Public invited to workshop focused on dangers of human trafficking in Mt. Laurel area on Jan. 16

Presenters from the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking and New Jersey Child Assault Prevention will speak at the event.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that one in six of the 18,500 endangered runaways reported to the center in 2016 were likely victims of sex trafficking.

With statistics such as that in mind, parents, professionals and all members of the Mt. Laurel community are invited to a special workshop on human trafficking sponsored by the Mt. Laurel Parent Advisory Group on Jan. 16 at Harrington Middle School.

During the event, presenters Jim Halfpenny, vice president of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and Samara Rudd, from New Jersey Child Assault Prevention, will speak about the dangers of human trafficking and how the issue poses a unique threat to the Mt. Laurel area.

According to event organizer Diane Willard, who also serves as director of Mt. Laurel Schools’ Child Study Team Services, Mt. Laurel’s major highways, motels, hotels, shopping centers and major highways are prime areas for predators to come into contact with vulnerable children and teens.

“People do not realize that the Mt. Laurel area is such a hub with regard to human trafficking and predators who are trying to make contact with teenagers, both boys and girls,” Willard said.

Willard said predators will often first try to contact children and teens through the Internet, before then attempting to arrange a meeting at the area’s many malls and shopping centers.

Due to major routes such as Route 73, Route 70 and Route 38 all running through town, Willard said this leads to an increased number of motels and hotels in the area where predators can quickly take children.

In her capacity as liaison to the homeless for the school district, Willard said she’s often spoken to families who have to live in a motel for a short period time who’ve described firsthand the dangers they’ve suspected at certain establishments.

“A lot of them will say they don’t let their children out of the motel and they won’t go out at night because of the danger. Some of them said they even moved from different motels because of dangers they suspected,” Willard said.

In addition, with long-distance travel made easier due to nearby I-295 and the New Jersey Turnpike, Willard said predators can quickly traffic their victims to major cities in a short period of time.

“Very easily you can get to other big cities such as Atlantic City, Camden, Philadelphia or New York where our children can be taken advantage of before you know it,” Willard said. “That’s what’s so scary.”

With the upcoming meeting, Willard said she’s trying to reach as many parents, educators and administrators as possible in the area so they have more knowledge on how to be proactive in keeping children safe.

“I just don’t think our children recognize the dangers, and I don’t think our parents recognize the dangers that can exist for our young people … our feeling is if we save one child, then everything has been worth it,” Willard said.

Willard said she and event organizers have also been trying to get information about the event spread to other schools in the area, public and private, to reach more members of the community and increase turnout.

“Hopefully they will then turn this information out to others and let people know,” Willard said.

The Human Trafficking Workshop, sponsored by the Mt. Laurel Parent Advisory Group, will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. at Harrington Middle School on Jan. 16.

Those interested in attending the event can sign up through a link on the special “Human Trafficking Workshop” page on the Mt. Laurel Schools website at www.mtlaurelschools.org.