Enslaved by human trafficking

Posted on July 29, 2012

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MARY BETH SCHWEIGERT
Staff Writer

 

Things weren’t going so well at home, the teenage girl confided to her new online friend.

Come stay with me, he offered. I’ll take care of you. I’ll help you find a job.

The plan sounded like a welcome escape to the girl, who had never left Lancaster County.

Her first couple of days in Philadelphia unfolded exactly as her friend promised. But then, he announced, it was time to go to work.

The man turned out to be a pimp, who forced the girl to sell her body on the city’s drug- and crime-infested Kensington Avenue. She was beaten or raped if she refused.

Hugh Organ met the girl and another county teen while doing street outreach work for a Philadelphia youth crisis center.

Both told a familiar story.

“It starts out as the promise of something good, a better life,” he says. “Then people end up in nightmares.”

The girls were victims of human trafficking, a shocking, mostly hidden crime that has crept closer to the county, where a growing number of advocacy groups are determined to do something about it.

“Trafficking victims can be found pretty much anywhere,” says Organ, associate executive director of Covenant House. “You just have to know what to look for.”

But most people don’t.

Many have heard of women forced to sell their bodies in Cambodia or Thailand. But trafficking victims also can be teens from disadvantaged or dysfunctional homes right here in Pennsylvania.

The term itself can be confusing. Trafficking isn’t about smuggling.

Sex trafficking — which the federal government defines as participation in prostitution by force, fraud or coercion — is the most common type. Any minor who performs a commercial sex act also is considered a trafficking victim. It’s important to note that any minor in prostitution is a trafficking victim; force, fraud or coercion does not need to be proven, as it does for adults.

Other victims are forced into labor, such as recent cases of Asian women working in a York nail salon and Ukrainians cleaning large chain stores in the Philadelphia area.

Trafficking is easy to ignore or misunderstand because it most often happens out of public view, says Ned Conway, an FBI special agent in Philadelphia.

“Most law-abiding citizens aren’t going to see this on a daily basis,” he says. “But [victims] are out there. We need the public’s help to identify victims and prosecute traffickers.”

The issue has ignited the passions of county advocates, who have formed at least a half-dozen anti-trafficking groups in recent years. Numerous local churches have launched their own efforts.

Most groups aim to raise awareness and educate the public — and especially first responders — on how to recognize a trafficking victim. One group hopes to build a home for survivors in a rural part of the county.

“We need to get people past the obstacle of [thinking] this is happening in Thailand, or India or Atlanta,” says Bethany Woodcock, who started the Lancaster anti-trafficking group Not In My Back Yard last spring.

“You may not see girls being prostituted on the streets of Lancaster, but is it happening?

“I have no doubt.”

Police have arrested traffickers in Reading, Harrisburg and Delaware County. There are rumors of county incidents but no confirmed cases.

Critics say Pennsylvania’s anti-trafficking laws are weak, leading to few prosecutions. A new report outlines the first statewide anti-trafficking plan, recommending sweeping legislative reforms and more victim resources.

Former state Rep. Katie True, who sponsored successful anti-trafficking legislation in 2006, acknowledges that it can be an uphill battle to convince people to care about an issue that’s largely invisible.

“The public really is not aware of it,” says True, a Republican who represented the county’s 41st District. “It’s not part of their lives.”

But a few decades ago, she points out, people didn’t believe drugs and alcohol were a problem here either.

From vulnerable to victim
Trafficking is one of the largest global criminal enterprises — and the fastest-growing, the FBI’s Conway says.

Victims are tightly controlled, making precise figures hard to find. According to some estimates, there are 12.3 million victims worldwide and 100,000 child victims in the U.S. alone.

Many victims in U.S. trafficking cases come from other countries. But 33 percent of victims here are Americans, according to the FBI.

Trafficking’s growth is fueled by demand, and of course, money. A single victim can make $1,000 a day for a pimp, which is far more profitable than selling illegal drugs or weapons.

“Unlike drugs, they can sell that person over and over and over again,” says Lynn Kolb, coordinator of Exit 58, an anti-trafficking initiative of Marietta-based Transport for Christ.

Traffickers often target schools and malls in their search for victims, Conway says. The Internet has made it even easier to find and sell victims, which most often are girls.

Youth from low-income homes, those who already have been abused or lack strong family ties are especially vulnerable. One in three runaways is lured into prostitution within 48 hours, Kolb says.

