Published April 8, 2019
The 15-year-old girl cried in pain as blood gushed everywhere from her scalp onto a filthy floor.
Moments earlier, the woman who held Alex Herring in a state of servitude — a human trafficker, in other words — attacked the girl with a razor blade for disobeying her. She knew seeing a doctor was out of the question, so she dealt with the gash in her head the best she could.
Herring became a makeshift surgeon. She desperately pulled the hanging skin over her wound, applying pressure for hours until her flesh adhered and the blood clotted, forming natural stitches.
Her trafficker, as she normally did, locked the refrigerators where food was held, so Herring chewed on dog biscuits after the ordeal as a last resort. She then returned to work on the farm in rural North Carolina where, she sensed, no one could find her, let alone rescue her. If she rested without permission, the woman would hurt her again.
“There were days,” recalled Herring, “when she would say, ‘Do you want to die today? Because I could kill you.’ And I absolutely believed it.”
Herring’s fears later ended, though she and her two adoptive sisters suffered three years of abuse in North Carolina before an alert neighbor called authorities who removed the trio from their captor.
Now, Herring tells her story freely to make the point that human trafficking, in all its various forms and intensities, is more than a practice common to distant parts of the world or on Hollywood sets. Similar crimes occur across North Carolina, even as close as a hotel room right here in Alamance County.
An Elon News Network analysis of 2018 North Carolina court data found that Alamance County’s per capita rate of human trafficking criminal charges is more than three times higher than the statewide rate in 2018.
Alamance County also ranks second in the state for most reported sex-related trafficking charges, while ranking fifth in total reported human trafficking-related charges.
From federal politicians in Washington, D.C., to social workers to sheriff’s investigators to sociologists, those who are trying to stop trafficking say that Alamance County — where Elon University is located — struggles to understand its full scope. And until harsher penalties and awareness of the issue grows, the crime will only escalate, they say.
At times during Herring’s captivity, the thought of a college education seemed impossible.
Herring’s life now has structure, she says. At 28, she’s married and a magazine editor in Greensboro. To explain the real dangers of human trafficking, she appears at regional conferences to share stories of her forced labor — of the years in her youth when she was convinced her existence was “worthless.”
Such were the words of the woman who controlled her.
“I was told pretty much my whole life that all I was good for was the manual labor she could get out of me,” Herring said. “No one knew who I was. There was no record of me really anywhere. It was a pretty hopeless situation.”
Data from Polaris, the non-profit organization that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, consistently ranks North Carolina as a top 10 state for human trafficking, with nearly 3,000 reported victims and 1,100 reported charges over the past 10 years. Currently, it’s ranked No.8 in the country.
North Carolina state law defines human trafficking victims as being one of three types: Minors involved in commercial sexual activity, adults induced into sexual activity through force, and children or adults performing labor or services through force or coercion.
The criminal offense for that last activity — forced labor — is called involuntary servitude, and that’s what Herring experienced.
Originally from Hong Kong, Herring was adopted at age 2 by her trafficker, a British woman named Mercedes Farquharson. She had also adopted two biological sisters from the United Kingdom before Herring, who were 5 years old and 9 years old at the time. In both of her adoption pitches, Farquharson promised a prosperous life for the children, providing education and hope in Spain. Instead, she forced them to work.
The trio moved with Farquharson to Monroe, North Carolina — a suburb outside Charlotte — in 2002 when Herring was 13.
There, they worked on Farquharson’s three-acre rural farm tucked away in a residential neighborhood. Everyday, Herring cared for Farquharson’s 300 chickens, 14 dogs and various other farm animals she also shared living quarters with.
Herring’s travel visa eventually expired. Farquharson used that as leverage, saying she’d have Herring deported if she didn’t follow instructions. Fearful obedience defined Herring’s life.
“I thought to myself, ‘There’s nothing I’m really able to do except look after the chickens and goats and dogs,’” Herring said. “I felt I deserved some dignity of life, but at the same time, there wasn’t any of it around. I felt extremely depressed and suicidal. I had suicidal thoughts a lot.”
In 2005, workers with Union County’s protective services department rescued Herring and her two sisters after a neighbor reported seeing a beating in broad daylight.
