Exploitation of people in North Carolina comes in many forms — from forced labor to commercial sex — and it is with great disappointment that I must say the General Assembly has rescinded three words from a mandate that could save victims from it.

“And the public,” those are the words that were once nestled handily in a piece of legislation that required ABC permittees to post the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-737-3888) for all their patrons and employees to see.

Located in Senate Bill 257, the inclusion of “and the public” elicited a celebration from advocates in the anti-human- trafficking movement.

It meant that the public at-large would be made aware of who they could call if they have suspicions of someone being victimized as well as providing an avenue for a victim to self-report.

In North Carolina, human trafficking can look like a scared girl who has experienced a lifetime of sexual and physical abuse, neglect and abandonment. It is a girl who was roped into “the life” of prostitution by someone masquerading as a savior and a friend and then beaten or coerced into staying in it.

It can look like a homeless young man who, out of desperation and lack of economic opportunity, was sold a dream that turned out to be long, laborious hours with no wages, threats and abuse.

These victims are in our communities, silent because a pimp is the only person to speak for them, or silent because that victim has nowhere to go or even knowledge of how to get help.

These victims have lost their freedom in a melee of manipulation and abuse, and now they need to get out. Their life may depend on it.

What do they do?

What do you do, if you know them?

Imagine for a moment you are sitting in a restaurant one evening, enjoying some time with your friends. You make a trip to the bathroom, and on the door, you are struck by a sign.

It reads “hidden in plain sight” and the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-737-3888) is posted on it. You think of the person you may know who needs help. You call the number.

And by your courageous act, a victim is rescued.

Or imagine, that victim is his/her own savior. Maybe they were at that same restaurant, and they go to the bathroom — that’s really the only time their trafficker will allow them to be alone — and they see the poster with this number. They call it while standing in the stall and whisper a plea for help.

In these scenarios, and in an ideal world, a way to get help is posted in plain sight for anyone to see.

Sadly, that is not reality.

It came as a shock when, during a meeting of the Human Trafficking Commission, it was announced that the General Assembly in a subsequent budget technical correction struck the term “and the public” from the law’s language. In the stripped-down mandate, the hotline poster must only be visible to the employees of the establishment.

What a disappointment, not only for advocates in the anti-human-trafficking movement right here in the state, but for the person who has become a victim.

For the sake of victims who are stuck in an abusive cycle of trafficking, I would ask that you demand your state senator or representative to actively work to reintegrate “and the public” back into that law. Someone’s life may depend on it.

Melinda Sampson is the community outreach coordinator for ENC Stop Human Trafficking Now. She can be reached by email at melinda@ encstophumantrafficking.org.