By Rachel Rudd | Crime Victim Center

There are 12.3 million victims of human trafficking world-wide and the two most common forms, sex trafficking and drug trafficking exist right here in Pennsylvania. Personally, I had no idea– and it turns out that my idea of trafficking was also way off. After a recent discussion, Carol, one of our counselors actively involved in this issue locally, handed me a book to read; “The Slave Across the Street” by Theresa Flores and Peggy Sue Well. I read it in a weekend and I believe my jaw remained dropped for nearly the entire novel. In this powerful true story, Theresa Flores shares how her life as an All-American, blue-eyed, blond-haired 15-year-old teenager was enslaved into the dangerous world of sex trafficking while living in an upper-middle class suburb of Detroit. Her story peels the cover off of this horrific criminal activity and gives dedicated activists as well as casual bystanders a glimpse into the underbelly of trafficking. And it all happened while living at home without her parents ever knowing about it. Involuntarily involved in a large underground criminal ring, Ms. Flores endured more as a child than most adults will ever face their entire lives.

Now I am left asking, ‘How on earth could this be going on right here in the States and why is more attention not being paid’? Turns out that this quite the hot button issue for several US states and there is a movement growing right here in our Erie Community. Before I delve into the work that is being done in our community, I think it best to give a good overview of what it is we are talking about. Let’s begin with a basic definition from the US Department of Justice:

Human Trafficking is defined as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by the threat or use of kidnapping, force, fraud, deception or coercion, or by the giving or receiving of unlawful payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, and for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor.

  • The      recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons
  • Trafficking does not require transnational movement of persons; anyone can be a victim of human trafficking: documented and undocumented immigrants, migrant workers, US citizens and residents. By the threat or use of kidnapping, force, fraud, deception or coercion:

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, human trafficking has become the second fastest growing criminal industry — just behind drug trafficking — with children accounting for roughly half of all victims. Of the 2,515 cases under investigation in the U.S. in 2010, more than 1,000 involved children.

According to a recent report from the Joint State Commission in Pennsylvania, The crime of human trafficking is growing in Pennsylvania, and the Commonwealth has seen many local and regional collaborative responses rise to combat this crime. Inroads have been made in public awareness, training first responders, and in providing services to the many victims. This study proposes numerous reforms, including draft legislation, to help accelerate efforts to combat human trafficking in the state. The study was conducted under Senate Resolution 253 of 2010, sponsored by Senator Stewart Greenleaf, and was aided by an Advisory Committee of experts. For the first time, a proposed state plan addresses human trafficking, coordinates services, enhances collaboration and strengthens Pennsylvania law. From this report and House Bill 2016 came several key points and recommendations that are being used across the state as groups begin to form collaborative partnerships to combat this issue.  One such group has its wheels turning right here in Erie.

In the summer of 2011, the Sisters of Saint Joseph approached our agency as a possible partner in a human trafficking initiative right here in the Erie area. CVC who has always been a leader in new initiatives, especially those involving our youth, agreed to sign on. Since that time, much research has been done and educational presentations have been given in an effort to raise awareness for this issue. Realizing that there are still miles to go locally, the group seeks to form a Human Trafficking Coalition using both the Pittsburgh and Cleveland coalitions as models.

As Erie sits on I-90 and has multiple truck stops with transient truckers, this makes it a potential “pass through” area for trafficking. Other evidence suggests that Pennsylvania is also a source and destination for victims. The local coalition aims to not only raise awareness of this potential issue, but also to create a team of people who are equipped to handle such a case should one present itself. The FBI, U.S. Attorney’s office, Border Patrol, Juvenile Probation, Office of Children & Youth and UPMC Hamot’s Forensic Nursing team have all been contacted and have offered support. Currently the group is working towards formalizing a steering committee while they continue to reach out to other key stakeholders in the area.

As found in other States, trafficking is often mistaken for crimes like prostitution and those who are actually being trafficked can end up the ones arrested. Many run away teens are prime targets for this type of crime and are left vulnerable because it can appear that they are involved in selling themselves to survive. Learning the tell-tale signs and what to look for is paramount to making the correct determination in cases like these. The coalition aims to make this their primary focus as they solidify their efforts this year.

To learn more or to request an educational session on trafficking, please call CVC at (814) 455-9414.

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