In 2012, a group known as ACE (Advocating, Collaborating, Educating) Anti-Human Trafficking Alliance of Oxford was formed. At that time, many people in Oxford did not even have human trafficking on their radar. I was one of them.
I was the borough manager in Oxford then. Even though ACE brought their message to borough council meetings, many people, like me, thought it was not a problem here.
That was a normal response across the entire country then. There was not even much on social media about human trafficking. But that is not the case now. Almost every day, we see a child or adult who has disappeared, and we now know it may be as a result of human trafficking.
I started attending ACE meetings and it was beyond difficult for me to listen to survivors speak about their heartbreaking experiences. Yes, I know how that sounds: it was “hard for me” to listen. Imagine how horrible it was for survivors to tell their story and to live through it.
I attended human trafficking seminars, in and out of this country, and was at once shocked and instantly frightened to find out the extent of human trafficking.
I am beyond thankful to ACE for educating me on this subject. That education would forever change how I look at the world, and how I look at my community, and my job.
As a borough manager, I worked closely with the codes enforcement department. I quickly learned that local government could play a very important role in the battle against human trafficking. And I still remember the day our Codes Office administrative assistant and codes officer began to put the pieces of a very unusual puzzle together.
Through rental property enforcement, they discovered a property or two that raised a red flag. Most municipalities do have ordinances restricting the number of unrelated persons living together, and on one particular visit the codes officer uncovered such a situation.
Further research led to a web encompassing properties, and businesses stretching from here to New York and New Jersey. In the end, we passed it on to our solicitor.
That discovery has stayed with me to this day. I have lived here most of my life. I thought I knew everything about this community. I didn’t. How could I? How could any of us really know, unless of course we have something like codes enforcement?
To all those who just view codes enforcement as the “bane of their existence” the enforcement of codes, in tandem with law enforcement, may actually protect us from the monster of human trafficking.
Every time a child, a teen, or even an adult disappears, we wonder: Could it be human trafficking?
The small Borough of Oxford, with a population of nearly 6,000 people, worries about it, too.
So, if there is a connection between human trafficking and Oxford, what is it?
“It may be location,” said Peggy Ann Russell. She is a founding member of ACE Anti-Human Trafficking Alliance of Oxford.
When asked if human trafficking occurs in our area, Russell replied, “To think that it does not would be naive.”
According to Russell, the Polaris Project website, a map of crimes shows “hot spots” along Route One from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Oxford sits twelve miles from Interstate 95 and one mile from Route 1.
“That location,” explained Russell, “places Oxford in the path of traffickers running vans of victims from one metropolitan area to another. Often, vans move from one road to another if they sense they are being followed. Is it too much to imagine that one has stopped for gas or food in Oxford?”
She added, “Once the small town with a vulnerable population is discovered, it is like a gold mine to be revisited for the gems that can be found.”
Russell explained, “Convincing stories of great jobs in the city, modeling possibilities, and a wink and a smile that says, ‘You are beautiful, I am in love with you, come with me,’ seem to work.”
The ACE group has gleaned much of their human trafficking knowledge, from Polaris, which is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that works to combat and prevent modern-day slavery and human trafficking.
Polaris was founded in 2002 and is named for the North Star, which people held in slavery in the United States used as a guide to navigate their way toward freedom.
Polaris operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 1 (888) 373-7888, which takes tips on sex and labor trafficking. They receive an average of 90 calls per day. More than 40,000 total cases of human trafficking have been reported to the hotline in the last 10 years.
In 2017, Polaris received more than 6,000 hotline tips about sex trafficking across the United States. In that same year, 210 human trafficking cases were reported in Pennsylvania. The number jumped to 275 in 2018. Within the first six months of 2019, Pennsylvania had 126 reported cases of human trafficking with Philadelphia County accounting for 28 percent of the human trafficking cases filed in Pennsylvania.
Polaris’s work has built out one of the largest data sets on human trafficking in the United States, and they have successfully used that data to combat the monster of human trafficking and modern slavery. The data reveals that the top venues for sex trafficking included illicit massage parlors, hotels and motels, and residential brothels in impoverished neighborhoods along the interstate highway system, as well as in major urban centers.
Polaris plays an important role in this battle against human trafficking, but just as important are grassroots groups like ACE.
ACE was formed in 2012. The first gathering of Oxford community members to learn more about human trafficking was in September 2012. Held at Union Fire Company of Oxford’s hall and sponsored by a group of associates and sisters of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a member of the Maryland Task Force came to educate the community about the horrific crime that was just beginning to be spoken about in public. At the end of the very informative meeting, the audience asked what could be done next. It was at that time that it was decided that meetings could take place monthly at the Oxford Library to have speakers from various organizations explain more about the different supports that are available to victims of trafficking, and how to join in efforts to put an end to the evil work of the human traffickers.
Through the work of dedicated community members, ACE began to advertise the toll free number. 888-3737-888 to report suspicious activity, provide opportunities to purchase Fair Trade coffee, tea, and chocolate; and collaborate with agencies to assist human trafficking survivors through the FBI, and Dawn’s Place in Philadelphia, among others.
Until COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, ACE met at the Oxford Area Senior Center to bring the latest information available to the residents and guests who, in turn, go out into the community to advocate, collaborate, and educate. Part of that education is promoting those who write on the subject. It is a difficult subject to write about and equally difficult to read about, but anyone who shines a light on this dark subject is protecting our loved ones.
Marie-Louise Meyers, a local poet and author, is a member of ACE and has written a book of poetry titled, “Who Speaks for Them,” in which each poem speaks from the voice of a victim. It is a beautifully written book that makes the reader think about the suffering of others. This book is available at the regular ACE meetings, or by calling 610-932-0337. It is also available for loan at the Oxford Library.
