by Joanne Cleaver
Everything was routine in February as a Lakefront Lines bus traveled across Ohio—until it wasn’t.
A young woman approached the driver. She asked him, casually, as though asking about the weather, if he could help her. She was being held against her will by another passenger, she said.
The driver nodded. She returned to her seat.
He surreptitiously called his dispatcher and asked the dispatcher to contact emergency services.
Then the driver announced to the passengers that he suspected a mechanical problem. He found a quiet spot to pull over, away from busy rest stops and gas stations, choosing instead a safe place off the road where there wasn’t really any place for a perpetrator to run or hide.
Local police arrived and the middle of nowhere became the turning point as the young woman, a human trafficking victim, finally escaped her predator by going with authorities, who also apprehended the alleged predator.
The incident was the first time that a Lakefront driver applied trafficking-response training to real life.
The situation was also an eye-opener for executives at Coach USA, the Paramus, New Jersey, corporate owner of Lakefront and other East Coast bus operators. They’d bought into human trafficking awareness and response training on principle. The incident showed them that “it’s real,” said Sean Hughes, director of corporate affairs for Coach USA. “It was an example of a training that went to work and saved somebody’s life. It’s a perfect example of why you have to be proactive.”
By definition, the scope of trafficking is difficult to measure. The Federal Bureau of Investigation alone has in the past 10 years arrested more than 2,000 traffickers. In its most recent report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime counted 63,251 victims internationally from 2012 to 2014. About 41 percent of trafficking activity occurs domestically, with the remainder crossing national borders.
The nature of trafficking makes it difficult to detect, and estimates of the number of international trafficking victims range in the millions. The UN found that 79 percent of victims were women and children, though the proportion of male victims has been steadily rising. Typically, victims are controlled by force and intimidation into sexual abuse or slave labor, the UN found. Commonly, the trafficker and victim are of the same nationality, and often the trafficker is older than the victim.
Private, local and regional carriers often serve events, private groups and outings that traffickers believe provide camouflage, say victims’ advocates. The flurry of embarking and disembarking and the constant bustle of stations, hotels, stadiums and campuses make it easy for them to slip out of sight with their victims in tow.
Seasoned bus drivers continually pick up on subtle cues about all their passengers’ relationships and emotional states, say carrier executives. They are in a prime position to observe suspicious activities and appearances, such as a vehicle that routinely prowls a bus stop or a passenger who appears to be taking direction from another passenger.
“We tell drivers, ‘You’re the captain of your ship,’” said Brendan Stanczyk, safety and training supervisor for Trans-Bridge Lines, Inc., based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “It’s hard to train for each and every potential situation. That’s why we ask them to report what they see, immediately, to the dispatcher.”
Annie Sovcik manages the Busing on the Lookout (BOTL) program for Truckers Against Trafficking, a national advocacy and educational nonprofit. The BOTL driver awareness training program is free, available on demand online and widely used by carriers. (See sidebar for contact information and training details).
“The theory of change is that by training professional drivers about what human trafficking is and what the red flag indicators are, and how to report it, they can be a mobile army with law enforcement,” said Sovcik.
School bus drivers have reported dubious characters depositing or retrieving children at bus stops to local law enforcement, said Sovcik. Charter bus drivers have noticed apparent cultivation of potential victims in the midst of tours. Regional bus drivers have flagged nonverbal control of victims and notified authorities.
Signs of trafficking can emerge as perpetrators recruit and exploit victims, often commanding control over several trips or situations, said Sovcik. Drivers and other carrier personnel can help with the exit phase: “Someone who’s ready sees an opening when boarding a bus or the chance to contact someone at a bus terminal. They know it could be their moment,” she said.
Drivers and other staff aren’t asked to physically intervene but to contact a dispatcher to immediately report what they observe or that a victim is in current or imminent danger. Dispatchers are the linchpin, as they back up the driver by calling legal authorities nearest to the bus or location, and can relay updates from the field staff, explained Sovcik.
Even if the report does not result in an on-the-spot intervention, information fed into national databases can help authorities piece together the whereabouts of missing persons or detect traffickers’ patterns of movement and behavior.
“We’re asking drivers and staff to help get law enforcement involved,” Sovcik said. “Law enforcement needs actionable information—any details, photos or people, cars, license plates, traceable information from a ticket purchase, any details that were relayed or observed. A report could be a final puzzle piece for an ongoing case.”
BOTL wallet cards, stickers and posters remind both staff and victims that the bus could be a moment of critical contact.
“It encourages you to report something that seems minor, because it might not be minor,” said Lechiski. “People who are walked into this life literally need to be rescued. They are so manipulated mentally and physically that they’re trapped unless somebody advocates for them and speaks up for them.”
From 2011 through 2017, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 320 calls regarding buses and bus stations; 52 percent of calls reported a tip, 29 percent requested crisis assistance and 18 percent asked to refer to crisis services.
Truckers Against Trafficking BOTL (Busing on the Lookout)
Busing on the Lookout – Bus Training
A hotline, training, printable wallet cards and brochures and online training video on DVD are also available for in-house training use by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a printable definition of trafficking and typical patterns of recruitment, control and abuse, available here.
The FBI offers a one-page guide for helping victims access legal protection, which is available here.