The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

March 31, 2014

Shining a light in the shadows

For The Daily Item

— Pennsylvania is poised to move from being ranked among the bottom five states in the U.S. because of its human trafficking laws to one of the best in the country. Senate Bill 75 hopefully will pass the House and get signed into law during this session. The new law will increase penalties for perpetrators and services for victims.

Outside the sex sold legally in Nevada, prostitution in the United States lives in the shadows of an underground economy. It is difficult to trace and hard to fathom the enormity of it. The Urban Institute recently released a study in an attempt to determine the size of the economy as the first step to developing an informed response.

The study recommends sharing of intelligence across law enforcement units and educating the public about intimidation and humiliation of victims. This public outreach also educates future jury members, parents and the general public of the signs and near tragedy of life in the underground economy of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is big business. Profits from human yrafficking are estimated to be in excess of $32 billion worldwide, revenue surpassed only by illicit drug sales.

While 14,500 to 17,500 humans are brought in from other countries to be trafficked in the U.S. each year, approximately 100,000 to 300,000 US citizens, mostly minor girls, are trafficked within the United States each year.   

Often runaways become victims. If a minor runs away at least four times in a year, there is an 80 percent probability that the child will be trafficked for sex. It is startling to learn that the average beginning age of commercial sexual exploitation of girls is 13. The average beginning age for boys is 12.

With human trafficking, a person performs labor or sex under force, fraud or coercion in exchange for something of value.

In Pennsylvania, individuals are being forced to work as field hands on farms and as domestic slaves in homes and women and girls are being sold for sex on the streets, through the internet and in establishments disguised as legitimate businesses. In rural areas, traffickers are often family members. Instead of “pimps,” they are referred to as “controllers.”

Locally we are taking action. Transitions, your Comprehensive Crime Victim Center, is a member of one of 12 anti-Human Trafficking Teams that have formed statewide in Pennsylvania. The North Central PA Human Trafficking Response Team includes Bradford, Lycoming, Union, Snyder and Northumberland counties. These are all counties that border the Route 15 corridor out of New York.

Working together, prosecutors, police officers, county probation officers, representatives from the offices of Children and Youth, sexual assault nurse examiners and victim advocates are forming a network to identify when trafficking occurs, provide safe refuge for the victim and arrest and charge the perpetrator. In addition, we work with the National Trafficking Hotline at Polaris to collect information about human trafficking crimes.

As the Urban Institute Study found, “the underground commercial sex economy is still unsettlingly murky, but by shining more light on it we can help more victims escape the shadows.” Hopefully, when Pennsylvania improves its laws it will help shine more light and end the shadows.

Susan Mathias, is the CEO of Transitions, the Comprehensive Crime Victim Center for Union, Snyder and Northumberland counties.