ACE is also promoting a new book written by Carol Hart Metzker and Ann Marie Jones titled, “A Shield Against The MONSTER.” It is available at Amazon. The very fact that these two people, from entirely different backgrounds, came together to support each other and to jointly write a book, is a miracle in itself.
Metzker has been an anti-human trafficking activist for years, working in the United States and around the world.
Jones is a survivor of sex trafficking who helps women recover from that life.
In a recent interview with the two writers, it was like watching a beautiful recipe coming together.
Metzker has worked in various countries and positions to combat human trafficking. She is a consultant to the Salvation Army working with their “New Day to Stop Trafficking” program. She also hosts an informative website, facingthemonster.com.
For 10 years Metzker has volunteered at Dawn’s Place in Philadelphia. Dawn’s Place pro-actively supports women affected by commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) and its abuse by providing services to women, raising awareness through education, and generating prevention, public policy reform and community collaborations. They work to improve the lives of women trapped by, or at risk for CSE, by providing housing, trauma recovery services, vocational training and other services. Jones was a resident at Dawn’s Place for 15 months.
Metzker explained, “I got involved with human trafficking when I was in India volunteering as a Rotarian to immunize children against polio in 2004. My team ended up at a center for children rescued from slavery. There were 50 children there between the ages of 6 to 14.”
She remembered one little girl in particular.
“I instantly had a connection with her,” Metzker said. “She was 11 and had been sold in the circus, then sold for sex. I was jet-lagged at that point, and totally upset over this child. I knew I couldn’t live with that and vowed to do something to end it.”
Moving forward, she worked on projects in India as a volunteer for several years. It wasn’t a full-time job. She was also working as a writer. During one project, she got sick and had to fly home. At that point, she took a look at a world map on slavery and discovered slavery was also here in the United States. Further research eventually led her to Dawn’s Place and volunteering there. That work ended up launching her into consulting with the Salvation Army program, and speaking on the subject in Australia and South Korea.
Jones’s story is more typical than not. She was married and had a daughter when her world was turned upside down. Her young daughter was molested by her younger brother, which brought back memories of her own molestation by her older brother.
Jones had her brother arrested for molesting her daughter. In her words, “My family turned against me because I had him arrested. My daughter and I moved to Pittsburgh. There, I was introduced to crack cocaine, which took me to the street.”
Ever the advocate, Metzker emphasized, “There is a myth that women sell themselves for drugs. Not true. Substance abuse usually starts by a desire to numb the pain of being sexually abused. Traffickers or pimps sometimes exploit women through their previous addictions. Only recently has the judicial system begun to operate from the perspective that it is illegal to exploit humans by using their addiction against them, the same way it is illegal to sexually take advantage of a person or to have anyone sign a contract when they are not lucid and able to give consent.”
Jones got beat up on the street. She met a man who told her he would get her out of that life, but sadly he was a pimp and he pimped her out. She got pregnant by him and lived in an abandoned house.
“It was at that time I was crying and asked God to get me out of this life,” Jones said. “My pimp heard me crying and laughed at me, then beat me so badly I wound up in a hospital. It was then I found out I was pregnant. ” It is here that Jones fast forwards to Dawn’s Place.
“I was on the street corner trying to get a date. A car pulled up and the woman inside asked me for pot. I jumped in the car. She told me she was a cop and that I was going to jail. I said ‘thank you,’” Jones recalled.
Jones met Mary De Fusco, a public defender in Philadelphia. “She told me I was a candidate for her court and a year-long diversional program. They got me out of jail, into rehab. Eventually, I went into Dawn’s Place which is run by nuns. It was a safe haven and my life changed when I got there,” Jones said.
And Dawn’s Place was where Metzker and Jones met and bonded.
Jones explained, “I learned about my trauma. I learned what normal was. They took me food shopping, something I hadn’t done in 14 years. They cared about me and I decided then and there that I wanted to help people too.”
Metzker came in as a volunteer and planted a seed within the survivors. Jones didn’t expect her to keep coming back. But she did come back—every month.
Eventually, Jones stopped looking over her shoulder.
Metzker said, “Ann Marie is truly is an extraordinary person and survivor. Only a small percentage of survivors get to where she is. She is courageous enough to face her trauma and continue to grow. Of all the survivors I have met, few make it this far. Not many can constantly tell their story without having a PTSD episode. I call them survivor leaders.”
The two are a great team, and they have one focus in mind: The prevention of human trafficking. And their book is a shield against the monster of human trafficking.
Jones explained, “When I was on the street, there was no one there to help me. I want people to know there is help. If I can change after 14 years on the street, anyone can. I would not change my life, it made me who I am today.”
Both Jones and Metzker stress that this book they wrote together leads readers through a dark tunnel of the realities of sex trafficking to emerge equipped to shield their community’s children.
“We fight,” they said, “so there are no more victims.”
They also said, “We strengthen communities by enhancing our caregiver skills for teachers and coaches to help strengthen kids that don’t have the power or fully formed brains. We have to shield everyone’s kids, not just our own. Families will be dysfunctional, and we have to reach out to them to protect them from their own homes sometimes. We need to support social services, educate the public, and build the self-esteem in our children. Above all, we need to notice what is going on in the lives of others.”
One thing everyone should agree on and be aware of is that human trafficking can happen anywhere and with anyone. We need to care for each other and support those groups that support children. That is also the message of ACE. That one morning in September of 2012 led to a group of dedicated community members who annually collect over 1,700 items to be donated to supporting organizations each year.
ACE continues to educate the community and support the battle against human trafficking and to support survivors. Russell is hopeful they will resume their meetings soon.
Please check their Facebook page for further information.
Copies of Marie-Louise Meyers’ book “Who Speaks for Them?” are available at the Oxford Public Library.
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