The supervisor of the team that saved the trio was so inspired by their story that she adopted the girls, seeking to invest in them and their futures.
Seven years later, Herring graduated from Elon, an institution rooted in a county that wrestles with the crime she experienced in her youth.
Carmen Monico’s research into human trafficking spans decades. She has devoted the majority of her career to this issue — including writing her doctoral dissertation on it.
In 2014, the assistant professor of human service studies at Elon mentored a student on a project examining students’ knowledge of trafficking. In a survey, only 4% of participants showed a high level of knowledge of the crime. Eighty-seven percent of respondents also said they consider human trafficking only a low or medium-level priority in Alamance County.
But the facts lead law enforcement and advocates to think differently.
Court data show 13 human trafficking-related charges in Alamance County in 2018. Seven of those involved sexual servitude, the second-most in the state.
When measured against the county’s population, about one in every 27,000 people was trafficked in Alamance County. The frequency is more than three times the statewide rate, where roughly one in every 86,000 people was trafficked.
In February, the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office executed an undercover human trafficking operation, charging 10 suspects with prostitution-related and drug-related charges.
Last July, Burlington police investigated possible labor trafficking at the Hibachi Buffet after authorities shot and killed a machete-wielding man who was later found to live at the home of the buffet’s owner.
Monico says these local instances prove human trafficking is prevalent not only in Alamance, but globally, too.
“This is a concern not just for North Carolinians, but this is a concern for cities everywhere,” Monico said. “There is human trafficking happening everywhere, including those cities where students are coming from.”
Forty million people fell captive to human traffickers last year, according to the United Nations, and more than 8,500 victims are in the United States, according to Polaris. It’s considered the second-largest criminal industry in the world behind drug dealing.
But data only conveys reported cases. Experts fear that more are caught in this cruel cycle, including here.
“I don’t think we know the true scope of the amount of human trafficking going on here,” said Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson. “But we do know it is here, and it is here in a big way.”
How, in 2019 — more than a century after slavery’s abolishment — does someone become enslaved in the United States?
Experts say victims can be anyone — and Courtney Dunkerton learned that personally.
One evening in the 1990s, she agreed to drive a frightened young woman to a crisis pregnancy center. As they took a break at a truck stop on I-40 to eat dinner, Dunkerton says the person revealed she was a “sex slave.” The woman, Dunkerton recalls, said she met a man online. But shortly after meeting her, he soon held her captive in his trailer, selling her for sex with different people across the state.
Dunkerton, then a stay-at-home mom, was shocked. She had never seen a trafficking victim before.
Later, with more research, she learned that trafficking doesn’t have an ideal victim. But when she was sitting across from this woman, she didn’t know that.
“This is going to sound terrible, but I’m just going to be real. This person was not what I would expect a sex slave would look like,” Dunkerton said. “I was like, ‘No way, she’s lying.’”
Dunkerton still took the woman to the center. That episode, though, prompted her to learn more about human trafficking. With more knowledge, Dunkerton realized she didn’t know enough.
She could have been more helpful.
“When I learned about trafficking, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what was going on,’” Dunkerton said. “And I didn’t really believe her because it sounded so bizarre. I look back on that incident with a lot of regret.”
That encounter motivated Dunkerton. After volunteering as a social worker for years, Dunkerton founded Alamance for Freedom, a local human trafficking advocacy organization, in 2013. Last July, the organization merged with CrossRoads, a sexual assault response center, to combine manpower and resources.
CrossRoads now serves human trafficking victims, and Dunkerton leads those efforts as that program’s director. Alongside helping victims, she strives to teach the realities of human trafficking — and to shatter the same uninformed views she once had.
Both Dunkerton and Monico said victim profiles aren’t uniform. CrossRoads has served different races, age groups and sexual identities, though Dunkerton said the majority are teenage females.
But unlike the dramatic scenes of kidnapping that pop culture sometimes depicts, Dunkerton says she wants people to understand trafficking is a deliberate, methodical process rooted in societal ills.
“I say any child maltreatment — where there’s child abuse, where there’s abandonment, where there’s neglect — you’re creating very vulnerable situations where their emotional needs are not being met,” Dunkerton said. “You’re sort of setting that kid up for being groomed by someone who could benefit from them financially.”
