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Taking a stand against human trafficking

07/23/2014 02:06PM ● Published by Lev

By Steven Hoffman

Staff Writer

Local human rights activists are applauding the recent passage of legislation by state lawmakers that strengthens Pennsylvania's regulations against human trafficking and gives law enforcement officials new tools to combat the crime.

Senate Bill 75 was unanimously approved by the State House and State Senate and signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett on July 3.

Human trafficking is a crime that preys on the most vulnerable people in society, including troubled youth, innocent girls, runaways, and the poor. The most common forms of human trafficking are commercial sex operations and labor trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion. It has been described as modern slavery.

Anti-human trafficking activists like Peggy Ann Russell of Oxford say that the problem is very real and more widespread than most people realize.

Russell has formed a group called the ACE (Advocating, Collaborating, Educating) Anti-Human Trafficking Alliance of Oxford. The group, which has about 80 people on its mailing list, meets at the Oxford Area Senior Center on the first Saturday of the month. The goal is to raise awareness about a crime that is taking place in communities throughout the U.S.

With its interstate highway system, numerous truck stops, and proximity to major urban areas, Pennsylvania is considered a pass-through state for human trafficking. And Russell noted that a town like Oxford, which is situated close to Route 1 and just 12 miles from I-95, the main north-south route for human trafficking on the East Coast, is potentially a major pass-through area. There is also a demand for cheap labor in the region, which increases the likelihood of human trafficking taking place in the area.

“We are a pass-through area,” Russell explained, “and we also believe that we are a destination area.”

One illustration that there are human trafficking occurrences taking place locally recently played out in nearby North East, Md. when the State Police arrested a Maryland man on human trafficking charges after two women who were traveling with him reported to police that they were being held against their will. The victims, a 25-year-old and 36-year-old, both from Ohio, told police that they met the man earlier that week and he used death threats and coercion to force them into prostitution.

It's difficult to determine how many victims fall prey to human traffickers each year because the industry is shrouded in secrecy. The Polaris Project, a leading anti-human trafficking agency based in Washington, D.C., has tracked a steady increase in reported cases over the last five years. The United Nations estimates that 2.5 million people worldwide are subject to forced labor or sexual exploitation, including 1.2 million children. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape estimates that more than 100,000 U.S. citizens are trafficked for prostitution each year. Most of them are young girls.

The dangers of human trafficking have gained more attention in recent years, in part because of the efforts of groups like the ACE group in Oxford and the Chester County Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition. Russell said that a few years ago, when she would talk to others about the issue, most people weren’t even aware that there was a growing problem in the U.S.

“More and more people began to talk about it two years ago,” Russell explained. “That’s when people on the street started to talk about it. It absolutely has changed over the last two years. For a lot of people it became comprehensible that this could be happening right next door and you wouldn’t even know it.”

Raising awareness and making people aware of the dangers are an important part of the fight against human trafficking. The ACE group has featured speakers from the FBI, the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agency, and the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County. Russell said that these speakers help reveal the hard truths about human trafficking in the modern world.

“The traffickers have no mercy on the girls,” Russell explained. “They keep the girls in stables.

If one of the girls gives any indication that she might cause trouble, the traffickers will beat her to show the others what might happen. In some cases, they will beat her to death.”

Other times, Russell explained, the traffickers might befriend a victim long enough to get to know details about the family—and then use that information to manipulate the victim.

Traffickers also prey on the poor or isolated by selling the dream of a better life.

“If people are trafficked into this country, they won’t even speak the language,” Russell pointed out.

Liz Hulse, a member of the Chester County Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition (CCAT), said that human trafficking is definitely something that people should be aware of in this region and shouldn't be considered as a crime that only happens in other places.

“Human trafficking does not necessarily involve transportation of victims,” she explained. “In fact, many victims of sex trafficking are U.S. citizens. Our youth are vulnerable to human trafficking predators. We have learned that backpage.com lists towns such as Exton, Wayne and other suburbs in ads that are offering commercial sex. We have also learned that women in the sex trade in Philadelphia often come from the suburbs including the Chester County area. These can even be underage girls.”

Hulse added, “We also have agriculture in Chester County which can be fertile ground for labor trafficking of vulnerable workers. Labor trafficking can also occur in nail salons and in situations of domestic servitude. This can occur in any community in the U.S., which is why CCAT works to educate community residents as well as professionals, such as social service workers, educators, law enforcement, and health care personnel. This training involves how to identify victims and how to respond.”

