Jaime Ricker, left, and Katrina White, chat Wednesday after a vigil in Dufresne Plaza in Lewiston to remember the lives of Mainers lost to human trafficking. Both women work for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services, which co-sponsored the vigil with Safe Voices. Between them, Ollie the therapy dog looks for treats. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Gathered at Dufresne Plaza on Wednesday afternoon, nearly 100 people huddled against the cold, shivered and heard some hard truths about human trafficking. 

It’s not just for far-flung countries or major U.S. cities anymore, they were told. It’s happening here. 

Over the past year, Safe Voices alone has served more than 100 survivors of human trafficking in the Lewiston and Auburn area. Across Maine, police and other investigative bodies have handled well over 300 cases in the same time span, a number that seems surprising to many. 

Ashley Wade, a domestic violence detective with the Lewiston Police Department, understands the reluctance some have to believe that such a heinous thing is happening in our backyards. 

“I think it’s important to note that human trafficking sounds like a big, scary term,” she said at the gathering. “And so it’s hard to acknowledge that it’s happening in our community, in our home state — especially in a state like Maine where we all view ourselves as this small, rural friendly, community.

“So I want you to kind of take that phrase out of it for a minute and instead think of words that are maybe a little bit more manageable,” she said. “Words like ‘exploitation.’ Words like ‘at-risk population.’ Think about the people that you see and interact with on a regular basis who are vulnerable. Maybe they don’t have a reliable, safe place to stay. Maybe they suffer from substance abuse disorder. Maybe they are victims of other types of abuse. It’s important to keep an open mind so that we can all start to recognize signs of trafficking that are happening around us, because until we recognize and address it, it will continue to be a growing problem.” 


The Wednesday gathering was meant as a vigil for those who have perished as the result of human trafficking. January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, after all. 

But the event, organized by Safe Voices and Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services, was also meant to be educational. And for many, it was, although several speakers stressed that combating a matter as dire as the trafficking of human beings cannot be just an occasional thing. 

“For those of us that do this work, we are supporting survivors of human trafficking every single day, 365 days out of the year,” Elise Johansen, executive director of Safe Voices, said. “I think that people don’t acknowledge or realize or want to pay attention to the fact that human trafficking is happening in our community … This is not something that happens in other places and doesn’t happen here. I think that we also need to acknowledge that we live in a society that believes that it is OK to buy and sell humans. And we are here to say that it is not OK to do that.” 

One fact was stressed over and over, and by a variety of speakers: Mainers need to get over their denial of the problem before the important work of combating it can begin. 

“It is crucial that we are all here this afternoon to recognize the real effects of human trafficking within our communities,” Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline said. “It can be easy to think of trafficking as an issue outside of the United States, or not recognize its existence because it is not easily identified. This is why we are here today: to bring a renewed awareness to this crime that is often hidden or overlooked. In Maine alone, law enforcement handles between three and 400 trafficking cases every year, a number that is very much under-reported because of the difficulty of identifying survivors and the hurdles that survivors face to self reported it. It makes events like this necessary, to highlight the work needed.” 

For some, it was entirely appropriate that the temperature barely managed to reach 25 degrees as the group gathered in Dufresne Plaza on Lisbon Street. 


“We stand here and we’re cold,” Jaime Ricker, a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services victim advocate, said. “And we’re thinking, when are we going to be done? When is Jamie going to stop talking? But think about those pieces when we have survivors who are out in the cold, who don’t have a place to go, and think about what they may need to do to get that warm place or that warm meal or that warm hat. Think of that and check in with people. That’s the work that we’re all doing.” 

Safe Voices is a local, nonprofit organization serving survivors of domestic violence and abuse, as well as human trafficking, sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services works to prevent sexual violence and serves survivors of rape, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, stalking and sexual harassment. Safe Voices and Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services services are available to anyone in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties. 

On hand for the event Wednesday afternoon were Lewiston Police Chief David St. Pierre and Deputy Chief Adam Higgins. Katrina White, sex trafficking and exploitation outreach coordinator with Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services was glad to see that because she was adamant about one particular idea: there is no way the issue of human exploitation can possibly be taken on without powerful community partnerships that include groups like Safe Voices as well as police, both local and federal.  

It is likewise important, Detective Wade offered, that the victims of trafficking, exploitation and related abuse realize that help is out there. Those survivors, she said, need to be a part of the process. 

“We want to make sure that victims and survivors have a voice and the opportunity to contribute meaningfully,” Wade said, “because so many of their choices have already been taken away from them.” 

Mayor Sheline, too, had words for those survivors and victims who might be wary about coming forward. 

“There are people and resources that want to help you,” he said. “You do not deserve to be treated this way.” 

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