As human trafficking continues to be the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, the Wolf Administration is recognizing January as Human Trafficking Month by encouraging the public to learn more and watch for signs.
Human trafficking is the exploitation of people for commercial sex or labor by force, fraud or coercion. According to the International Labor Organization, there are 21 million victims of human trafficking globally generating $150 billion annually for traffickers.
Susan Mathias, CEO of Transitions of PA, explained, “You can sell a drug once, but you can sell a person over and over again, so that’s where the money is very attractive. The traffickers know the math of that.”
Transitions, which serves Union, Snyder and Northumberland Counties, has been active in the fight against human trafficking since 2014 when the PA Alliance to Address the Trafficking of Humans on Route 15 (PAATH15) was formed. Victim service agencies along Route 15 from the Maryland to New York border have helped approximately 85 trafficking victims from 2014 through 2016.
Mathias said of the nine victims Transitions served in the first two years of PAATH15, eight were females and one was a male, and in the last two years Transitions has provided services to five victims, all of whom were victims of sex trafficking.
Other agencies across the state have worked to address the issue, including the Pennsylvania Departments of Transportation (PennDOT) and Human Services (DHS) and the Pennsylvania State Police.
A press release from PennDOT states the department is “one of the first state government agencies nationwide to educate its employees on human trafficking awareness, with all staff at driver’s license centers and Welcome Centers receiving training. The training was also made available to other department employees, transit agency employees, and is available online under the “Human Trafficking” Media Center at www.penndot.gov.
Mathias said PennDOT has been “terrific” in assisting with education and working with Transitions to help end human trafficking, as has Evangelical Hospital, the “first hospital in the state to establish a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program (SANE) 24 years ago and now they are leading again.”
“We are working closely with Evangelical Community Hospital as they have adopted a protocol health system-wide from the security guard to nurses to the emergency room doctor that spells out how to identify and provide services to the victims,” Mathias said. “All staff members are receiving training, which is visionary and excellent in response to the problem we need to address. Only one other hospital in the state, Jefferson Hospital, has adopted this approach.”
All staff members at Transitions are also trained in sex trafficking protocols and are educated in looking for risk factors and how to respond. Understanding the ways people make money from the system is important to understand, Mathias noted.
There are a number of factors involved in the sex trafficking industry that includes the players involved in trafficking, the purchaser of the sex, the organization that supports the trafficker and the trafficker themselves.
An uninformed community is also part of the problem, Mathias said, because the problem can continue under their noses without any action being taken to help the victims.
People should be on the outlook for indicators for potential victims, which can include the victim not being free to come and go as they please, not in charge of their own documents, restricted or controlled communication, appears malnourished, exhibits unexplained injuries, signs of untreated injuries/illnesses or signs of physical or sexual abuse or even torture or has been “branded” by their trafficker (usually in the form of a tattoo on the neck).
The age of the individual trafficked is also going down, which has a lot to do with the ability to use the internet for selling people.
In April, the infamous website Backpage.com, which was known as one of the largest online marketplaces to allegedly traffick women, including underage girls, for sex through third-party sellers, was shut down buy the FBI and co-founder Michael Lacey was charged with 93 counts in a sealed indictment.
It was only a small victory, as smaller websites are now continuing where Backpage.com left off.
Mathias said, “We’re so excited that Backpage was shut down, but there’s still an appetite for increasingly younger images of children, and that’s troubling.”
The National Human Trafficking hotline (1-888-373-7888) is an important 24/7 resource for victims and reporting potential trafficking. The hotline has received a total of 3,944 calls since 2007 that generated 1,046 cases in Pennsylvania.
A press release stated “as of June 2018, the hotline received 246 calls that led to 127 reported cases in Pennsylvania. Of those cases, 106, or 83 percent, dealt with sex trafficking. Fourteen cases, or 11 percent, dealt with labor trafficking, three cases were not specified as either sex or labor trafficking, and four cases were a combination of both. In 2017, 562 calls were received, and they led to 199 reported cases, of which 154 dealt with sex trafficking, 23 dealt with labor trafficking, 15 were not specified as either, and seven were a combination of both. Most of the individuals who placed calls were concerned community members who knew the signs of trafficking and how to report to the authorities.