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The Fight to End Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world, ranking just behind drugs and ahead of arms trafficking. Statistics vary, but the Global Slavery Index estimates that there are more than 40 million people enslaved worldwide. Out of every 10 victims detected globally, five are adult women and two are girls. Migrants account for a significant share of the detected victims in most regions because traffickers prey upon the marginalized and impoverished.

And it’s not just a third world problem. In 2019, the United States had 11,500 reported cases. Most common was sex trafficking (8,248 reports), usually connected to illicit massage/spa businesses and pornography.

Awareness of this problem is at an all-time high in the Wilmington University community and across the country, thanks to webinars spearheaded by Dr. Johanna Bishop, associate professor and director of WilmU’s Behavioral Science Programs.

Dr. Bishop, who joined the full-time faculty in 2006, first gained an understanding of the magnitude of human trafficking when she attended a 2014 sociology conference in San Francisco. There, she came across a book, “Human Trafficking Interdisciplinary Perspectives,” by Mary Burke.

She read it on the plane ride home, and it transformed her thinking about the subject. The book painted a vivid picture of worldwide suffering created by human traffickers, and she decided it was something her students should know about. She set to work developing a course on the subject.

“But nobody seemed to be interested. I had trouble getting enrollment,” Dr. Bishop says.

Then came a turning-point conversation with her son, Phillip, who died tragically when his bike was hit by a car in September of 2014. “I remember talking to Phillip and saying that I felt frustrated because this was an important issue and people needed to learn about it. And he said to me, ‘Mom, you have a platform — you’re an educator.’ So I decided I wasn’t going to give up.”

She soon met with administrators and some students, and that resulted in a symposium in the Doberstein Admission Center Auditorium in 2016. “I thought we would have 30 people sitting around the table,” she says, “but we had 90-some people show up. It was amazing. People had questions, and some people knew a little about [one aspect of human trafficking], and some people knew a little bit about another. And everyone realized that we needed to share information.”

The next year 200 attended, and the symposium became an annual event. By 2019 it was gaining serious momentum, drawing a crowd of 325. At about that time, WilmU introduced an undergraduate certificate in Human Trafficking Awareness.

Then came 2020, COVID-19, and suspension of face-to-face get-togethers across America. But what initially seemed like a negative soon turned into a positive, thanks to that pandemic facilitator of communication, the Zoom meeting.

Dr. Bishop and her team began producing webinars, and the annual symposium was replaced by a bi-weekly event.

The first was presented on June 30, 2020, and since then the University has offered webinars an average of twice a month. By early this year, the number of viewers totaled more than 4,000, and registration was much higher because registrants received access to a recording of each session, so they didn’t actually have to attend to get the benefits of the presentations.

Participants have represented more than 25 states and five countries, and they come from myriad occupations, including social worker, probation officer, school nurse, court administrator, foster care worker, port authority manager, and law enforcement officer.

The topics have varied, and Dr. Bishop has drawn presenters from throughout the state and region, including many from the WilmU faculty. Some have even been trafficking survivors.

Dr. Ray Carr, retired FBI agent and director of the University’s Criminal Justice Institute, talked about “The Link Between Pornography and Human Trafficking.” Brian Moore, program manager for School Climate with the Delaware Department of Education, discussed “What Educators Need to Know About Human Trafficking.” In a session titled “Why Do They Stay?,” Dr. Bishop explained the Stockholm syndrome and trauma bonding.

“They have been able to provide accessible and credible sources of knowledge to our community about human trafficking, helping to create the shift we need to impact cultural and social structures”

Diana Suchodolski, project coordinator, Delaware’s Human Trafficking Interagency Coordinating Council, was not only a presenter, she’s also a fan of the webinars. “They have been able to provide accessible and credible sources of knowledge to our community about human trafficking, helping to create the shift we need to impact cultural and social structures,” Suchodolski says.

She credits Dr. Bishop and her team for “providing these webinars that have been in line with the anti-trafficking work needed in Delaware to educate in the prevention of exploitation, intervention of traffick-ing, and protection of survivors.”

The problem is surprisingly significant in Delaware: the state ranks sixth, per capita, with 3.84 human trafficking incidents per 100,000 population.

Thanks to the webinars as well as the undergraduate certificate, WilmU is among the top 26 universities in the country that are fighting human trafficking, according to Successful Student, an education-focused website that provides objective student-centric college rankings to help students navigate education.

Dr. Bishop is quick to deflect credit for the webinars. “They have only been possible because there’s a team of people working on this behind the scenes to make them happen,” she says, “including the marketing department, public relations, web-master, tech department, and more.”

She’s also grateful for the support of Dr. Edward Guthrie, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Dr. Guthrie always reminds me that if just one life is saved by doing this, then all the work is worthwhile,” she says.

“Dr. Bishop and the faculty have done an excellent job in conducting the webinars,” says Dr. Guthrie. “I have had the opportunity to attend, and the questions and interaction are excellent. Dr. Bishop’s passion and dedication to bringing this terrible global issue to the forefront are truly enhancing the education and awareness of the impact of human trafficking on victims and our communities. These efforts are also contributing to our outreach and establishing our college and University as a resource to provide education and strategies ranging from enforcement of the law to programs to support and assist victims of human trafficking.”

Dr. Bishop hopes to make the problem front-of-mind with politicians and other leaders much in the way domestic violence became a major societal issue 30 years ago. “If we can legitimatize the academic study of human trafficking, that’s when we have the opportunity to make a real impact in this field,” she says.

“It’s a heinous crime. It robs people of their humanity, it robs them of their freedom. Once you know about it, how can you turn your back on it? You can’t ignore that and be a human being. You have to do what you can do. So that’s what we’re working on.”

—Bob Yearick

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