January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. On Friday, the Crime Victims Assistance Center (CVAC) expanded programming into an old school building in Endicott.
CVAC works with Broome County and federal programs to counsel people who have survived sex trafficking, accompany them to court, and offer them tools to cope, among other things.
“I think there’s a misconception," said Raini Baudendistel, executive director of CVAC. "When you say 'human trafficking,' people think that it might be immigrants or refugees and people are being shoved in a van and driven across state lines, and that’s not what we’re talking about here.
"Sexual exploitation really is a sexual favor in exchange for something of value.”
Salka Valerio knows from experience. She's a case worker at CVAC, but was trafficked herself when she was a teenager.
“I came from an abusive home, and at the age of 14, I just met somebody at school and I thought the person was my friend and I disclosed to him everything I was going through at home, and he said that he can help me get out the situation," said Valerio.
"I trusted him and I believed him and... I came all the way from Norfolk, VA to New York to live with his aunt and his uncle, but that wasn’t the case.”
CVAC opens nearly 1,500 cases of crime victims a year. That number also includes child abuse and domestic violence, not just survivors of sex trafficking.
Valerio wants to teach kids about red flags to protect themselves and their friends. The new offices are right off of Main Street in Endicott, near the high school and the police station. Leaders at CVAC hope that means their services will be more accessible.
When when you’re young, Valerio says, it’s easy to be lured in.
"Just being vulnerable to anything makes you a possible victim. If you don’t have your basic needs, that makes you vulnerable. If you’re not getting enough income to feed your kids, that makes you vulnerable," said Valerio.
"[The abusers] don’t just come out and say, 'this is what’s going to happen.' They groom you first. They develop a relationship and, at the end, they say, 'this is what you’re going to do.'"