Mereides Delgado and Ben Thornton of Anchor House in Trenton.

‘We see young girls who don’t have family, feel rejected, want to be loved, and leave home, and then they’re at a bus stop and someone pulls up and says, ‘You’re too pretty to be waiting alone,’” says Mereides Delgado about how a girl or any youth can be lured into human trafficking.

Delgado is the director of Anchor House’s Aging-Out Youth Service. Anchor House is the 41-year-old Trenton-based social service agency that, according to its mission statement, provides a safe haven where abused, runaway, homeless, aging out, and at-risk youth and their families are empowered to succeed and thrive.

The organization is using April to focus on a number of its programs and initiatives, including its work in human trafficking in Trenton and Mercer County.

Meeting at one of the agency’s converted church buildings on Centre Street in Trenton, Delgado and colleague Ben Thornton, director of Outreach Services, pull from decades of experience to discuss human trafficking in the region and how they are addressing it.

They also clarify several myths about the subject. First, although the sex trade is a big part of human trafficking, it is more extensive and sometimes involves other industries where youths and older adults are forced to work without pay. The U.S. government says it includes “legitimate and illegitimate labor industries, including sweatshops, massage parlors, agriculture, restaurants, hotels, and domestic service.”

Second myth: the sex trade involves only girls. “We’re staring to see more young males. A young male gets kicked out, and if he’s gay, it’s worse. He’ll get taken advantage of,” says Delgado.

And third and perhaps the biggest myth is that it is a foreign thing. That is backed up by FBI information that says, “While undocumented migrants can be particularly vulnerable to coercion because of their fear of authorities, traffickers have demonstrated their ability to exploit other vulnerable populations and have preyed just as aggressively on documented guest workers and U.S. citizen children.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline’s website, humantraffickinghotline.org, is helpful in providing the statistic. There were 5,147 known U.S. human trafficking cases in 2018. Of those, 98 were in New Jersey.

Heather Hadley, the senior assistant prosecutor who handles human trafficking cases for the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, says there have been eight legally verified cases over the past four years. Yet, she says, area human trafficking activity is higher and arrests are often hindered by the victims who are too afraid, confused, or uninformed to step forward and cooperate.

That reality of human trafficking in Mercer County can be found in a paper trail of newspaper articles reporting on cases in Lawrence, Hopewell, Ewing, and Trenton — including a recent case where Hadley prosecuted four Trenton residents.

The victims “could grow up in Trenton and stay in Trenton,” says Delgado about how localized the problem actually is. “What I’ve seen is that it is those who grew up in the city and from poverty and neglect who get exploited.”

Thornton says area youths become entrapped because they become homeless and vulnerable. That homelessness, he says, is not for lack of space but through “a breakdown of family stuff.” That includes substance and physical abuse.

“There is an index of a healthy life and if you remove those supports there’s consequences,” says Thornton, citing cases involving families in Robbinsville, West Windsor, Lawrence, and Trenton.

It is the homeless and vulnerable youth who become easy targets for exploitation that creates human trafficking.

“The key part (about human trafficking) is that you’re not free to leave that situation,” says Delgado, drawing the distinction between bad personal choices and a modern form of slavery. Here the bonds are hidden by personal needs and economic manipulation.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security statement helps clarify the terms and some potential public misconception. “’Trafficking’ is based on exploitation and does not require movement across borders” but human smuggling “involves moving a person across a country’s border without that person’s consent in violation of immigration laws. Although human smuggling is very different from human trafficking, human smuggling can turn into trafficking if the smuggler uses force, fraud, or coercion to hold people against their will for the purposes of labor or sexual exploitation. Under federal law, every minor induced to engage in commercial sex is a victim of human trafficking.”

“The perpetrators are looking for dollars,” says Delgado about the incentives for participation. “For those exploiting the youth, it is about the money. It’s a billion-dollar industry.”

Delgado’s statement is backed up by the U.S. organization Human Rights First. It says human trafficking is an estimated $150 billion international industry with the following breakdown: $99 billion sexual exploitation; $34 construction, manufacturing, and mining; $9 billion agriculture and fishing; and $8 billion savings by using forced labor. The FBI believes it is the third largest industry in the world.

But for the youthful victims it isn’t about money, says Delgado. “They need to feel someone loves them.” It is a point she and Thornton return to later.

Yet there are other incentives in trafficking. “For those who are coming into the country new or moving across state lines, they’re trying to scratch out a living and get into thinking that it is their vehicle to being financially secure and they go into these situations not realizing that (the exploiters) are keeping the money,” says Delgado.

She then adds that others are concerned about what may happen to family members. “Some come in from other countries and their family may have paid to have passage in the U.S. (The workers) find themselves being trafficked. What keeps them in the situation is that their families are threatened.” And the exploiters also control the laborers’ documentation.

Returning to Mercer County, Delgado says the girls she and Thornton encounter are groomed early to be part of the arrangement and that the average age is 11. “They think this man loves them and call him their boyfriend. Then he expects her to be with him and others (in a sexual way) for money.”

For boys who have left or been forced from their homes, the situation has some similarities. An older man will give the boy some shelter, purchase him some new shoes or clothes, and create an atmosphere where the boy feels that he needs to provide sex for him and others.

Delgado and Thornton say that the norm is that a vulnerable young person will be approached by a man — or sometimes a woman working in partnership with others — within 72 hours of being homeless. The “grooming” varies, depending on the groomer who may either use emotion or force.