Experts say “push and pull” factors influence everything.
Family dysfunction, mental health, poverty and drug dependence can push victims into the web. Traffickers then opportunistically pull victims by using coercion — mainly by false promises or violence.
Problems in Alamance County produce ripe conditions for human trafficking. Dunkerton said everyday social and economic issues lead troubled people to becoming potential victims, even if the general public doesn’t realize it.
“Dealing with poverty, those inequalities, racism — it’s all connected,” she said. “When I think of human trafficking, I think of it as a community issue.”
Nearly one in five county residents live in poverty, according to census data. Almost half of county children live in a single-parent household, according to the American Community Survey, a nationwide survey administered by the Census Bureau.
Drug use in Alamance County is still prevalent, with 14 unintentional opioid deaths in the last two years, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Court data also show 226 felony charges for possessing cocaine or heroine in the county in 2018.
Geographically, two major interstates merge through the county — creating easy access for sellers in their routes across the east coast.
With so many moving parts causing the issue to fester, Dunkerton said CrossRoads must treat clients on a case-by-case basis. The worst thing she and her staff could do, she says, is stigmatize a victim and act as if every situation is the same. Some people need therapy, medical attention and legal counsel. Others just need someone to talk to.
“I think we have to really restrain ourselves from telling people what to do immediately,” Dunkerton said. “We’re so good at that as a culture. We want to be so quick to tell people what they should do and what they shouldn’t have done. We have to be very comfortable with silence and listening and just be very present for that person.”
Those cycles of mental stress and abandonment only help traffickers entrap victims. Seeking to improve their lives, children in broken homes can actually worsen their situations when they’re pushed to the streets.
In 2018, one in seven reported missing children nationally fell victim to sex trafficking, and 88% of those victims were in foster care when they went missing, according to the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children.
Nearly 85% of sex trafficking victims in the United States used controlled substances during their captivity, according to the American Medical Association. More than 50% used marijuana, alcohol or cocaine, and 22% used heroine.
That further increases their chances of being coerced by a trafficker, who, in most instances, supplies them with those drugs.
“They prey on the vulnerability of a person who may not have a role model and may not have a system in protection,” said Bilal Ghandour, assistant professor of psychology at Elon specializing in emotional, behavioral and traumatic disorders. “They treat them probably very well the first 48 hours and little by little those special favors and kindness go away.
“It just deteriorates into a situation where it no longer becomes feasible. It’s almost as if you’re slowly burning.”
In Herring’s case, Farquharson adopted her from her biological mother, a struggling Philippine housemaid who couldn’t handle the burden of another child. But almost immediately, the promises Farqharson gave Herring’s mother crumbled into lies.
Herring said Farquharson ingrained in her and her sisters that she was a “god,” and that her orders were divine. If they disobeyed, Farquharson said the trio would experience hell in this world and the next.
“My trafficker thought she was Jesus Christ,” Herring said. “She would say, ‘I don’t care if you love me as your mother, but you must respect me and fear me as your Lord and Savior.’”
The trio worked 18-20 hours a day, only remaining awake from caffeine pills Farquharson gave them. In Herring’s captivity, she never went to school or a doctor’s appointment.
Reports are similar for sex trafficking victims, Monico said. But each instance, whether it be sex trafficking or labor trafficking, can vary in intensity.
In her research, she remembers a Mexican woman saying she had sex with 30 to 40 clients a day. One victim, she said, was raped nearly 10,000 times. The continual abuse makes this crime so disturbing, Monico said.
“You can traffic drugs and the consumption is once, Monico said. “But if you traffic people, you can use that victim again and again and again. There’s multiple uses of that commodity — and that commodity is a human being.”
At her bleakest point, Herring remembers praying to God, asking for help.
“I don’t know if You’re real, but if You are real and if You exist, please rescue me out of this situation because if You don’t, I can’t see a way out.”
Deliverance came a few months later.
An alert neighbor who was walking her dog called authorities when she saw Farquharson hit Herring in broad daylight. Union County Department of Social Services workers soon came and interviewed the girls. Farquharson wasn’t home at the time, Herring said. After the social workers came, Farquharson fled the country, but authorities arrested her in Bulgaria in 2009.
