Alex Harrington thought the nightmare ended with her escape from violent kidnappers in Mexico.
But as “Brutal Silence” unfolds, Harrington realizes the terror of trafficking has followed her home to Dalton, North Carolina, and rests with those closest to her.
Chapel Hill author Margaret Dardess was introduced to the shadowy world of human trafficking by a young woman she met 13 years ago at a UNC conference. She spent six years turning that story into a novel, in the hope it would spur others to action.
“Her story was so horrendous, I left the conference furious and determined to do something about it,” Dardess said. “Since then, I’ve partnered with any human trafficking organization and ... I wrote my thriller with the idea of dramatizing human trafficking, because sometimes people can get messages that way when they don’t receive them otherwise.”
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A recent book launch and proceeds from sales of “Brutal Silence” are benefitting Make Way Partners, a international Christian mission working to prevent and stop human trafficking in Sudan and South Sudan. The countries are among the poorest in the world and a trafficking hotbed, with many women, men and children being sold or forced into the military.
However, human trafficking isn’t just an overseas problem, Dardess and other advocates note.
North Carolina is ranked among the top 10 U.S. states for human trafficking, due to its transient military population, high demand for cheap farm labor, and convenient ports, highways and connections to larger cities. Gangs also feed the human trade, advocates said.
Exact numbers are elusive, but 20 million to 40 million people are thought to be trafficked worldwide. Many share prior experiences or family dynamics that give traffickers an advantage, including being young, homeless, sexually abused, or involved in the social services, foster care or juvenile justice systems.
Immigrants may be recruited legally using work and student visas but exploited once they arrive in the United States.
Linnea Smith, a Chapel Hill psychiatrist and the widow of the late, iconic UNC basketball coach Dean Smith, helped organize the trafficking conference where Dardess was inspired and has long advocated for survivors and victims of sexual violence. She also serves on the board of Make Way Partners.
Trafficking is the second-largest organized criminal activity in the world, Smith said. The most important thing people can do is “decrease the pool of vulnerable children,” she said.
“I think that’s an important message, that one person can make a difference,” Smith said. “They were studying what makes some children become resilient and deal with their trauma, and many times, it was just the presence of one caring adult.”
But strangers aren’t the only danger, advocates say.
Meredith Stewart, YMCA of the Triangle director of child safety, noted that one in 10 children experience sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. Roughly 90 percent of victims are abused by someone they know, she said, and 60 percent of those abusers are family members.
“The other thing that’s essential about this is it’s a community issue. It’s not just particular families. It’s not just these subsets of the population. It crosses all socioeconomic, racial and social boundaries,” she said.