By Becky Aubut
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Debra Berg, coordinator for the Office for Child Protection in the Catholic Social Services in New Bedford, is currently working on an article to post on the CSS website “just to remind people of some of the basic things to do if you see something, hear something, or someone reports something to you,” said Berg.
From Jan. 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2015, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center kept track of incoming signals related to issues with human trafficking in Massachusetts. Signals refer to incoming communications with the NHTRC and can take the form of phone calls, online tip reports, or emails. In 2015, the NHTRC received a total of 24,757 signals nationwide.
It’s easy for human trafficking to go unnoticed, even by individuals who interact with a victim on a daily basis. Look for the red flags, said Berg, to get the wheels rolling for helping the victim. She recently had a member of Homeland Security come to CSS in January, and he spoke of local cases of people who are trafficked.
“They usually start at 13 or 14 years old, they run away from home and they’re ‘romanced,’” said Berg. “At first the person picks them up and gives them everything from fancy clothes to designer bags, then after a couple of months of being seduced by the experience, then they tell you I’ve spent X-amount of money on you and you owe it back to me with interest.”
Feeling trapped, a victim is sent out with a monitor to become a prostitute. Beaten physically and emotionally on a daily basis, victims of human trafficking are moved from one dilapidated house to another to keep ahead of the law. Surrounded by chain-link fences, boarded up windows and padlocked doors, victims have little hope for escape.
It comes down to others seeing the warning signs; Homeland Security launched the Blue Campaign (www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign) that offers a comprehensive list of warning signs that include: young people afraid to talk for themselves; don’t have a lot of friends; work long hours claiming they have extra jobs; or are clearly being controlled by someone else.
“One of the big things that’s happening in human trafficking now is victims have tattoos on them that are a barcode or a price tag, and that is an indicator to all the other pimps in the area that this girl or boy is my property,” said Berg. “It’s heartbreaking.
“Do I think some of our kids are victims? I hope not but the reality is you just don’t know. I think there are close to 29,000 kids in the diocese; how could you possibly know what is going on with every child?”
Berg holds regular training sessions at her office at the CSS building in New Bedford. She raises awareness and tells those attending that she is only one person, that she needs “partners” to help her keep the children in the diocese safe. She shares the warning signs, and guides trainees on what to do and how to get help.
Another topic Berg feels is important to cover is suicide. It seems to be increasing because of the extra challenges for kids these days, said Berg.
“Social media — I love social media — but people need to know how to use it responsibly,” said Berg. “A lot of young people, teen-agers in particular, don’t always understand how immediate these comments are, you can’t take them back once they’re out there, and how much people can be hurt by them. These are things a generation ago no one even would have thought of, so there’s a lot more pressure on kids these days.”
The window to stop a suicide is narrow—“from the time someone decides today’s the day I’m going to do this to when they attempt the suicide, is 20 minutes,” said Berg — so the second a young person hears from another person they are going to kill themselves, reach out and immediately get them help, said Berg.
“What we know from a lot of trainings is that kids don’t not want to be here, it’s just that they want to the pain to stop,” said Berg, and that if those kids only knew the aftermath of a successful suicide, it would make them think twice. “The trauma is so severe. They would realize how much they’re loved and how many people are devastated; if they could see all that ongoing pain. When students graduate, how will they live with that dear friend missing? There are always constant reminders.”
Another focus for Berg is gangs and their detrimental affect on youth; parents can try to take a proactive approach to prevent their children from becoming a member, but it isn’t easy.
“Unfortunately there are gangs in this area and we have a lot of drug usage here and on the Cape,” said Berg. “A generation ago, when kids wanted to be edgy, they got drunk, and unless you drank enough alcohol to poison your bloodstream, you survived. Nowadays there’s a whole host of unregulated drugs that kids can buy in convenience stores.”
While marijuana, cocaine and heroin make the news, other little-known but just as deadly drugs are being used by young people, including “bath salts,” an emerging family of drugs containing one or more synthetic chemicals related to cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant found naturally in the khat plant.
Not to be confused with products like Epsom salts which are sold to improve the experience of bathing, the synthetic cathinone products are marketed as “bath salts” to evade detection by authorities. When taken, these “bath salts” can produce euphoria, but also users can experience paranoia, agitation, and others can display psychotic and violent behavior. Since “bath salts” have always been associated with bathing, it’s not something a parent would associate with drug use.
“It’s just one bad choice. I read online of parents who are heartbroken, their child was a straight-A student who went to a party and made one bad choice,” said Berg. “I try to make folks aware of these things. They may not run across it but at least be prepared.”
Parents can feel overwhelmed, especially after a training session with Berg, who covers multiple topics; “but they all go home with a renewed commitment to reconnect with their kids and make sure that they talk to them,” said Berg. “Really, the only thing that parents can do is educate and communicate with their kids. That’s the biggest preventative action any parent can take. Spend time, sit down, and talk with your kids.”
Berg offers many resources on the CSS website: www.cssdioc.org/services/child_protection_services. Craig Miller attempted suicide and survived; his story is “phenomenal” said Berg, adding that his website, www.ThisIsHowItFeels.com, offers additional resources.
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, there is a NHTRC confidential 24-hour hotline: 1-888-373-7888. Or call Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line (24/7 with more than 300 languages and dialects available): 1-866-347-2423.