Human trafficking in Michigan: Myths debunked

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. WOOD) — There’s no question that human trafficking happens in West Michigan. 

In fact, Michigan State Police report it’s seen a “significant increase.”  

Still, there’s no evidence that Michigan has more trafficking than other similarly-sized states.   

Indeed, it might be that Michigan law enforcement is better equipped than many states to identify, combat and raise awareness of the problem.  

“The biggest misconception is that we are number 2 for trafficking in the nation. That is not accurate,” said Michigan State Police Trooper Amy Bellanger in a recent Facebook Live presentation on the topic.

The widespread belief that Michigan is one the nation’s hotspots for human trafficking can be traced to the results of a three-day federal sting operation in 2013.

MSP: Michigan not ranked #2 in nation

Out of the 76 cities across the country that participated in the sweep, Detroit ranked second “in successful recovery of juveniles and overall statistics.”  

In that operation, agents in Detroit recovered ten juveniles and arrested 18 pimps. 

“That statistic came from a one-weekend operation a couple years ago where the FBI did a sex trafficking sting in cities all over the country,” remarked Assistant United States Attorney Tessa K. Hessmiller in an email to Target 8. “The stats (from the 2013 sting) were not a significant enough sample size to extrapolate that Michigan is #2 in human trafficking.”  

Hessmiller, who was the inaugural chairperson of the Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force, has prosecuted 12 defendants who trafficked 15 minors. 

“Anywhere there are people, there is unfortunately a market for sex, and wherever there is a market for sex, there is a market for traffickers to try and exploit young and vulnerable people for profit,” Hessmiller explained. “Since West Michigan has people, that market exists here. This is not a crime of ‘other people’ coming in from out of state or outside of West Michigan to buy and sell sex; every federal sex trafficking case prosecuted in West Michigan has involved traffickers, victims and customers who are almost all born and raised in West Michigan.” 

MSP: Michigan ranks 10th in nation   

While trafficking is notoriously difficult to quantify because it is woefully underreported, Michigan State Police told Target 8 that the FBI ranks Michigan 10th nationwide.  

That ranking is based on arrest data submitted to the FBI by police agencies across the country through the Uniform Crime Reporting Program. 

However, the category of human trafficking was only added to the UCR in 2013. 

It generally takes some time before police departments get up to speed on new categories and the most efficient way to report them.   

Another troubling myth about human trafficking in Michigan involves how predators target their victims. 

For years, cyber rumors have circulated about suspicious characters stalking children in stores, malls and parking lots. 

Parents post warnings on social media about near abductions and the alerts spread like wildfire

But police have chased down many of these reports and found no evidence to support them.  

Pimps not going to well-lit, public places to find victims 

“That’s not typically how it happens,” said Nikeidra Battle-DeBarge, Project Coordinator at Manasseh Project, an anti-trafficking program at Wedgwood Christian Services. 

“Pimps are very slick and strategic. They’re not going to go to a public place that’s well-lit with lots of people with (surveillance) cameras.” 

Anti-trafficking advocates, including Battle-DeBarge and Hessmiller, fear we’re so busy worrying about potential kidnappers at the mall that we might be missing the real thing right in front of us.  

“When we’re looking for the person who’s in the scary white van at the grocery store, we’re sidetracked by that,” Battle-DeBarge said. “We’re not paying attention to the fact that there are children who are isolating, struggling in school, or running away from home because of neglect and abuse.” 

Traffickers target vulnerable, lonely young people 

They are the children – vulnerable, starved for attention and support – who are most often targeted by predators. 

Also, traffickers usually get to know their victims over time, building their trust and showering them with attention, gifts and affection. 

“That’s the tactic that they use to be able to say, ‘Hey, can you do this for me? We’ve kind of built this relationship, this is something you can do for me,’” Battle-DeBarge explained. 

If you think someone you know might be a victim of trafficking, call the National Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. 

If you want to learn more about trafficking, Manasseh Project is hosting an educational event. 

It’s scheduled for June 22 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Wedgwood Christian Services’ Garrett Conference Room. 

The event costs $30 to attend and is open to the public. Professionals can obtain continuing education credits for an additional $10. To register, email or call Ruth at 616-942-2110. 

Below is a list of warning signs that someone might be a victim of trafficking. Manasseh Project is the source of this list: 

Identifying Victims 

  • Being a runaway 
  • Hotel room keys 
  • Fake ID’s and/or No ID 
  • Stunted growth 
  • Truancy 
  • Substance Abuse 
  • Lying about age 
  • Poor Medical History 
  • ‘Dating’ an older, controlling man 
  • Multiple Pregnancies 
  • STDs 
  • Rotting teeth 
  • Consistent need for pregnancy tests 
  • Broken bones 
  • Excessive money or jewelry 
  • Multiple abortions 
  • Branding 
  • Fertility/Reproductive Health Issues 
  • Tattooing (specifically of a trafficker’s name) 
  • Malnutrition 

The following red flags come from the Polaris Project, a nationwide, non-profit leader in the fight against trafficking. NG  ARE VULNERABLE TO SEX TRAFFICKING:s inconsistenc

Common Work and Living Conditions

  • Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes 
  • Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp / manager 
  • Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips 
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours 
  • Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work 
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off 
  • Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work 
  • High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.) 

Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior: 

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid 
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement 
  • Avoids eye contact 

Poor Physical Health: 

  • Lacks medical care and/or is denied medical services by employer 
  • Appears malnourished or shows signs of repeated exposure to harmful chemicals 
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture 

Lack of Control: 

  • Has few or no personal possessions 
  • Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account 
  • Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport) 
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating) 


  • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is staying/address 
    Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or of what city he/she is in 
    Loss of sense of time 
    Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story 

Note: According to federal law, any minor under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of the presence of force, fraud, or coercion. 

If you believe you are a victim of human trafficking or may have information about a potential trafficking situation, please contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 911.  

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