Traffickers use force, money, promises of love and other emotional ploys to recruit victims, Conway says. “Unfortunately, victims do fall prey to this. They’re very vulnerable.”

Kelly Towers, who leads the anti-trafficking group Love146’s Lancaster task force, says there’s a common public misconception that victims willingly sell their bodies.

“I [once] thought women wanted to be involved in prostitution,” she says. “But the average age [for entering prostitution] is 13. That is not a choice.”

Traffickers exercise complete control over victims by taking cellphone and credit cards, exploiting lack of family ties, supplying drugs and threatening violence, Conway says.

It’s difficult to fathom victims’ constant state of fear, True says. Many even refuse to cooperate with law enforcement because they fear for their lives.

“They’re threatened, and they’re scared, and they won’t talk,” she says. “They’re so totally dependent for their clothing and food, it’s a whole [other] form of abuse.

“These folks … are in sheer terror.”

Laws that ‘lack teeth’

Recent legislation, beginning with the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, has led to increased public awareness and stepped-up efforts against traffickers.

Pennsylvania also has toughened its anti-trafficking stance in recent years, but advocates argue it’s not nearly enough.

In 2006, the state Legislature, led by True, passed an act imposing criminal penalties for trafficking.

The proposed bill drew little interest at first, True says. “Really, it is so hard for people to grasp that yes, indeed, we do have a problem,” she says. “It’s very underground.”

A raid on two York County brothels, where Korean women allegedly were forced into prostitution, opened some legislators’ eyes, she says. The bill eventually passed easily.

Bills currently pending in the state Legislature aim to increase awareness and reporting of suspected trafficking.

The bills, which have several local sponsors, would require transportation hubs, massage parlors, establishments with liquor licenses and other locations to post signs listing the national trafficking hotline number (888-373-7888).

Sponsor Ryan Aument, a Republican who succeeded True in the 41st District, says the county’s network of major roads and proximity to big cities make it safe to assume that transporting of victims happens here.

“We want to make sure folks … are aware of the problem, are on the lookout and quickly report human trafficking,” he says. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

An analysis by the American Center for Law & Justice and human rights group Shared Hope International supports advocates’ contention that Pennsylvania’s anti-trafficking laws should be tougher.

The groups gave Pennsylvania’s existing laws an “F.”

A recently released Joint State Government Commission report agrees, saying current state law defines trafficking only vaguely and “lacks the teeth necessary” to effectively arrest and prosecute offenders.

Strong legislation is the key to both prevention and prosecution, Woodcock says. She expects the Lancaster Anti-Trafficking Network, a coalition of local advocacy groups, will lobby alongside others in surrounding counties to adopt the report’s recommendations.

Current penalties for “johns” and even pimps are minimal, Love146’s Towers says, while victims may be charged with prostitution. Tougher punishments for “johns” will decrease demand, she says.

“It’s not going to stop until we approach the demand side,” she says. “What is driving men to purchase sex?”

Few convictions

A successful fight against trafficking requires the united efforts of federal agencies, state and local law enforcement, social-service providers and the public, the FBI’s Conway says.

Since the federal trafficking law took effect 12 years ago, FBI investigations have led to the rescue of more than 900 children and conviction of 500 traffickers.

In 2005, Operation Precious Cargo targeted sex trafficking at Harrisburg truck stops. The more than 150 victims included 45 children as young as 12. Many of the 18 traffickers received long prison sentences.

In 2010, two Reading men were charged with violating the federal trafficking law. The case was the first of its kind in Pennsylvania’s Eastern District, which includes Lancaster County, Conway says.

According to a federal indictment, Paul Sewell employed minors in a large prostitution ring. Michael Johnson drove the girls to jobs.

Sewell, who called himself “God,” insisted that each girl be tattooed with a “working name,” such as “God’s Property” or “God’s Jewel.”

Sewell photographed the girls and advertised them online as escorts. He subjected some to physical violence.

Sewell and Johnson pleaded guilty to sex trafficking and are awaiting sentencing. Former Reading police Officer Ronald Miko pleaded guilty in June to obstructing the investigation.

Labor trafficking made headlines earlier this month in Philadelphia. Omelyan Botsvynyuk, 52, a Ukrainian national, was sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison for running a human trafficking ring that brought young Ukrainians to the United States illegally, then forced them to clean large chain stores for little or no pay.

