Victims of Human Trafficking Hide in Plain Sight in Pennsylvania
Trafficking in persons is widely considered tantamount to modern-day slavery. According to the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report 2013, 600,000 to 800,000 individuals are trafficked across international borders each year—more than half of whom are under 18 years old and average to merely 11 years old. Worldwide, 12.3 million people are victims of trafficking, subjected to forced labor, debt bondage and involuntary servitude, and 79 percent are sex trafficked into prostitution and pornography.
Despite diplomatic, concerted prevention, protection and prosecution efforts, however, human trafficking remains a key human rights and law enforcement issue.
“The reason why—and this isn’t spoken of as much as it should be—is because it is a very lucrative business that makes sense if you look at it,” said Dan Emr, executive director of Worthwhile Wear, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization dedicated to rehabilitating trafficking victims. “[Traffickers] can take, or they can manipulate to get or they can get very cheaply through someone else, and then they can sell…over and over again.”
According to Emr, victims can make anywhere from $100-300,000 annually for a trafficker. “If you are a criminal, and you look at this, it is a very lucrative and nominal endeavor,” he said.
Behind illegal drug trade, human trafficking is the second largest criminal enterprise in the world, generating about $32 billion a year. But in 2014, it is still regularly dismissed as an issue “over there.”
The top countries of origin identified for foreign victims of human trafficking in fiscal year 2012 were Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, Honduras, Indonesia, and Guatemala, according to TIP. But During this same reporting period, a policy change at the Department of Justice (DOJ) allowed federal funding for victim services to support U.S. citizen victims of human trafficking as well as foreign national victims. This is because human trafficking is not a problem relegated to victims from the developing world, but it also pervades both licit and illicit domestic markets.
Pennsylvanians, in particular, are not immune, living in a source, destination and pass-through state for trafficking in persons.
“Pennsylvania has a lot of interstates and transit routes that make it easy to relocate victims often between mid-size to large cities within PA and between neighboring states,” said Anne Rackow, planning and evaluation manager at The Project to End Human Trafficking (PEHT), a non-profit based out of Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Where PEHT is located in Western PA, there are a number of typically vulnerable low-income populations, Rackow said. “Pittsburgh, in particular…attracts other Western PA residences trying to make a better life for themselves [and] has a demand for cheap labor and commercial sex…due to higher population density.”
For example, in October 2013 38-year-old William Miller of the Hill District pleaded guilty for picking up a 15-year-old girl from a bus stop, keeping her in his home and marketing and transporting her as a prostitute for two months. In January 2014, a 17-year-old girl was rescued from a multi-state group of four adults who faced charges of promoting prostitution at America’s Best Value Inn in Pittsburgh.
But urban Western PA isn’t the only area affected by human trafficking. In 2005, “Operation Precious Cargo” rescued 150 victims—including 45 children, some of whom were as young as 12—from a sex trafficking ring operating at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania truck stops. In 2009, Lynda Dieu Phan pleaded guilty to federal charges of human trafficking after forcing two women to work in her rural West Manchester nail salons under threat of being turned over to immigration officials.
In 2013, Pennsylvania ranked ninth in the nation for calls to a national trafficking hotline, partly because of its easy access to the 1-95 corridor and number of commercial and agricultural businesses.
But there is a lack of statewide data on human trafficking beyond the number of hotline calls. “The closest thing we have to statistics specifically for PA right now would be the number of calls to the National Hotline run by the Polaris Project,” Rackow said.
The Polaris Project is part of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), which releases an annual report. According to the NHTRC Data Breakdown: Pennsylvania State Report, which covers case and call data from December 7, 2007 to September 30, 2013, the total number of calls nationwide was 89,360. Of those, 1,719 calls were from Pennsylvania.
Of 308 cases that referenced potential trafficking situations in the state of Pennsylvania, 229 (74.35 percent) are sex trafficking cases, 48 (15.58 percent) are labor trafficking, 8 (2.60 percent) are both sex and labor trafficking and 23 cases (7.47) percent are unspecified, according to the NHTRC report.
