Volunteers work to raise awareness of sex trafficking

Posted: January 23, 2014

Over the weekend, they put up posters in Audubon, Collingswood, Haddon Heights, and Mount Ephraim. And on Monday, they were busy in Oaklyn, Haddon Township, Bellmawr, and Runnemede.

Pastor Randy Van Osten and members of his youth group at Oaklyn Baptist Church have joined scores of volunteers across the state who have placed tens of thousands of signs in businesses over the last two weeks to alert the public to human trafficking.

Now, their work is bearing fruit.

Tips have poured into the help hotline - 855-END-NJ-HT - as state law enforcement officials prepare for the expected trafficking increase ahead of the Feb. 2 Super Bowl at the Meadowlands.

"The phone is never silent," said a detective who takes the hotline calls. "It's going 24-7."

Information on the numbers of calls was not available, officials said Tuesday.

"Detectives within the Division of Criminal Justice follow up on all tips," added Rachel Goemaat, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office.

The posters - provided by the office - are part of a wider campaign now kicking into "high gear with radio ads, billboards, and other public outreach materials," Goemaat said.

"We anticipate an additional surge in light of daily school assemblies and evening community awareness events over the next two weeks at various colleges statewide," she said.

For the next two weeks, F.R.E.E International, a nonprofit anti-trafficking organization, will host school assemblies to educate children about the problem. The same locations are used for evening community events to educate parents, business owners, and community leaders.

"I hope people realize [trafficking] happens all around us," said Van Osten, 33, of Collingswood. "It doesn't just happen in other areas."

"There are a lot of attempted abductions, sometimes at malls," he said. "People pose as talent agents and tell kids that they will make them famous, but they just want to take them as sex slaves."

Van Osten said he hoped victims, as well as members of the public who see suspicious behavior, would call authorities.

"The hotline is there to help the victims get out," he said. "But it's not just for the victims; it's for anybody who sees something that doesn't look right."

At least 100,000 posters will eventually be distributed, said Kelly Master, a Collingswood resident and founder and director of Dining for Dignity, which holds public breakfast meetings once a month to report on trafficking and awareness efforts.

About 50,000 posters have been distributed or are in the hands of volunteers and community nonprofits that are posting them.

"They're working tirelessly," said Master, a mother of five children. "Everybody is fired up; we're making progress and will continue past the Super Bowl.

"We have people all over the place - anywhere near a highway or transportation, where the bulk of trafficking will be."

Over the last couple of weeks, posters have shown up in the windows of diners and restaurants, at truck stops, convenience stores, gas stations, retail outlets, even massage parlors and gentlemen's clubs.

Master, one of the area's chief coordinators for the poster distribution effort, said traffickers abduct minors in the state and bring others across state lines during a Super Bowl, "knowing there will be a demand."

"When there's a [trafficking] influx in the state, we have a better chance of girls seeing the signs," Master said. "When they go to a restroom at a gas station, they'll see them."

"Are you being held against your will?" she said. "Here's a number to call."

Groups such as Van Osten's youth organization became involved in poster distribution after learning about abductions from anti-trafficking groups such as Dining for Dignity.

Master described the problem to the church's young people - including sixth to 12th graders - "and we were all affected," Van Osten said. "We didn't realize the full extent of it and wanted to help."

But there was nothing for the youths to do until recently, when posters were made available.

"My kids wanted to connect," Van Osten said. "They wanted to raise awareness. We don't want anyone stuck in this."

Anyone wishing to volunteer in Camden, Burlington, or Gloucester Counties or other parts of South Jersey can contact Master by e-mail at kelly@diningfordignity.org.


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