Delgado says that men are the main users of the “boyfriend” exploited girls. In one example she mentioned how one young man used a Trenton high rise to make a girl available to neighborhood teenage boys.

Thornton says the street-value cost for use ranges from $20 to $50. He also talks about parties where men pay a $50 entrance fee and get drugs and sex.

And while the young, exploited sex object doesn’t get any money, they may receive a “warped” reinforcement with “four or five guys having sex with you and saying you’re great,” says Thornton.

Since the exploitative relationship starts at an early and vulnerable age, Delgado says it is a long and difficult road to help youths break the emotional dependency. “That alternative family is how they survived. It is how they experienced love. For us to show them the relationship was exploiting them is very hard. And it takes a lot of time.”

The two say Anchor House provides services to stabilize housing and provide food, insurance, job training, and a variety of others services that break an individual’s dependence on exploiters. Thornton says that Anchor House generally deals with a couple of clients a year known to have been involved with human trafficking. But he suspects others have also been touched by it.

“We’re handling their basic needs, and no one is expecting anything from you,” says Delgado about treating human trafficking victims, which is “something new to many of those getting the assistance.”

She says the victims are given opportunities to “talk about their trauma and have in-house therapy. We give them a supportive environment that feels like a family and let them see what healthy relationships are.”

“Our average stay (including runaways and homeless youths) is several months or a year. Some stay over a year. (Human trafficking) is a longer-term conversation for those who were groomed as a young person. They have to grow.”

Anchor House staff use a variety of ways to assist exploited youths. “We make alliances with people we know,” says Thornton.

Sometimes it is a Department of Child Protection worker who will pick up clues while visiting a home and report it. Sometimes a child welfare case manger will make the connection. And other times it will be a tip from a high school counselor or a pastor.

Thornton says staff also leave cards in public places where exploited youths may end up and see a way out of an abusive relationship.

The dilemma, they say, is in approach. If an exploiter sees his product interacting with a noncustomer, he may double down on the emotional manipulation or physically punish the youth.

Nevertheless Anchor House’s human trafficking program has been addressing a need for a good portion of its history, even before the term became a buzzword.

“The awareness grew that it wasn’t a foreign issue, that it was an issue in the United States,” Delgado says.

Delgado and Thornton say despite the obstacles there have been successes and transformations.

“We watched young people who were so jaded with relationships meet the Anchor House staff and were shocked that the men weren’t gawking at them, the women were patient, and people were forgiving. That they were in a safe place to try something else and not getting needs met by shouting or flaunting themselves,” Thornton says. “That helped their journeys.”

Then there are the ones who “come back and are social workers who literally want to show others the way out of it. I’ve been to graduations and watched people walk down the aisle,” says Thornton.

The down side, he says: “No program is designed to be flexible enough to accommodate all human trafficking victims and what traumatized them.”

Thornton says despite the difficulties he enjoys the problem solving, combining a background in engineering and a personal knowledge of Trenton.Born in Trenton, he lived in North 25 housing. His father was a janitor and his mother worked at the Naval Air Propulsion Center in Ewing. Initially attending Trenton Public Schools, he was sent to the Solebury School through the A Better Chance program. He later attended Prairie View A&M University in Texas and focused on science and engineering. He worked for several years at Mobil Research in Pennington before deciding to do something that mirrored the help that he had received when he was younger. He and his wife have three teenage children and live in East Windsor, where he is also a volunteer fireman.

Delgado was born in the Bronx, New York. Her father was an auto mechanic and her mother worked for the U.S. Social Security Administration. She studied management at Brown University and had worked as a communications manager for a consulting firm. She also studied at Princeton Theological Seminary and became an ordained Baptist minister. “I was working for First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens (in Somerset) and completing additional graduate studies when I felt the call to do more outside the four walls of the church. I connected with Anchor House.” She is the mother of four children and lives in Lawrence.

Thornton and Delgado seem strengthened by their partnerships with other organizations. That includes Womanspace, HomeFront, Catholic Charities, Trenton Health Team, the New Jersey Human Trafficking Task Force, and “our newest piece, CEASe, a centralized hub for any youth who needs housing in Mercer County.” (CEASe stands for Coordinated Entry and Assessment System.)

They are also thinking of a new strategy to convince the general public and political leaders to understand homelessness — which contributes to the human trafficking relationships — as a health crisis.

Thornton says if the public looked at homelessness like it did smoking or seat belts there may be a greater movement to help address it. “A social justice issue is more abstract. Talking about homelessness as a health issue, others will say, ‘What can we do?’”

He and Delgado also say the answer regarding human trafficking is fairly clear: be vigilant.

And to “understand what the young person is going through. All youth are vulnerable. And 11 and 12-year-olds are so impressionable. That’s when they’re starting to understand themselves as individuals and sexual beings, but there is a network that will exploit that. They pull you in with promise of seeing you as a beautiful person that has worth, and then they flip the switch.”

For more information on Anchor House or its annual 500-mile fundraising “Ride For Runaways” (July 13 through 20): www.anchorhousenj.org.

To report human trafficking crimes:

Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Cara Zita, Human Trafficking Unit Secretary, 609-393-7675 fax, czitabruch@mercercounty.org.

New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking: www.njhumantrafficking.org.

New Jersey Human Trafficking Task Force: www.nj.gov/oag/dcj/humantrafficking/index.html.

National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC): 1-888-373-7888.

This story was originally published in the April 2019 Trenton Downtowner.