The Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force are revealing the intention of
the small clusters of red flags that have begun subtly appearing throughout the Grand Rapids area this morning. The announcement of its community-wide, one-week blitz campaign entitled “Watch for Red Flags” is being held this morning at the HQ Runaway and Youth Drop-In Center located at 320 State Street in Grand Rapids.

Established this spring, the Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force is a multi-disciplinary collaboration designed to address the crime of human trafficking locally. With more than twenty-five organizations representing service agencies, hospitals, law enforcement, and prosecutors, the group’s aim is to respond much more effectively and comprehensively in order to help victims and get traffickers off the streets.

The “Watch for Red Flags” campaign is the Task Force’s first public awareness effort. Strategically chosen to launch the week before ArtPrize, the aim is to educate individuals in a memorable way, so they are more likely to recognize the red flags that often signal trafficking. Tessa Hessmiller, Assistant U.S. Attorney and Task Force Chair says, “We need everyone to pay attention to things that just don’t seem right. Community members are our eyes and ears. More importantly, they are often the best chance victims have to get the help they need because victims of sex and labor trafficking typically don’t just come forward on their own without help.”

Since the Task Force’s creation, members have moved swiftly. With funding from the Michigan Department of Community Health, in just six months, the group has defined a shared vision. It has also created a formal and sustainable organizational structure with an elected Leadership Committee and several sub-committees charged with meeting Task Force priorities. In addition to the “Watch for Red Flags” awareness campaign, these include improved cross-organization communication, professional education, and compilation of a localized resource guide.

Says Hessmiller, “No one wants to believe that human trafficking happens in their home town. But it does. Even in Kent County, we know that vulnerable people are being bought and sold at any given time. Trafficking – both labor and sex – is one of the most hidden crimes that exist, largely because victims don’t feel they have a safe exit strategy supported by people they trust. Our laws and systemic responses have evolved locally and nationally, as has our appreciation for the insidious nature of the crime and the impact it has on victims. Our Task Force is training a community of first responders so that people in every sector recognize the red flags and respond.”