BRUNSWICK, Maine — January is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month. It's a time to raise awareness about the nearly 25 million people reportedly trapped in some type of human trafficking across the U.S. and the world. Those figures are from the U.S. State Department.
The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline saw a nearly 20% increase in the number of victims and survivors directly contacting the hotline from 2018 to 2019.
Every year advocates say around 500 Mainers are victimized by human trafficking, but only a fraction of cases are reported to authorities.
Nearly a year ago, Brittney was so trapped that going to jail was the only way to escape. "I could go to sleep every night knowing I was safe," she said.
We are not using Brittney's actual name to protect her identity. Wanted on drug-related offenses, she turned herself in to break free from her alleged trafficker.
"Things got violent, and he knew I couldn't call the cops. It just felt totally hopeless because I didn't see a way out," Brittney said.
Brittney has struggled with substance use disorder since her teens. Unable to afford to go to a methadone clinic, she ended up living with someone who gave her methadone. In exchange, she was the alleged dealer's literal 'slave,' forced to live in his apartment without a phone, cut off from her family and friends.
"I would have to do whatever he wanted," she added.
Behind bars, Brittney met Sarah Krajewski, the Sexual Assault Response Team Coordinator for the Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine.
"She really helped me understand that I was a survivor," Brittney said,
Krajewski connected Brittney with mental health resources and treatment. She works with both male and female prisoners throughout the Mid-Coast. She said economic hardship, especially during the pandemic, and no access to mental health services often increases someone's vulnerability.
"That is what leads to trafficking. Those are the things we need to address," Krajewski said.
Adam Lebel is a correctional officer and oversees programs, including adult education and book clubs available to inmates at the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscassett. He said Krajewski's outreach is giving prisoners like Brittney hope.
"We want to help as many people as we can, and we try to do that. Sometimes we see those people come back. It takes a couple of times," Lebel said.
Advocates said it's vital that survivors have a support system set up after they are released from jail, which is key to their success and to help them from being exploited again.
Brittney is now living in a safe house, working towards reuniting with her four kids, and is about to mark one year of sobriety. Meanwhile, Krajewski, who follows many of her clients on their healing journey, said help is always a phone call away.
According to experts, here are some of the warning signs someone is trapped in a trafficking situation:
- Unexplained absences, skipping school or work, or isolation from family and friends.
- Expensive gifts that would usually be out of budget.
- Spending a lot of time with an older person, who does most of the speaking for them.
Anyone who is a victim of human trafficking and needs help, or knows someone at risk for trafficking, can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.
They can also contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault's 24-hour crisis hotline (800) 871-7741.