20200921-LOC-rally against child trafficking 2

Rally organizer Courtney Rehmer, center, protests with others on the Central Square common in Keene on Saturday to bring awareness to the issues of human trafficking and child sexual abuse.

With conspiracy theories hijacking the issues of child sex abuse and human trafficking recently, a local woman held a Keene rally Saturday she said was aimed at raising awareness of the real problems.

Courtney Rehmer, the Walpole woman who organized the event, said the issues hit home for her because she has a 2-year-old son, and believes not enough local people know the facts on child abuse and trafficking.

“I just felt like I needed to speak out about it,” Rehmer said in a phone interview before the rally, which drew about 20 people to Central Square Saturday afternoon. “And if I could help one person learn something, I just felt like that would be a job well done.”

Raising awareness of these issues is a worthy goal, according to local and state experts on child abuse and human trafficking. But as these important issues have fallen victim to a recent rash of misinformation and social media conspiracy theories, experts say it’s also essential that people getting involved spread accurate information.

“There are a lot of movements right now that are responding to the issues of child sex trafficking or sexual abuse, and I think that’s amazing because it’s demonstrating that people in our community care about that, they don’t tolerate that and they want to do something about it,” said Rebecca Ayling, the project director for the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force. “The unfortunate thing is they’re not all fact-based.”

Human trafficking and child sexual abuse are real problems, Ayling said, and they are present in New Hampshire. But when people get incorrect information on the issues, it makes it harder for them to understand the problems, and what they can do to help.

“So that’s dangerous,” Ayling said.

Katrina Nugent, the education and community outreach coordinator at the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention, said one of the most common misperceptions about human trafficking is that strangers are snatching kids away from their families.

“And the truth is that it doesn’t happen that way,” Nugent said. “I’m not going to say it never happens that way, because certainly there is a percentage of sexual abuse and trafficking that is done by strangers, but the vast majority, over 90 percent of the cases, the person is trafficked by someone known to them. And a lot of those cases are family members.

“... [There’s] also this idea of you’re taken, and then suddenly you’re being forced to do things you don’t want to do,” Nugent said. “And that’s not how it happens, either. It’s a manipulation. It’s a subtle, slow process.”

Ultimately, misinformation like this, and social media conspiracies about human trafficking and child abuse, make it easier for the perpetrators of these crimes to continue, Nugent said.

“Honestly, the only thing that they’re doing by sensationalizing it and spreading the inaccurate information is making it easier for traffickers to keep on doing what they’re doing,” Nugent said. “A lot of trafficking does happen in neighborhoods, and so we rely on people to have accurate information about how to spot it so that they can report it. And if we’re not giving accurate information out there, or people are not believing it when they see it, then that’s not helping anybody.”

At the protest on the Square Saturday, Rehmer made it clear that such conspiracy theories and falsehoods were not welcome.

“I don’t want this to be about conspiracies, because that’s not factual,” she said before the event. “I really just want the facts.”

Early in the event Saturday afternoon, a passerby asked if the gathering had any connection to QAnon, the baseless Internet conspiracy theory that the world is run by Satanic pedophiles who operate a global child sex trafficking ring.

“No, not at all,” Rehmer said in response, explaining that she organized the event on her own, and to raise awareness about human trafficking and child sexual abuse.

And the best way to raise awareness, Ayling and Nugent said, is to share information from trusted sources, such as organizations that focus on preventing abuse and trafficking, and supporting survivors of these crimes. Ayling said she relies on information from the Polaris Project, a national nonprofit that runs the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline; Shared Hope International, a Christian nonprofit that combats trafficking in several countries around the world; and the Blue Campaign, which is run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

And even when well-intentioned people spread inaccurate information about trafficking and abuse, it makes it more difficult for organizations like these to fight the problems, Nugent said.

“What we see is that, with all of these different things being posted and people trying raise awareness about the issue, what they’re doing is clouding the truth,” she said. “If people really wanted to raise awareness and help the situation, I would suggest that they become involved with organizations like the Polaris Project, or even their local crisis centers.”

MCVP and the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force both offer trainings on sexual abuse and human trafficking prevention. These trainings help people better understand these complex issues and learn some of the warning signs for children and adults who are vulnerable to being exploited.

According to the N.H. task force, indicators of human trafficking include people who work excessively long or unusual hours for little or no pay, people who have few or no personal possessions and people who appear malnourished.

The task force hosts free online training sessions at least once every three months and anyone interested in organizing a training session for their own group can fill out a request form on the task force website at www.nhhumantraffickingtaskforce.com/training. More information on MCVP’s educational initiatives and other volunteer opportunities is available at www.mcvprevention.org.

At the protest on Saturday, Rehmer said she feels she accomplished her goal of raising awareness. She added that she plans to remain involved in the fight against child sexual abuse and human trafficking.

“I’m not going to stop here,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I’m going to figure something out to raise more awareness and do more stuff around the community, donate money to nonprofits.”

Meanwhile, Ayling said people like her, who work every day on these issues, aim to make sure this sort of enthusiasm makes a real impact.

“I don’t want to shame anyone. I don’t want to shut them down, but I want to make sure that we harness that passion appropriately,” she said. “... I think the passion and the energy is awesome. I’m just always trying to make sure it’s going in the right direction.”

In addition to prevention education, the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention also provides crisis services for victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse, stalking and child abuse. The MCVP operates a 24-hour crisis line, which can be reached by calling 603-352-3782 or toll free at 1-888-511-MCVP (6287).

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.