Modern slavery: What is human trafficking and who are its victims? Dauphin county was among the first to start a task force. “It’s been here all along,” Marsico said. “We just weren’t focusing on it.”Christine Vendelcvendel@pennlive.com
When many people think of human trafficking, they may imagine a stifling hot truck with refugees packed in life-threatening conditions in a trailer.
Or children being kidnapped and sold as sex slaves overseas. But human trafficking is a broad category that covers many more crimes. And it doesn’t even require the transportation of a victim. Simply put, human trafficking is as form of modern slavery where suspects use force, fraud or coercion against victims to manipulate them into forced labor or sexual exploitation.
Human trafficking in Harrisburg? In Pennsylvania, a new law passed in 2014 expanded the state’s trafficking statutes to better define trafficking and explicitly include sexual servitude. The law known as Act 105 establishes the crime of involuntary servitude, a first-degree felony, patronizing the victim of sexual servitude, a second-degree felony and unlawful conduct regarding documents, also a second-degree felony.
The law lists 13 “means” of subjecting a person to involuntary servitude including:
• Causing or threating to cause serious harm to any individual
• Physically restraining another individual
• Taking the individual’s personal property as a means of coercion
• Debt coercion
• Facilitating or controlling the individual’s access to a controlled substance
In recent involuntary servitude charges filed against two Harrisburg men, Senior Deputy District Attorney Jack Canavan said those crimes met three of the 13 means: threat of violence, retaining personal property and controlling access to drugs. Human trafficking is a growing, $32 billion industry around the globe, YWCA officials have said, with a recent troubling intersection with drug trafficking. “One business hiding within each other,” said Rhonda Hendrickson, director of violence intervention and prevention at the YWCA Greater Harrisburg. “They’re turning (users) into sex slaves. We’ve seen that and experienced that in our program. It’s an extreme problem that people don’t particularly notice. Who’s going to think of a drug addict as a victim?” The victims aren’t willingly trading sex for drugs, she said. Instead, they are being manipulated by the power of their addiction. Suspects use the addiction against victims to do a certain list of things, but the list of things never ends,” Hendrickson said.
Another harder-to-detect form of human trafficking can involve men who pose as boyfriends to get women into commercial sex exploitation. The men say they need financial help and ask their “girlfriend” to prostitute themselves. “But he has 10 other women doing the same thing,” Hendrickson said. “She doesn’t even realize she’s being psychologically manipulated.”
While there have been locally-reported cases with Mandarin-speaking foreign nationals being brought down into the Harrisburg area from Flushing in New York City, to work the hotels, the majority of trafficking victims in our region are domestic residents, Hendrickson said, many of them local.
There are some cases where victims from Allentown have been brought down to work hotels in the Harrisburg area. The victims who are brought into the area usually move along fairly quickly to avoid detection.
“They’re always on the move to avoid detection and avoid stings,” Hendrickson said.
But people also can be trafficked right out of their own home with husbands victimizing their wives or parents victimizing their children.
The Harrisburg YWCA is one of the very few federally-funded programs in the Commonwealth to fight human trafficking. The organization received a $500,000 grant for their shelter-recovery model.
The state’s newly expanded law against human trafficking added some much-needed teeth, said District Attorney Ed Marsico.
Previously, cases where victims were forced into the sex trade often could only be prosecuted as “promoting prostitution,” a misdemeanor. But now, those suspects can get slapped with first-degree felonies.
Along with the state’s newly expanded law against human trafficking, police are also getting more training every year about how to identify cases of human trafficking. Police officers formerly were eligible for one-hour of voluntary training, but now get three-hours of mandatory training to help identify signs of human trafficking. But everyone, not just police officers, can help look for the signs, Hendrickson said. Red flags can include a 16-year-old girl with a 30-year-old boyfriend, or an older woman taking an interest in a teenager and getting the younger girl “makeovers” and introductions to older men. Parents also should pay attention to whom their children interact with on social media as traffickers will try to infiltrate social media sites to learn about vulnerabilities and take advantage, she said.
In the past, trafficking victims often were labeled as suspects of prostitution or drug crimes, because they sometimes don’t necessarily have “clean hands,” Hendrickson said. But that’s often because they’ve been exploited, she said.
In Harrisburg’s recent case, for example, prosecutors allege that Edward Edmonds sought to get residents of his transitional housing program hooked on heroin so he could then manipulate them to steal electronics in exchange for bags of dope. This year, 151 cases of trafficking have been reported in Pennsylvania with the majority falling into the sex trafficking category. The National Human Trafficking Hotline has detailed statistics for each state on their website.
While human trafficking previously was thought to victimize mostly foreign nationals smuggled on ships, law enforcement authorities in Dauphin County were among the first in the state to recognize the crime strikes a lot closer to home. The county was among the first to start a task force. “It’s been here all along,” Marsico said. “We just weren’t focusing on it.”