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A decade after graduating from SUNY Potsdam, an alumnus gives back by helping keep the community safe

Januaries are designated National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, but the message resonates across the annual calendar—human trafficking is a threat that must be taken seriously, and nowhere is entirely safe. There are an estimated 28 million victims of human trafficking worldwide at any one time, according to the U.S. Department of State. While St. Lawrence County is not at particular risk, Chris Chandler ’13 has dedicated years to stopping this global crime in the North Country before it gets started.

Chandler, a human trafficking liaison and senior caseworker with St. Lawrence County Safe Harbour, works at the grassroots to raise awareness of risks and ensure that warning signs are properly addressed.

“It is easy to be naïve and think that human trafficking doesn’t occur locally; it does,” said Chandler, who operates out of county offices in Canton. “With the internet, it’s easy to think that we know who we are communicating with, and we often share more information than we should, which places us and our families at risk. Think about the social media trends that come with answering questions that often reveal personal information about where we grew up, who our siblings are, what our favorites are, things like that.”

Chandler has been a caseworker with the St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services since 2016 and was assistant director of Youth Advocate Programs for three years prior to that, helping reintegrate at-risk youth into the community, supervising a dozen advocates and handling 15-18 juvenile delinquent cases at once.

“I loved the small-town feel of Potsdam; that’s similar to my hometown area, and I instantly felt comfortable despite being away from home."

Chris Chandler ’13

The recipient of a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology & Criminal Justice, Chandler has been working with troubled and at-risk youth for as long as he can remember, but his work really gained traction a decade ago with the youth advocate program, where he learned to identify risk factors for human trafficking among young people in the juvenile justice system and those involved in abuse and neglect proceedings.

It’s vital for the public to be able to recognize warning signs and report any concerns to law enforcement,” Chandler said. “Warning signs include an individual showing signs of being denied food, water, sleep, or medical care; a person appearing fearful, timid, or submissive; a person deferring to someone else when spoken to; a person having a dramatic change in behaviors; or a person lacking personal possessions or forms of identification.”

Action on campus—partnerships for impact

Chandler believes vigilance, awareness building, local coalitions and action at the national level have all been important steps to making life safer for the region’s vulnerable. The year 2000 saw the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, followed in 2007 by the creation of a New York State interdepartmental taskforce to address human trafficking, and the 2010 declaration of January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, signed by President Barack Obama and in effect since.

Chandler’s own work as the Safe Harbour human trafficking liaison has focused on building a local committee of professionals to discuss ways the program can best heighten awareness, education, and services in St. Lawrence County. Positive outcomes included a partnership in April 2022 with Dr. David Bugg, chair of SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice, to host multiple educational events on the Potsdam campus. Held on National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, the series of talks and expert presentations tackled skewed public views of human trafficking as a third-world problem, featured first-hand accounts from a trafficking victim and offered other insights into the fast-growing criminal industry that exploits the nation’s children.

 Chandler’s important work will go on. Born in Sayre, Pa., and raised in Waverly, N.Y., he wanted to try a college experience away from home, and the road led to Potsdam. Rather than move after graduation and start over, Chandler decided he wanted to try to make the world better by starting right where he was.

“I loved the small-town feel of Potsdam; that’s similar to my hometown area, and I instantly felt comfortable despite being away from home,” he recalled. “During the senior year of my undergraduate work at Potsdam, I decided I wanted to stay local and began applying to jobs. I’ve always enjoyed outdoor activities like hiking and kayaking and used to spend a lot of time in the Adirondacks—which is also what helped me decide to stay local.”

Chandler’s impact extends beyond his job. Like many, he has family members who were affected by cancer. A regular volunteer with Relay for Life, Chandler considers himself fortunate to have served as president of Colleges Against Cancer while attending SUNY Potsdam. He has served as the ceremonies and luminaria chair for Relay for Life, and continues to assist the American Cancer Society with planning and execution of local and collegiate events.

Article by Bret Yager/Photos by Jason Hunter