
Bonnie said both SEWPH and SECR properties have experienced similar occurrences with the most recent occurrence at SECR over the holiday season.
“We do not take these types of crimes lightly, and we have been training our teams to recognize this hideous crime for several months now and will continue until we complete the training,” Bonnie said.
Mandy Wigren, victims of crime advocate for Tribal Judicial Services, served as hostess for the event.
“Sex crimes against women and children, along with domestic violence are the largest crimes in our Tribal community,” Wigren said.
Emmons said a lot of people do not like to hear these stories and to learn it is happening so close to home.
“Every story, circumstance, location [of human trafficking] is different,” Emmons said. “It is happening right next door, everywhere.”
This story was originally published in the Tribal Observer. It was republished with permission by the Native Health News Alliance.