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Survivors, officials hold red sand ceremony in Howard County to raise awareness about human trafficking

With one hand gripping her 10-month-old daughter’s stroller, Ashley Tate bent over to pour a packet of red sand in the pavement cracks outside the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

She was standing alongside local officials and other survivors of human trafficking at an event Monday in recognition of January being declared Human Trafficking Prevention Awareness Month in Howard County by County Executive Calvin Ball.

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“When we think of human trafficking, we tend to immediately go to the crime of this awful event, but at HopeWorks, we really focus on the survivors of the trauma,” said Jennifer Pollitt Hill, executive director of HopeWorks, the county’s Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center.

The event, hosted by Ball, HopeWorks and the County’s Office of Human Trafficking Prevention, featured a red sand ceremony. The Red Sand Project, an international initiative launched in 2014 by artist Molly Gochman, brings attention to the cracks in the system by pouring red sand in the cracks of sidewalks

“It is important to me that our community not only is safe but feels safe, and a vital component of that is not only being aware but actively, actively working against human trafficking,” Ball said.

Between 2017 and 2018, HopeWorks had 88 clients receiving case management, according to Andrea Nunez, manager of the Office of Human Trafficking Prevention. Howard County police handled 93 cases involving human trafficking between 2014 and 2018, according to the most recent county data. Nunez said the numerical discrepancy can be attributed to under-reporting.

“The practice is don’t over-rely on statistics because we know it’s an under-reported crime, like many others,” she said. “We know that statistics don’t paint the full picture.”

Shamere McKenzie, CEO of the Virginia-based nonprofit Sun Gate Foundation that assists those who have been trafficked, said she wished people remembered that humans are at the center of the human trafficking issue.

“The issue of human trafficking is not something I read in a book, watched on television or researched; human trafficking was my life for 18 months,” McKenzie said.

During her remarks, she described those months as torture, in every sense of the word. While the physical abuse is gone, McKenzie said the psychological abuse remains constant.

It’s been 16 years since Tate’s abuse, but the Baltimore resident said she still deals with the psychological and emotional effects.

“I was 13, a runaway. He promised me shelter, food and clothing,” Tate said. “I was taken to a hotel room [and] fed drugs. I OD’ed and almost died. The next day, I went out and he put me back on the block. And I ran away. I got on the nearest bus and ran.”

Tate said she remembers it all “clear as day.” To this day, she won’t drive by the Baltimore City street where it happened; she said just being in the area brings a flood of memories.

After emptying her bag of red sand in the sidewalk cracks, she said she was incredibly emotional.

Nunez hopes that by Tate and others taking the time to pour sand in the cracks, passers-by will question it and want to learn more.

“We don’t often look down at the ground. It’s overlooked. We don’t watch where we’re walking,” Nunez said. “We pour sand in the parts that we typically overlook, and we focus, take a minute, question and connect the vulnerabilities that can lead to trafficking.”

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People are encouraged to contact police at 410-313-STOP or HCPDcrimetips@howardcountymd.gov if they have information about suspected human trafficking or prostitution.

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