Howard County Agast

Deadra Atkins speaks to the group at the Howard County Agast meeting on July 24 in Columbia. (Staff photo by Monica Herndon, Patuxent Publishing / July 22, 2013)

When Sara Cochran, Deadra Atkins and other members of Howard County Agast talk about human trafficking at public lectures and events, they often tell the anecdote of a girl picked up by a suspected human trafficker near a typical American mall.

The suspected trafficker picked up the unassuming girl under the guise of a modeling scout, as the story goes. But at some point during the car ride, the girl felt uncomfortable and at a stop light, she opened the car door and ran to safety.

While an alarming story in and of itself, it becomes exponentially more meaningful when the group reveals the mall was Howard County's very own The Mall in Columbia.

"Our children are at risk," said Cochran, who founded the citizen-run volunteer organization with Atkins in 2011.

Cochran and Atkins heard the story from Denene Yates, founder and director of Safe House of Hope in Baltimore, a group dedicated to the rehabilitation of prostitutes.

The incident was never reported to police largely because the girl never realized she was a potential victim of human trafficking. Howard County Agast hopes to change that.

The organization, which stands for Howard County Advocacy Group Against Slavery and Trafficking, is focused on raising awareness about human trafficking in Howard and surrounding counties. Human trafficking is defined as a form of modern-day slavery where people profit from the control and exploitation of others, according to the Polaris Project — a national anti-slavery organization founded in 2002.

"One of the misconceptions is that trafficking is happening in another country. And if it is happening in the U.S., that it is brought here from overseas," said Megan Fowler, director of communications for Polaris.

"We hear everyday that trafficking, both sex and labor, is thriving in the United States."

That "thriving" industry took a hit over the weekend, when the FBI announced Monday, July 29, that police had arrested 150 alleged pimps and other individuals and rescued more than 100 children in a nationwide sex trafficking sting.

Worldwide, more people are trafficked for labor than sex, according to Polaris, and although a breakdown of trafficking in the United States has not been researched, sex trafficking is perceived as more prevalent.

While Polaris and local organizations, like the Maryland Rescue and Restore Coalition, know trafficking is occurring in the United States, exact data numbers are not readily available, making it hard to track the crime over state borders, let alone county lines.

Polaris currently ranks Maryland's laws against human trafficking in its second tier, which means it is better than most but leaves room for improvement. According to Shared Hope International, another national organization battling sex trafficking, Maryland's rating is a D.

Polaris received 80 calls from Maryland to their human trafficking hotline reporting instances with moderate signs of trafficking in 2012. And while that data is useful, it's far from a complete picture.

"One of the main problems is we don't have a lot of state level data," said Danielle Lohan, community partners liaison with the Maryland Coalition.

"It's huge in Maryland," said Nicholas Weikel, a member of Howard County Agast. According to Weikel, Howard County is a particularly high-risk region for sex trafficking because of its proximity to two major cities, Interstate 95, Baltimore/Washington International Airport, Maryland Live Casino, and the discrepancy of wealth and poverty.

"We are in the perfect storm," he said.

Weikel and experts from the Maryland Coalition and Polaris said the instant gratification and thrill-seeking culture perpetuated by casinos and red light districts are havens for sex trafficking, while proximity to transportation venues allow traffickers to move their business before police can pick up the scent.

Howard County Police have stepped up efforts to control and deter prostitution, including human trafficking.

"(Human trafficking) is a priority," said Lt. Glenn Case, commander of Howard Police's Vice ands Narcotics Division. "It is a serious crime that the Police Department will not tolerate."