A federal jury indicted Farquharson on charges of involuntary servitude and child abuse inflicting serious injury. But after psychiatric evaluations, the court determined she suffered from a mental illness, making her “incompetent to stand trial,” according to court records. The court dismissed her case in 2011, but ordered her to return to the United Kingdom.
Authorities had no trouble rescuing the trio once they knew the situation. But as sheriff, Johnson says things aren’t always simple.
Johnson believes law enforcement intervenes too late in most cases. By the time authorities arrest traffickers, their victims have long experienced periods of stress and abuse Johnson thinks are preventable. He wants to be more aggressive and proactive.
“I think we have failed these individuals simply because we are not getting them the necessary care and resources that they need to bring these girls out of that environment,” Johnson said.
Trafficking operations take longer than standard arrests. They normally consist of undercover work and surveillance, which requires an added set of skills, sensitivity and money to do properly. And even then, they aren’t always successful.
One big frustration, Johnson says, is victims can be too scared or dependent on their handlers, known as “pimps,” to seek help. On occasion, they won’t cooperate with law enforcement, and sometimes will protect their abusers. Psychologically, Ghandor says, victims have been groomed to accept what happens to them. When they are rescued, they need help to readjust to their new realities.
“You no longer have any belief that someone can protect you,” he said. “So you feel isolated and neglected, and you don’t bounce back into the system of social life.”
Rep. Mark Walker (NC-06), who serves Alamance County’s district in the federal House of Representatives, called this issue a “travesty,” and one he wants to address.
The first bill he introduced as a member of Congress in 2015 dealt with human trafficking, and he’s supported bills to provide better training for law enforcement and tougher penalties for traffickers.
After winning his re-election bid last November, Walker said his focus now shifts to the customers, or “johns,” who receive the services of victims.
He and Johnson both think federal and North Carolina prostitution laws are too lenient. Unless authorities prove a solicitor of prostitution is a trafficker, they can only charge them with a misdemeanor on the first offense, according to the law. Walker says if “johns” were immediately charged with felonies, it would deter trafficking all together.
“As opposed to just a slap on the wrist, I believe those penalties should be increased,” Walker said. “I have no problem making and enforcing very tough sentencing. This is a problem here and it’s about supply and demand.”
In Herring’s Greensboro home, a wooden sign hangs adjacent to her fireplace. In block letters, it reads, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” a scriptural passage from the biblical book of Joshua.
She sees that sign whenever she walks through the front door. It’s a reminder she now serves a higher power — not someone who exploited her for selfish benefit.
Earlier this year, Herring presented at a conference in Charlotte about her story. It aligned with newly released data from the North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission, which is housed under the state’s judicial branch. The state earned an “A” rating for its initiatives to combat trafficking, a stark improvement from the “D” rating it received in 2011.
Since 2016, North Carolina’s General Assembly approved laws to teach human trafficking awareness classes in all public middle schools and mandated certain businesses to post trafficking awareness signs.
CrossRoads and local law enforcement also work closely together on trafficking cases. Dunkerton said her staff hosts trainings with officers on dealing with victims properly. At Elon, Monico started a class on human trafficking and teaches students about the crime, the factors that lead to it and how to prevent it.
Herring says it’s a start, but the problem is far from solved. It’s a global issue that one state and one county can’t figure out by themselves.
She’s still going to advocate on the issue because she doesn’t want someone to experience her past. And like she did with the gash in her head, she is going to handle the situation as best she can.
“Trafficking,” Herring said, “is basically humans using other humans in the worst possible ways. I know what it’s like, and I hated it. I hated living that way, and I would never want anyone else to go through what went through.”
National Human Trafficking Hotline - Anonymous open 24/7
Cross Roads - Anonymous open 24/7
A Guide to Human Trafficking in School - US Department of Education
Understanding Trafficking in Children and Youth - Polaris Project
Improving Services of LGBTQ Trafficking Victims - Polaris Project
Coaching Boys into Men - Resources for raising young boys as advocates against trafficking and violence
Demanding Corporate Social Responsibility - Human Trafficking Search