The successful operation of human trafficking is dependent upon both secrecy and public ignorance. Thus, a practical solution to prevention is awareness.
According to Rackow, that is the purpose of PEHT. Through education, the project provides prevention education lectures locally, nationally and internationally that address topics in human trafficking including culture, globalism, sex tourism and victim identification. PEHT performs outreach requests on a weekly basis, averaging two to three per week.
Likewise, Worthwhile Wear shares the plight of the nearly 30 million women and girls trapped in sex slavery, and the rest at risk of falling prey. The organization networks with schools, churches, organizations and businesses, actively participating in domestic and international community functions in an effort to educate individuals about the avenues and means by which human traffickers identify, pursue and capture their targets. The organization also plans to educate convicted criminals about the affects of human trafficking on their victims, because many do not understand, Emr added.
Further, Emr’s organization has begun one of the only rehabilitation centers in Pennsylvania. The National Survey of Residential Programs for Victims of Sex Trafficking, conducted by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and published in October 2013, took stock of the housing and aftercare options available to former trafficking victims. Of only 33 residential programs for trafficking victims in the country, just one exists in all of Pennsylvania.
Worthwhile Wear therefore launched The Well program, open to Bucks and Montgomery counties. “We starting going down this avenue of starting the local program, which is called The Well, which provides housing and aftercare for women in the greater Philadelphia area who have been sexually exploited and trafficked…[There is] a need for specific counseling, the need for specific trauma recovery, and there [was] only one available for them in Philadelphia.”
But prevention and protection are just half of the battle. Law enforcement agencies, federal and local governments are pushing to prioritize trafficking reforms that tackle prosecution, too. But there has been just one conviction under Pennsylvania’s current statute.
“The current PA laws do not specifically define sex trafficking as a separate offense under human trafficking. There are currently no civil remedies for human trafficking, and there is not a law that would allow trafficking victims to vacate a conviction that was a direct result of their being trafficked,” Rackow said.
Prior to enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), there was no comprehensive federal law that targeted human trafficking. It was enacted to prevent human trafficking overseas, revivify the lives of victims in the United States, prosecute traffickers and impose federal penalties. The TVPA has been reauthorized and amended four times since 2000, most recently in 2013.
Nonetheless, Rackow said there are limitations. “At the federal level, one weakness of the TVPA is that it only allows victims to take full advantage of the TVPA provisions if the victim aggresses to assist in prosecuting their trafficker. This is an issue, as many victims of trafficking do not want to be retraumatized by facing their trafficker in court,” she explained.
Pennsylvania passed a series of laws in 2006, which established trafficking of persons as a criminal offense, determined sentencing guidelines for perpetrators and provided for restitution and forfeiture of property used in the course of conducting trafficking activities, according to Rackow.
And new laws are under way. Emr added, “Some of those in our area and around here, related to the House of Representatives for Pennsylvania, are tied to congressman Mike Fitzpatrick some of them, others are tied to Senator Greenleaf.”
The Human Trafficking Prioritization Act, H.R. 2283, for example, elevates the State Department Trafficking in Persons Office to the status of bureau. There is also H.R. 2805, the End Sex Trafficking Act of 2013, which strengthens and clarifies federal law to ensure that buyers of sex from minors and other trafficked victims are arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to jail.
On January 10, 2013, Senator Greenleaf reintroduced comprehensive legislation to amend the Pennsylvania laws on human trafficking. Senate Bill 75 encompasses legislative proposals reported by the Joint State Government Commission’s report of June 2012 on human trafficking in Pennsylvania. According to Rackow, the PA Senate unanimously passed the bill in December 2013.
“[It] is currently before the House and would better define human trafficking laws to protect victims and prosecute offenders,” Rackow said. “The bill more clearly defines ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘labor trafficking,’ including special protections for child victims; increase fines and penalties for trafficking and involuntary servitude; add penalties for business entities involved in this crime (i.e. license revocation and forfeiture of contracts); create the Pennsylvania Council for the Prevention of Human Trafficking; increase training for first responders; and expand resources available to victim service providers.”
(AnnaMarie Houlis – VNN)