Hulse said that participants in the Chester County Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition represent various social service agencies, educators, faith-based organizations, law enforcement and concerned citizens. One of the group’s primary functions is to advocate for legislative action.

The new anti-human trafficking laws should help make a difference in the fight against human trafficking. Under the old human-trafficking laws, prosecutors in Pennsylvania had only been able to secure one conviction for human trafficking even though the state is a known route and destination for traffickers. These new laws focus on prevention, the protection of victims, and the prosecution of perpetrators.

Russell lauded Pennsylvania lawmakers for working together to get the new legislation passed.

State Senators Stewart Greenleaf and Andrew Dinniman were two of the strongest proponents of the new legislation, and Russell said that State Rep. John Lawrence and his staff was very supportive throughout the process.

“It really showed non-partisan workmanship,” Russell said.

Kathy Weir, an attorney and legislative chairperson for the Chester County Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, talked about the importance of the new legislation.

“Prior to Senate Bill 75 becoming law, Pennsylvania was one of only two states in the country that lacked a comprehensive legal definition of human trafficking, the other being Colorado,” said Weir. “Senate Bill 75, now referred to as Act 105, will address this critical need, strengthen protections for victims of human trafficking, and strengthen state resources to fight this crime.”

Weir said that the new laws bring the Pennsylvania criminal statute in-line with other states’ legal definitions of the crime of human trafficking.

“Pennsylvania’s statute will now include definitions of both labor trafficking and sex trafficking,” she explained. “These offenses will be classified as second degree felonies, with an even stronger penalty of a felony of the first degree if a victim suffers bodily injury or is an individual under 18. Act 105 will also require criminals found guilty of sex trafficking to register as sex offenders under Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law. Additionally, the law also includes provisions for the revocation and suspension of business licenses for those companies that traffic victims.”

Another important component of the law is that it strengthens the protection for victims.

Explained Weir, “This important Act also includes important resources for victims of human trafficking, including protecting a victim’s identity during a trial, providing victims with restitution for the time that their trafficker exploited them, and ensuring that victims have access to civil causes of action against their traffickers.”

According to Weir, the law also enhances the resources to fight this crime on several different fronts.

“Act 105 also aims to strengthen the tools and resources that Pennsylvania’s law enforcement and victim services community have to combat this crime and protect victims,” she said. “Subject to the availability of funds, Act 105 will help to create resources for law enforcement to use to help connect victims of human trafficking with services. Additionally, the Act will help to create a grant program for victim service providers and advocates, under the direction of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency, to support building a strong victim-centered response network throughout the Commonwealth.”

While the new regulations are a step in the right direction, further actions will likely be necessary in the future.

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman said in a statement that Senate Bill 75 is only a starting point and more will need to be done to prevent human trafficking. “I give Senate Bill 75 an A-plus in terms of new tools for prosecuting trafficking and an A-minus in terms of protecting trafficking victims,” Dinniman said. “Unfortunately, I can only give it a B grade in terms of preventing human trafficking in the first place, and that is where we have to pick up the slack through voluntary efforts to increase awareness of human trafficking within both the general public and law enforcement.”

Starting in 2015, the Commonwealth will begin instructing local police officers in how to spot potential human trafficking victims.

Hulse said that there is a national hotline set up to handle calls about human trafficking.

“One important number for all community residents to know is the National Human Trafficking Hotline number 888-373-7888,” she explained. “This is the number to call if you are a victim or know someone who is a victim of force, fraud, or coercion regarding their work or in the commercial sex trade. The hotline then alerts local agencies in Chester County. Contacting the hotline can be anonymous if necessary. Of course, if someone is in immediate danger, call 911.”

The next meeting of the ACE (Advocating, Collaborating, Educating) Anti-Human Trafficking Alliance of Oxford takes place on Saturday, Oct. 4 at 9 a.m. at the Oxford Area Senior Center.

For more information about the Chester County Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, visit www.ccatofpa.org or email info@ccatofpa.org.

The Polaris Project, a leading anti-human trafficking agency based in Washington, D.C., has tracked a steady increase in reported cases over the last five years. The United Nations estimates that 2.5 million people worldwide are subject to forced labor or sexual exploitation, including 1.2 million children.



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