The victims were promised good jobs and free room and board. Instead, traffickers used threats, violence, sexual assault and debt bondage to keep them in involuntary servitude.

Botsvynyuk’s brother, Stepan, 38, also was convicted in connection with the ring. Three other brothers — Mykhaylo, Yaroslav and Dmytro — were indicted but have not yet been tried.

The only convictions under the state law so far came in January, when Deryck Alston and Amanda Scott, of Delaware County, pleaded guilty to trafficking. The pair marketed a 17-year-old girl for sex by placing topless photos of her in personal ads.

A third person, Jerome Clemons Jr., also of Delaware County, pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution.

Close to home?

Local police and the district attorney’s office report receiving only a handful of tips about potential trafficking. None led to arrests.

One county case that fit the criteria for trafficking happened before the state law passed.

A Columbia woman faces up to 12 years in state prison for prostituting her 11-year-old son over a four-month period in 2005. The mother, who was not named to protect her son’s identity, apparently was addicted to drugs.

Advocates say a lack of arrests doesn’t mean trafficking isn’t happening here.

“Ladies are being sold on the Internet right now in Lancaster County,” says Organ, of Covenant House. “You just have to look.”

Multiple websites list women offering sex for hire in the Lancaster area. All claim to be 18 or older, but NIMBY’s Woodcock suspects that many ads don’t show faces because the women actually are underage.

Jennifer Sensenig believes trafficking occurs within a few miles of her Strasburg-area home.

One day, in fall 2009, she noticed a young woman’s face in the window of an East Lampeter Township massage spa. She watched as the woman applied makeup while looking in a hand mirror.

The scene sparked Sensenig’s curiosity about what was going on inside the spa and another nearby.

She began to “stake out” the spas, watching men carry bedding inside and writing down license plate numbers. Posing as a customer looking for a gift certificate, Sensenig saw a lingerie-clad woman preparing to give a “massage.”

“Everything about [the spas] had the earmarks of trafficking,” she says.

She talked with the woman from the window several times. She said her name was Caitlyn, and she was from Taiwan. Her story kept changing.

Both spas ran afoul of township zoning regulations and closed in summer 2010, before East Lampeter police could fully investigate, Chief John Bowman says.

Sensenig never saw Caitlyn again. But the young woman inspired her and others to start the North Star Initiative, an anti-trafficking group that hopes to open a local home for survivors.

“Every time I got to arguing with myself why I shouldn’t [take action], her face would make me stop arguing,” Sensenig says.

Believing without seeing

Anti-trafficking groups meet in churches, coffeehouses and schools all over the county.

Diane Adams got involved after she received a book about trafficking as a Christmas gift.

“It opened my eyes to the fact that there’s still slavery in the world,” she says. “I had no idea.”

Adams spearheaded an awareness event at her church, Hempfield United Methodist. Then she started a small group devoted to reading books and watching movies about trafficking.

Now Daughters for Justice is taking action, handing out anti-trafficking pamphlets at county truck stops.

“What if I was born in India instead of the U.S.?” Adams says. “What if my daughter ran away and was picked up by a pimp? If it was me, I would want somebody to do something.

“It’s a terrible injustice.”

Bethany Woodcock first encountered trafficking in 1999, when she volunteered at an Albanian refugee camp.

A teen translator told Woodcock that she and two friends were promised jobs at a hotel in Italy but instead were forced to work in a brothel. The young woman eventually managed to escape.

“She was the person who gave trafficking a face and name for me,” says Woodcock, who later realized that trafficking exists in the United States.

Last spring, Woodcock quit a job to start NIMBY. Her salary isn’t guaranteed, but her efforts already are paying off.

She recently helped lead a trafficking training seminar in Baltimore. Afterwards, a police officer said the training forever changed his perspective on women in prostitution.

And nearly every time Woodcock speaks to a church or other group, an audience member will share their own family’s experience with trafficking.

“I can’t change the world, and I’m not trying to,” she says.

“I know it’s there. I can’t look the other way anymore.”

mschweigert@lnpnews.com

Read more: http://lancasteronline.com/article/local/698005_Enslaved-by-human-trafficking.html#ixzz22LCUncRV

Read more: http://lancasteronline.com/article/local/698005_Enslaved-by-human-trafficking.html#ixzz22LCFUvxG

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