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New laws, new focus, make sex trafficking a priority in Wayne

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HONESDALE, PA—Last September, Honesdale police arrived at an “undisclosed location” and arrested 11 people for their involvement in prostitution. Local advocates from the Victims Intervention Program (VIP) were there too, in case it was a human trafficking situation, District Attorney Patrick Robinson said.

It wasn’t, but since the enactment of more comprehensive legislation, authorities in Pennsylvania and in Wayne County have been stepping up their game to better recognize potential victims and traffickers and raise public awareness about the issue.

“The average person is going to say, ‘What are you talking about? We don’t have [trafficking] here,’” said D.A. Robinson.

At face value, the evidence seems to support this perspective. In 2018, nobody in the county was arrested for trafficking. However, law enforcement officials and local advocates say this statistic doesn’t reveal the whole story.

Assistant District Attorney Shelley Robinson said despite people’s perception, Honesdale’s geographic location actually makes it at risk for illegal activity.

“The average person is going to say, ‘What are you talking about? We don’t have [trafficking] here.'"

“Honesdale is not that far from New York City or Philadelphia, and we do have an interstate running through, and unfortunately crime seems to follow that interstate,” she said.

Policing sex trafficking is difficult and still relatively new in Pennsylvania. Legislation to comprehensively enforce laws against sex trafficking, Act 105, was enacted a mere four years ago. Before then, Pennsylvania did not recognize sexual servitude as a distinct form of human trafficking. 

In 2017, a Wayne County man named Noel Brown was found guilty of trafficking a minor, making him the fourth in the state to be convicted under the new statute. Since then, no one in the county has been arrested for trafficking.

If you know or suspect someone of being  involved in human trafficking, make an anonymous call to VIP’s hotline: 570/253-4401 or 800/698-4VIP.

D.A. Robinson is adamant that this doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

“Are people walking up and down the street that we can identify as human traffickers? Probably not,” he said. “But, as a rule, I think there are some people who might be traffickers in the community, but they’re not evident.”

To shed more light on the issue, VIP plans to host a screening of “Sex + Money: A National Search for Human Worth” at the Cooperage on Wednesday, February 6. Michele Minor Wolf, executive chair of VIP, said she chose the documentary—initially planned for January, National Sex Trafficking Awareness Month—because it explains domestic trafficking, wherein victims are not being smuggled across national borders. Minor Wolf said there are many misunderstandings about how trafficking operates, propagated by popular movies like “Taken.”

“A lot people think that somebody gets abducted at an airport or a bus station by a stranger,” she said. “But it’s happening everywhere.”

Abductions do sometimes occur, but according to Minor Wolf, traffickers will more typically develop a romantic relationship with—most commonly—young girls as a way of grooming them. Once they’ve established a seemingly intimate and trusting relationship, traffickers coerce and manipulate the girls into prostitution.

Traffickers can also be people who are extremely close with their victims, whom they can exploit them without having to move far.

“You can be trafficked by a family member,” said Melinda Card, the Victim/Witness Coordinator in the D.A.’s office. “Being trafficked does not mean you even have to leave the town you live in.” Minor Wolf handled a case recently in which a girl was trafficked by her own mother.

The relationship between many traffickers and their victims, whether it’s romantic or familial, makes it even more difficult to police. According to investigative journalist Lydia Cacho, sex trafficking is one of the least reported crimes, and traffickers are some of the least convicted criminals.

“They don’t always see themselves as a victim,” Minor Wolf said of people who are trafficked. “The second part is they’re probably afraid for their life… And there’s so much shame involved; they blame themselves.”

In addition, the D.A.’s office recognizes that many survivors are young children who don’t know how to get help. Also, some people may be reluctant to come forward for fear of being treated like a criminal if they do.

In October 2018, the state enacted a new law, Act 130, in an attempt to curb this concern for victims.

“If you’re a young girl who has been sexually trafficked, and you’re finally able to get out of that situation but you have three convictions for prostitution, or retail theft or whatever it is your trafficker has made you do, you can seek some civil remedies to have those expunged off your record,” A.D.A. Robinson said of the law.

Most traffickers prey on the vulnerable, said Minor Wolf, who is also co-chair of a sex trafficking task force. In Minor Wolf’s experience, children in foster care are common targets. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, 60 percent of sex trafficking victims in the U.S. have a history in the child welfare system.

“Children in foster care just want to belong somewhere, and they want to feel loved, and these traffickers know that… they discover what the need is—the vulnerability—and they try to fill that,” Minor Wolf said.

A grant from the Department of Justice called STOP Domestic Violence has provided funding for VIP and the D.A.’s office to provide the community with training and education about a range of issues. In 2017, they offered training about sex trafficking. This past year, they focused primarily on stalking.

Minor Wolf and D.A. Robinson both said that education is a necessary component in combating these problems. Their work aims not only to raise community awareness, but also to train law-enforcement officials to handle trafficking cases properly.

“There’s a very special way [to work with victims], and if she shuts down, then you’re not getting anywhere, “ Minor Wolf said. “She’s just going to run back.”

VIP also offers a free hour-long presentation to anyone in the community who wants to learn what to look for and how to help. For national data about human trafficking, visit polarisproject.org. If you know or suspect someone of being  involved in human trafficking, make an anonymous call to VIP’s hotline: 570/253-4401 or 800/698-4VIP.

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