On a quiet neighborhood street in North Portland, a red Durango careens around the corner, leaving a charcoal grey sedan and its now missing bumper behind. My husband and I slowly pull to the curb as witnesses to the hit-and-run.
The sedan driver steps out, a man of about 40 with a mound of curly, brown hair. He’s surprisingly calm considering his car was just swiped at a 90-degree angle.
“Are you all right?” my husband asks the driver.
“Yeah, we’re okay.”
My husband tells the man he’ll try to reattach the bumper so he can attend to his daughter crying in the front seat.
“Oh, she’s not my daughter,” the man replies. “She’s my girlfriend.”
As if that explains a lack of concern, he joins my husband’s attempts to reaffix the rear bumper.
Moments later, another driver pulls over saying she followed the red Durango. She hands me a slip of paper with the license plate number on it and drives away.
I walk back to the sedan ecstatic at the possibility of justice. I hand the license plate number to the man with curly, brown hair and offer to call police. He declines, informing me he’s never registered or insured the car.
The situation begins to feel suspicious and I wonder about the distraught girl in the front seat. I walk to the front of the car to check on her. “Are you okay?” I ask.
She looks at me with terror, retreating further into her cowered stance and frantically rubbing a Dalmatian beanie baby. She looks old enough to be the man’s girlfriend, but the beanie baby doesn’t make sense.
I try to calm her with words, asking what her name is. She produces only a whimper.
“Who are you riding with?” I smile and give the appearance of trying to help her re-center by asking factual questions. My now peaked suspicions at least partially elicit the question though.
She frantically motions to the back of the car where the men squat, tying the bumper on with a rope from our trunk. She whimpers again, seeming to want to speak but unable to produce words.
“Do you speak English?” I gently ask. She nods yes.
Make the Call
A few months ago, before the news of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight’s captivity, you may have thought it extreme that I called the anti-trafficking hotline in the scenario described above. Hopefully my response no longer seems extreme. Personally, I wish I had known further action to take in immediate response. At the time, I hesitated before even dialing the phone number.
Without knowing the facts of the situation, I felt ill-equipped to report a crime. The teacher of the anti-trafficking course I’d recently taken said to report suspicious activity as abduction and let police figure out the facts. That’s ultimately what I decided to do, simply describing the situation to the National Trafficking Resource Center specialist who answered the phone.
Experts estimate 100,000-300,000 children are trafficked within the United States each year.1 As of March 2011, the FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative had rescued 900 children.2
The numbers of victims increase when those trafficked from other countries for either labor or commercial sex are taken into account. Authors Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter quote estimates of 14,500-17,500 victims trafficked from other countries into the U.S. each year.3 They go on to say, “About one-third of the handful of slaves freed in the United States each year come to liberty because an average person sees something he or she just can’t ignore.”4
With a desire to receive more tips from the public, the FBI shares on its website what to look for to identify potential human trafficking cases.5 Victims can be found in sundry locations, including restaurants, factories, hotels, bars, farms, massage parlors, construction sites, bridal shops, and in homes as domestic help or nannies.6
As a friend of mine can attest, victims can also be found sitting next to you on the bus ride home.
Bus Ride Home
Shortly before my encounter with the hit-and-run, my friend steps on to a city bus.
Early into the ride, a man dressed like a woman boards the bus holding the hand of a four-year-old boy with long, blonde curls. The unlikely pair catches my friend’s attention as they sit across the aisle from her.
She notices that apart from a flimsy stroller, the man doesn’t have the typical belongings that accompany someone with a child. No sippy cup, no toys, no shoulder bag with entertainment inside.
My friend says hello and starts asking questions to playfully engage the boy in conversation. After a few innocuous questions, she points to the man with him and chipperly asks, “Who’s that?”
The boy faces straight ahead at the seat in front of him. “That’s my mommy,” he says in a deadpan tone. “That’s – my – mommy.” He repeats the answer as though trying to convince himself.
At the next stop, the man hurries off the bus with the boy in tow. My friend watches him fumble with the stroller in a manner that makes him seem unaccustomed to using it. She debates following the man and tackling him to the ground, but instead she dials the anti-trafficking hotline as the bus pulls away.
