As she steps off her high school bus, the dread returns. There he is. Parked on the street. Waiting for her. The man drives her to another location. A dismal house where heavy, dark curtains hang in every window. They hide the violent acts that are committed against her body and soul. In this place, dangerous men constantly come and go. Waiting for their turn to abuse.
This sinister scourge – human trafficking – is the fastest growing crime in the world. Estimates put the number of victims at 20 to 30 million people worldwide; more than half are female, and about one quarter are children (International Labour Organization, “New ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour”). Yet, everyone could be prey. This modern-day slavery does not discriminate based on gender, age, class or race.
It also does not restrain itself at the shores of distant countries. Instead, this evil, which enslaves and abuses human beings for profit, has moved stealthily into every community in the U.S. For years, it has crept onto America’s streets – hidden in plain sight. In its selfish web, it weaves heartbreak and despair, hopelessness and shattered dreams.
However, people are fighting back. A group of dedicated local women came together in 2017 to produce a film – Ring of Silence – to battle this heartless legion that is ruining lives in our community. onthetown Magazine publisher Kim Gray and director and owner of NBW Films Nicole Bowers Wallace, along with Patti Higgins, Sue Lauber and Rosa Wang, joined to complete this feature-length movie to empower youth everywhere.
The women belong to the Genesee County Human Trafficking Taskforce. All activists and philanthropists, they decided to educate teens by creating a relatable educational tool: a film that will be released this summer. Higgins reached out to Wallace, a Flushing resident and film industry award winner. Wallace had recently directed a short film about female sexual abuse.
Of Ring of Silence, Higgins says, “This is kind of like our #MeToo moment. We are standing up for people in our community. We are trying to keep our children safe. We need to protect our kids: They belong to all of us.”
Adds Lauber, “My goal was for the film to reach teenagers, both male and female, to make them aware of the horrific magnitude of sex trafficking. It’s a dark world out there.”
“The general public has no idea that many women and children are being trafficked in our state,” Gray says. Statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline rank Michigan seventh nationwide in reported human trafficking cases. “This film is not only going to bring awareness. It will also educate children and their parents on the many different ways our children are vulnerable to becoming victims.”
Wang agrees, saying the movie “reflects the imminent threat to the community. The Hollywood movies with…human trafficking are mostly about things happening in foreign countries, and the documentary HT [human trafficking] movies are short films and not touching the up-to-date information our teens are facing, and the worst of all, they are not drawing interests from our teens.”
To create Ring of Silence, the founders assembled a diverse group of youth from Davison, Flushing and Grand Blanc High Schools; the Genesee Intermediate School District; and elsewhere. The founding five wanted to produce a film that would resonate with young people. So, the teens took part in developing the characters and story. The characters are brought to life by Screen Actors Guild talent: April (Ava Deluca-Verley of Growing Up Fisher), Sean (Brian J. O’Donnell of Contagion), Luke (Brandon Butler of 13 Reasons Why) and Rachel (recording artist Daneisha Turnbull).
Ring of Silence, based loosely on FBI, law enforcement and victim stories, is about April, an average suburban teenage girl who is beaten, drugged and sold to men. April, like many adolescents, has low self-esteem that leads to a hunger for love and acceptance. She encounters Sean, an older man, online. Sean pretends to be a caring boyfriend, but his ulterior motive is to lure April into sex trafficking. It is a tale of how easily a young person can become entangled in an unhealthy relationship and then the dark world of drugs and forced prostitution – even without her family and friends’ knowledge.
“Ring of Silence wanted to use these real stories in the movie so that young people could learn how human trafficking starts,” Higgins said. “A handsome young man finds a young girl on the internet – so many ways to do this on social media. The grooming takes time. There is trust. But the predator is smart; he knows young women want love and acceptance. It starts with compliments, caring and gifts and evolves to drugs and sexual slavery.” Perpetrators use various means to lure their victims. They prey on youth who have been abused, have moved recently or have unstable housing, run away, use substances, have mental health issues or are isolated.
To create this film, the founding group created a fundraising goal, and Wang raised a significant amount. The majority of the nearly 30 donors – 80 percent – are female.
“Our community has been so receptive and supportive,” Wang says. “We all have a part to play in the awareness and prevention.”
Some 500 people from all around Michigan and elsewhere took part in this project. That includes area schools, law enforcement, hospitals, businesses, community agencies and citizens because Ring of Silence was filmed at various Genesee County locations.
“The community’s response has shown us that any community can battle this epidemic,” Lauber says.
Although the film could represent any American town, it is a crucial tool for creating awareness in our area. According to Kurt Heise in “2013 Report on Human Trafficking,” Michigan residents are at greater risk because of the state’s proximity to the Canadian border and major national highways.
Michigan State Sen. Judy Emmons, chair of the Families, Seniors and Human Services Committee, says, “Many folks in Michigan and around the country don’t understand human trafficking. They don’t realize how prolific it is. It could be right next door to them . . . It’s urban. It’s rural.”
Emmons’ office reports that minors have been trafficked at Michigan truck stops and then transported to hotels in Toledo. It also reports that Michigan cities generating the most human trafficking calls are Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Mackinac Island.
Wallace says, “Once kids know the realities of human trafficking, they will be better prepared to walk away and start taking action.” When the film is ready, Wallace said her company will hold a premiere in Genesee County.
The film’s founding five – Gray, Wallace, Higgins, Lauber and Wang – are using their voices, talents and resources to prevent further victimization. “Producing this film has been an emotional journey,” Gray says, “because it’s difficult to see what these victims go through and how hard it is for them to get out. But at the same time, it brings me great joy, knowing that this film can save the lives of future victims.”
To seek help or report human trafficking, call the hotline at 1-888-373-7888, email [email protected] or text HELP to 233733 (befree).