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May 6, 2022: Interfaith prayer breakfast helps victims of human trafficking

LACONIA — The National Day of Prayer on May 5 is an inter-faith call for hope and healing that resonates in communities across the U.S., including Laconia – where a breakfast at St. Andre Bessette Parish raised more than $1,900 for Brigid’s House of Hope, the state’s first and only respite dedicated to helping victims of human trafficking.

It’s a little known but widespread problem in a mostly rural state. And it’s one that disproportionately targets women and children, but also includes men and members of the LGBTQ community. At least 50 to 90 victims are reported each year statewide, Bethany Cottrell, founder and executive director of Brigid’s House, told an audience of close to 100 gathered in the gymnasium at the parish hall.

“Human trafficking is not only a thing we see on TV. It’s something happening in our communities,” including Manchester, Nashua, Laconia, Franklin, Ashland, Danbury and the towns and cities of Rockingham County, said Cottrell. “It can happen anywhere. It’s about how can our community come together and work through this?”

Human trafficking, which involves exploiting another human being for profit, comingles the problems of trauma, substance misuse, homelessness and mental illness in its victims, and requires an all-hands-on-deck treatment approach that creates “a tribe” of guidance and support. Victims may not see a way out or are afraid to take it, said Cottrell. They fall prey to exploiters who inflict or threaten serious harm and/or confinement, and often withhold medicine or substances, transportation, passports or communication with outsiders. Most victims are women between ages 18 and 35 who exist in volatile situations that resemble domestic violence, neglect and abuse, or incarceration.

“Drugs are withheld until someone goes out and turns a trick to make money,” Cottrell said.

She said one New Hampshire victim’s boyfriend put her through school to become a business administrator for his strip club, then instead sold her for sex. “I can sell you over and over again and I never run out supply,” Cottrell said the boyfriend, who was a former drug dealer, told her.

Most residents of this state, considered quiet, rural and safe, are unaware of labor and sex trafficking that may be occurring in their midst. “It’s your neighbor. It’s the girl on you see on the side of the road, and something doesn’t look right. It doesn’t have to involve crossing state lines or people coming from Canada or Mexico,” Cottrell said.

An infamous case of labor trafficking in Litchfield, NH, involved migrant workers trucked in to work at a Christmas tree farm. Some were living in a storage container with bunk beds, and their passports were being withheld, Cottrell said.

Despite the unpleasantness or immediate danger of their situation, it can be challenging to convince them to leave their handlers. Cottrell said she and representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security visited a young female victim three or four times at Franklin Hospital, where she had stayed for six weeks, offering a safe haven, support and transportation upon release, only to watch her get in the car with her oppressor instead of with a service provider who offered independence and the services and allies she’d need to make it on her own.

“I brought applications for (Brigid’s House) and a place in Nashville. She would’t fill them out,” Cottrell said. “The trafficker showed up at the same time on release day. We watched her go from one (vehicle) door to another and get into her trafficker’s vehicle.”

In order for victims to reclaim their lives, a menu of fundamental services is critical, including housing, case management, mental health treatment and addiction recovery support.

“We’re going to be able to have 14 people now. I know we’re not meeting the need, but we have to start somewhere… How can we create these partnerships and expand this program? The more we can build that space and make people feel supported, that builds the tribe that people need.”

Brigid House’s operating budget currently runs about $375,000 a year, Cottrell said; $500,000 is the amount required to fund the transitional residence and provide rental assistance for five people living in their communities.

Last year, federal funding enabled the non-profit to open a building with four two-bedroom apartments, with on-site staff overnight. In January, Brigid’s House received money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which enabled it to offer rental assistance and case management to five victims living on their own.

Now, there’s a simultaneous call for individuals to take action – including when they encounter a potential victim or a suspicious situation. “It’s that gut feeling, we all have it,” said Cottrell. She said the initial conversation to offer help can be as simple as, “I met this woman at a breakfast and this is what they do. I feel like there’s something else going on here. Do you want to talk to me or someone else about it?”

Cottrell stressed the need for ordinary citizens to speak up. “If you think it looks like prostitution, it should be reported to police,” she said. The phone call to local law enforcement can begin, “I have a concern here,” Cottrell said.

“It’s important to talk about it and take a stance that this isn’t acceptable,” she added. Trafficking situations are fraught with fallout and consequences for victims who become afraid to speak or leave. “People aren’t able to go anywhere.”

Telehealth, which ballooned during the pandemic’s stretch of sheltering-in-place, kept victims sequestered with their handlers. It often fails to reveal dangerous relationships where exploiters and abusers may be standing off camera, some with guns pointed at victims’ heads, Cottrell said.

There’s a community responsibility, and a call to take action – including to first responders and nurses and doctors in emergency rooms. “If they see a frequent flyer come in, ask, ‘What is going on here?’” she said.

It’s essential to stop the silence, drop the stigma of human trafficking, and stop normalizing the practice as another cultural ill. “We have movies around trafficking and prostitution,” she said. “How do we show it’s happening here, in our community, in Laconia? How do we stop glorifying it and show what’s actually going on?”

The maxim “It takes a village” applies, said Cottrell.

She said a survivor came on stage at a church in New Hampshire to describe her journey toward healing, and included those who helped along the way. She had 12 people standing on stage with her.

“Why do I do this? To see the hope, the light when trauma is lifted off someone’s shoulders,” said Cottrell. “That’s the best – to see them find that light within themselves.”

The next scheduled local fundraiser for Brigid’s House of Hope is a costume festival at the Margate resort in November.