Captives Next Door
Now imagine what the situation might have looked like if you lived near the house where Ariel Castro held Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Amanda Berry and her daughter captive.
Your young daughter calls to you from the kitchen window of your home in Cleveland, Ohio. “Daddy, why’s that lady naked?”
“What are you talking about, sweetie?” You finish washing the dishes and walk over to the window. “I don’t see anything.”
“There was a lady crawling in the dirt. She was naked.”
Your daughter doesn’t normally tell stories like this. You wonder if she saw something inappropriate on television while you were upstairs.
Then a nightmare thought strikes you – has someone sexually abused your daughter? You talk with her about the experience over the next few days and keep an eye on the adults in her life, but there are no signs of misconduct. She doesn’t mention the naked lady again.
A few months later, a neighbor asks if you’ve ever seen a child in the house next door. You’ve heard the man who lives there has a granddaughter who visits every once in a while. The only time you’ve seen her was when you drove by the playground at 6:00 am on your way to catch a flight. It seemed strange to see a little girl at play so early in the morning, but you figured her grandfather likes to get up early.
“Oh, it must have been her then,” your neighbor says. “I just didn’t expect to see a little girl looking out the attic window at that place. I wasn’t sure if anyone lives there with all those boarded up windows.”
Then one day you hear the sound of neighbors yelling and metal crunching. You step outside and see a woman crawling through the bottom half of your neighbor’s door. A young girl follows close behind her. Despite your confusion, you call police – either someone has broken in or something is terribly wrong.
You later find out the young woman’s name is Amanda Berry and she has been trapped inside your neighbor’s house along with two other women for 10 years.7
The story of these three women is frighteningly disturbing. It’s tempting to respond by retreating into our homes, bolting the doors shut, and preventing our children from wandering freely.
My hope is that instead, we’ll work to build a community of neighbors who watch out for and love one another. (For suggestions on how to do this, see my previous post.) Granted, knowing our neighbors won’t solve all the world’s problems, but we can’t let an inability to create a perfect society prevent us from creating a better society.
Even if our actions result in no improvement, if we seek to live virtuous lives at all, then it is our responsibility to care for our neighbor. Like the Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho,8 we are called to shoulder each other’s burdens and sacrifice to serve one another.
As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, even if the Good Samaritan had been unable to bind the wounds of the battered man lying on the side of the road, or pay for his lodging, or save his life, he still would have been able to offer the greater gift of mercy.9 For “being able to be merciful is a much greater perfection than to be able to do something.”10
So if by taking action we find only embarrassment, time lost, or dead ends, let us not stop doing good. Let us not stop calling law enforcement when nothing seems to come of it. For we never know when one phone call could make all the difference in the world.
1. Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, qtd. in Linda A. Smith, Samantha Healy Vardaman, and Melissa A. Snow, “The National Report on Domestic Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children,” Shared Hope International, May 2009, 4, http://sharedhope.org/resources/.
2. Amanda Walker Rodriguez and Rodney Hill, “Human Sex Trafficking,” The Federal Bureau of Investigation, March 2011, accessed September 2, 2013, http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/march_2011/human_sex_trafficking.
3. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2006, qtd. in Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter, The Slave Next Door (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 6.
4. Bales and Soodalter, The Slave Next Door, 4.
5. “Human Trafficking Prevention: Help Us Identify Potential Victims,” The Federal Bureau of Investigation, January 20, 2012, http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2012/january/trafficking_012012/trafficking_012012.
6. “Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit,” The United States Department of Justice, accessed Sept 2, 2013, http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/crm/htpu.php; “Human Trafficking Prevention: Help Us Identify Potential Victims,” The Federal Bureau of Investigation, January 20, 2012, accessed September 2, 2013, http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2012/january/trafficking_012012/trafficking_012012.
7. This third scenario is made up, though based on information provided by witnesses of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight’s situation.
8. Luke 10:25-37.
9. Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, (Harper & Row: New York), 1962, pg. 294.
10. Ibid, 300.