KENT COUNTY, Mich. — The Kent County Sheriff's Office and two local non-profits are teaming up to combat human trafficking.
Kent County commissioners approved funding for a new task force Thursday morning that has three main goals: To identify human trafficking survivors, provide them access to important services and prosecute traffickers.
Human trafficking has been recognized as a billion dollar criminal industry, according to Pilar Meyer-Dunning, the Executive Social Services Director of the Salvation Army Western Michigan.
"We don't have concrete numbers for Kent County," Meyer-Dunning said. "Human trafficking is statistically underreported and very hard to identify, but we know it exists, because we heard the stories of those victimized."
Those stories include illicit massage businesses, labor trafficking and minor exploitation, which is why the Salvation Army has teamed up with the Kent County Sheriff's Office and Solutions to End Exploitation to form a Human Trafficking Task Force.
"To provide case management services, referrals, housing support; any sort of financial assistance that's deemed appropriate for survivors of human trafficking," said Meyer-Dunning.
The sheriff's office will be focused on training, including signs to look for and how to approach possible victims.
"Some of it will be traditional stings that you think of when law enforcement agencies have a task force, but most of it will not be. It'll just be making sure all the needs are met for the individuals we're dealing with," said Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young of the Kent County Sheriff's Office.
The nonprofits and sheriff's office applied for a grant from the Office for Victims of Crime and were awarded $750,000 over a three-year period.
"We're really excited about this being an essential need we can provide to our people," Meyer-Dunning said.
The sheriff expects the formation of the task force will take two-and-a-half years during which it will define what data it should be counting, including people diverted from criminal activity.
She hopes to get continued grant or community funds to support the task force after the initial grant period ends.
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