DORSET -- As a new Vermont resident, Linda Sullivan plans to make some noise.
Sullivan is the co-founder, president and director of B. E. S. T. [Building Empowerment by Stopping Trafficking], an organization founded three years ago that combats sex trafficking. She has recently been appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin as a member of the Children and Family Council for Prevention Programs. Sullivan first became aware of trafficking while she was still a young girl volunteering in her hometown of New York City. While she was in college, she started to look into the issue in more depth and looked for what was missing in programs that helped victims.
"I put together a model of what I thought was needed. . . filling in the gaps," she said. "I realized what victims do not have -- or at least do not know they have the right to have - is an attorney. When you are trafficked, no matter what age, you are forced to commit other crimes." Giving a trafficking victim an attorney gives them the power to truly understand their rights and what is legally happening to them, she said.
Along with attorneys, Sullivan noticed these victims need to be given safety and holistic counseling to help them more forward in their lives.
This is the model she helped develop with B. E. S. T. Victims of trafficking are immediately paired with an attorney and a certified life coach, she said. "What they really need is somebody who knows how to question them without retraumatizing them," she said.
Advertisement "Who can help them set future goals and get them the training they need." A big component of B. E. S. T. ‘s work, Sullivan said, is their evidence based matrix that helps determine if a victim has been trafficked, or entered the sex trade by their own choice. She said her organization helps the victims that have been trafficked and gives them the resources they need- all free of charge.
Part of B. E. S. T. ‘s success is they do not just help victims; they also help educate professionals. Sullivan said they train everyone from law enforcement to journalists to school principals on different signs of trafficking, how to be more aware of trafficking and what to do if they suspect it is going on.
Sullivan and her husband moved to Vermont from South Florida to be closer to Manhattan, but she is also here to help stop sex trafficking in the state.
She said part of Vermont's appeal to trafficking is a high amount of recreational drug use, a depressed job market and the location near the Canadian border. "When there is a lack of jobs, it is going to make the market bigger," she said. "When you have a place like this [rural Vermont], you can hide them." Her goal here in Vermont is to raise awareness to the issue of trafficking, as well as conduct the trainings, specifically about bullying and gangs in school. She said she wants to use her position on the Children and Family Council for Prevention Programs to "make some noise" about trafficking.
"People think that because their school systems are small and tight that they aren't infiltrated, but that's not true," she said.
By doing the training in schools and talking to the students about trafficking, bullying and gangs, Sullivan said students can become aware of trafficking and get the help they need if they have been trafficked themselves. Sex trafficking takes place on a domestic level and not just internationally, more than people realize. In many cases, she said, it is happening right out in the open. Sullivan said by learning about the different signs of trafficking, people in the community can help combat the problem. "I think what the problem is, that Vermont doesn't really understand human trafficking," she said. "I think they are highly concerned with the welfare of their children, and I think that's phenomenal. . . I don't think they understand that the bullying turns into the gangs, which are part of the trafficking organizations. It's organized crime." Sullivan said one of the misconceptions of trafficking organizations, especially in Vermont, is that the traffickers are not the stereotypical "Wise Guys" in organized crime. A trafficker can be anyone, with sophisticated, international connections, she said.
The issue of drugs is prevalent in Vermont and Sullivan said drug use and trafficking go hand in hand.
"Because of their perception, I say, OK, I can walk outside and see a child on drugs, and I get it," she said. "You can't walk out and say, OK, I can see that child has been forced to have sex 10 times today. How would you know?" Sullivan said that as officials and private citizens in Vermont become more educated and aware of trafficking, things will change in the state.
"There wasn't the identification [of trafficking] expertise [in the state]," she said. "To no fault of anyone, that's not a fault. When you finally get somebody or an organization, that shows you what's going on, hopefully it's not here. . . hopefully you'll know so much about it, you'll be able to stop it."