By Frank Beard
At any given time, thousands of vulnerable individuals are trapped within the cycle of human trafficking—a modern-day form of slavery. While as many as 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States every year, the majority of victims are American-born. Many find themselves forced into prostitution. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 12 to 14 years old is the average age that a girl is first trafficked for such purposes. For boys, it’s even younger at 11 to 13.
Although this crisis has proven extraordinarily difficult to solve, convenience and fuel retailers have the ability to help.
Consider this. Since traffickers are frequently on-the-go and need access to snacks, fuel, and other daily necessities, convenience stores can be key locations to intercept their actions. Public restrooms are one of the few places where victims obtain privacy from their handlers. This creates a key opportunity to communicate the information they require to reach out for help and find safety.
I recently learned about this from a non-profit organization called In Our Backyard. Created to raise awareness and drive solutions to the problem, their Convenience Stores Against Trafficking (CSAT) program has partnerships in 22 states and represents more than 11,000 locations. In addition to training employees to recognize warning signs and safely report issues, CSAT helps connect victims to the National Human Trafficking Hotline where they can receive help.
This outreach comes in the form of a simple sticker that can be placed in any store or restroom. For those who want to maintain the décor of upscale restrooms, it can even be placed inside a picture frame—as convenience retailer Kent Couch has done at store in Bend, Oregon.
We had the opportunity to chat at a recent industry event, and I discovered that Kent serves on the board of directors for In Our Backyard. Believing strongly in the mission, he framed a few emergency contact “Freedom Stickers” and placed them in his store’s restrooms—although he wasn’t sure whether trafficking was much of a problem in his part of town. A few weeks later, however, someone had stolen the stickers.
“Although nobody has taken them again, it really opened my eyes to the scope of the problem,” he said. “I live in a nice community. This is a great place to live and raise a family. But someone passing through my store did not want that information made available.”
Juliana Williams, program director of In Our Backyard, describes successes that have come from the organization's efforts. Although it’s difficult to share stories due to obvious privacy concerns, it’s enough to say that the results have emboldened her to continue her work. In one particular case, a victim and her child to begin the journey to freedom after obtaining information from a sticker in a convenience store restroom. They escaped, obtained access to housing, and were able to receive necessary recovery services.
“This is truly a situation where one of the best solutions is one of the most simple,” said Juliana. “Human traffickers count on people staying silent and making their victims believe that help is not available, and convenience retailers are in a position to change that. I’m extremely proud of the work being done by CSAT and our retailer partners to break the silence on human trafficking.”
To learn more, you can visit www.inourbackyard.org/csat and speak with Juliana at upcoming industry events. She recently gave a presentation at M-PACT, and she is scheduled to present again at the Southern Convenience Store and Petroleum Show. She will also be an attendee at the 2018 NACS Show.
Frank Beard is a regular NACS Daily contributor who has traveled to more than 1,000 convenience stores in 24 states. He raised awareness of the industry's healthful food options with his “30 Days of Gas Station Food” experiment, and he's an analyst/evangelist for convenience store and retail trends at GasBuddy. Follow Frank on Twitter here.