CHESTERTOWN — Maryland is considered to have one of the highest rates of domestic human trafficking in the country, according to an organization that runs a hotline to combat such crimes.
As January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, Katharine Petzold is holding training sessions throughout the Mid-Shore for those who would handle such cases, like law enforcement officers, the legal community and social and healthcare workers.
Petzold is the anti-human trafficking coordinator at For All Seasons, a behavioral health and rape crisis center serving the Mid-Shore. Petzold hosted an anti-human trafficking training session Jan. 9 at the Kent County Public Library’s Chestertown branch.
Two days prior, she was joined at a Kent County Commissioners meeting by Kristy Mirando, For All Seasons’ director of victim services, and Leslie Sea, vice president of the organization’s board, to discuss For All Seasons’ services and its efforts to combat human trafficking.
“Our mission is to support individuals and families and communities on their journey to wellness and we offer these services regardless of ability to pay, both in English and in Spanish,” Petzold said.
The Easton-based organization has offices in each of the five Mid-Shore counties. The Kent County office is at 516 Washington, Ave., Chestertown.
As stated in a proclamation issued at the Jan. 7 commissioners meeting and declaring January Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Kent County, nearly 25 million men, women and children are trafficked every year. The proclamation cites the National Human Trafficking Hotline in stating that Maryland has a high rate of domestic trafficking with 165 cases reported in 2018.
“In the last year, I’ve served at least one trafficking victim for the Chestertown area,” Petzold told the commissioners Jan. 7. “So part of this is to help people know that this is happening in our community. It’s not something that’s only happening overseas.”
The goal of For All Seasons ongoing information sessions this month is to raise awareness among those professionals who may encounter people caught in human trafficking situations.
“It’s a misunderstood topic and there’s a lot of misinformation about it. So identification doesn’t happen,” Petzold told the commissioners.
She said human trafficking is happening “right in front of us and we’re kind of missing the signs.”
Petzold said the federal definition for “human trafficking” includes the use of force or coercion for the purpose of labor or a commercial sex act. She said commercial sex acts are not necessarily monetary transactions; the exchange could be for shelter, clothing or food.
“It’s often portrayed as impacting women and children only. It also impacts men. It also impacts the LGBTQIA community,” Petzold said. “And while poverty is a risk factor, it’s not the only risk factor that there is. People can be trafficked in all sorts of socio-economic circumstances.”
Petzold said areas with a lot of thoroughfares and access to ports and airports are prime trafficking locations. She said the agriculture and seafood industries are two in which labor trafficking can occur. She also listed nail salons as an industry with a history of trafficking.
“There are a lot of ways that this can happen and a lot of places that leave our community in particular vulnerable to trafficking,” she said.
Petzold said that while “trafficking” denotes travel, that is not necessarily the case.
“Someone can be trafficked out of their own home if their grandma is trading them to the landlord for discounted rent. That would be considered a trafficking situation,” she said.
Petzold said signs of trafficking include someone who appears not to have the ability to come and go as they please, who may have unusual work restrictions, who may have gotten new and unexplained tattoos, who seems to owe a large debt, who appears to be dominated by another person and cannot speak for themselves or who has a lot of sexually transmitted diseases or unplanned pregnancies.
“And I will just clarify that none of these means someone is trafficked. These are all red flags and indicators of trafficking that have to be taken within the context of an individual,” she said.
Petzold said that as For All Seasons has been working to raise awareness of human trafficking, the organization has received an increased number of referrals.
“That just proves the theory that this is happening and it’s just not being identified,” she said.
For All Seasons itself has been growing to meet the increased demand for mental health services on the Mid-Shore.
Petzold said that the 30-year-old organization has gone from 30 employees to a team of 80 in the past six years.
“Our trauma-certified team consist of therapists, psychiatrists, advocates, nurse practitioners, case managers and administrators. And we work with people from infants to adolescents to adults and the elderly. We provide comprehensive support in four key ares: therapy, psychiatry, advocacy and education,” Petzold told the commissioners.
For more information about For All Seasons, visit forallseasonsinc.org. For All Seasons’ 24-hour crisis hotlines are 800-310-7273 (toll free), 410-820-5600 (English) and 410-829-6143 (Spanish).