Unitas trains NYC educators on how to spot human trafficking
Tonya Turner’s lifesaving message is bold.
“Come on, ya’ll know what a pimp is,” she told her audience. “Pimps are traffickers for those who want the legal term.”
As the president and CEO of Unitas, trafficking awareness has been her world since 2016. On this January morning, she’s training almost 60 Department of Education educators on how to spot different types of human trafficking.
“It’s the proximity - because you are with youth every single day in and out, you can see the changes,” she told them.
She says those changes include truancy, the presence of older romantic partners, tattoos, multiple phones, fear and sudden shifts in demeanor. Gillian Smith – who works for the DOE and helped organize the training – has some skin in the anti-trafficking game. Her daughter, Leah Robinson-Smith, was sex trafficked at 17. Leah’s story was recently featured on News 12 New York.
“Our biases come into play ... we believe that trafficked victims, survivors, that they come from homes that are broken, that they come from places where no one cares about them and that’s just not true,” Smith told News 12 New York.
She agrees with Turner that DOE employees have a unique opportunity to stop trafficking in its tracks. “They have that proximity to be where the children are, they have the relationships to be able to talk to students, and with the education we’re giving them around trafficking, they’re now empowered to know what to do,” she said. And what exactly to do was a big topic of discussion during Unitas’ second stop for that day – the Queens District Attorney’s Office for a human trafficking roundtable with city agencies, including the NYPD and Administration for Children's Services.
“Human trafficking is one of those subjects that people don’t like talking about a lot. And when they talk about it, they talk about it somewhere else, like it’s not happening here in our city. And the truth is we do know it is happening here,” DA Melinda Katz shared in her opening remarks.
And the statistics back her up. According to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, there were 296 confirmed cases of trafficking in New York state in 2021. Almost half of them were in New York City. And those are the ones we know about. Turner says to make an impact, it’s crucial for all city agencies to have a seat at the table.
“Having the ability to work so closely with entities that...when you look at the news, everyone is saying they’re disjointed and being able to work with Manhattan, with Queens...all of our boroughs, to get a collective response is powerful,” she shared at the meeting.
So what can you do if you suspect someone is being trafficked? Katz says you can reach out to your borough’s DA, the NYPD or a nonprofit like Unitas.
“It’s not just about prosecution,” Katz told News 12 New York. “It’s about helping the individual, getting them the help they need, getting them back to their families and making sure they have an infrastructure so they never go back."
Help for that is available through the city. A law was passed in 2021 that says if trafficking victims reach out to the NYPD and DA, they need to be connected to resources. To find out what resources are available, you can check out the citywide human trafficking resource guide at NYC.gov. You can learn more about Unitas here.