Local Human Trafficking Response Team formed

A case of beer.

That’s what one sex trafficking victim’s pimp traded her for, according to Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape Criminal Justice Training Specialist Krista Hoffman.

“It’s a horrible topic but I promise you, there’s a lot of hope in this area,” Hoffman said at a recent seminar for the newly-established Northcentral PA Human Trafficking Response Team.

The hope may lie with the seminar’s attendees: judges, detectives, police officers and victim’s advocates from Bradford, Lycoming, Northumberland, Snyder, Tioga and Union counties. Each came to learn how to effectively respond to what they say is a local problem.

“With this training, our eyes will be a lot more open. I’ll notice things I wouldn’t have noticed before,” Officer Jason Serfas of the Athens Township Police Department said.

In human trafficking, a person performs labor or services under force, fraud or coersion in exchange for something of value. Typical situations of human trafficking in the state have included minors and adults being sold sexually at places like truck stops, hotels and Asian massage parlors.

“Please keep in mind that not all Asian massage parlors are fronts for brothels,” Hoffman said.

But some are.

Potential indicators that a business is a front for sex trafficking include all-male clientele, covered windows, backdoor entrances and advertisements that emphasize the newness or attractiveness of the girls working there, Hoffman said.

“One of the big problems with sex trafficking is our cultural acceptance of prostitution,” Hoffman said.

Whereas a prostitute willingly engages in sex acts for money, a human trafficking victim is forced against his or her will. If law enforcement doesn’t know the signs to look for, they can mistakenly treat a victim as a perpetrator.

“If you threaten them with criminal charges, they shut down. Why should they be charged for their own rape?” Hoffman said.

Physical indicators of victims include injuries from beatings, malnourishment and torture, such as cigarette burns.

“[Pimps] don’t mind beating girls up around the face,” Hoffman said.

One study found that purchasers, more commonly referred to as “Johns,” actually like the appearance of bruises and cuts.

“When it looks like girls are beaten up a bit it heightens the excitement for them,” Hoffman said.

Tattoos, brands or scarring indicating ownership also is a sign a victim might be being trafficked.

“We had a group of girls come in and they were branded. They were 15 or 16 years old, from the Reading area. I didn’t know it was human trafficking at the time but now I see,” said Erin Butler, of Lycoming County, who used to work at a residential facility for homeless youth.

Runaway minors especially are at risk to be trafficked. If a child runs away four or more times in a 12-month period, there’s an 80 percent probability that they’ve already been sex-trafficked, according to Hoffman.

“How will they eat? Stay warm? There are exploitative adults who are looking for kids like this,” Hoffman said.

Runaways often are physically or sexual abused at home.

“Traffickers are smart. They target people who are the most vulnerable,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman told the story of one woman pimp who used to fix her victims a large “family” meal each night before sending them on the streets to meet their nightly quota. After she was arrested, one of her victims told police that he was going to miss those family dinners.

“These kids really need a connection,” Hoffman said.

Food is used as a means of control. Traffickers also sometimes will administer drugs to keep their victims docile and compliant. By the same token, victims sometimes take drugs to self-medicate.

The connection between drugs and human trafficking is strong. When drug-addicted parents have no money for a fix, they might trade their children for drugs, Hoffman said.

“Heroin and human trafficking go hand-in-hand. It’s definitely something that is here,” said Lycoming County Court of Common Pleas Judge Joy Reynolds McCoy.

While one might think of human trafficking in terms of sexual exploitation, victims also can be exploited for labor. Serfas criticized the gas industry for causing not only an influx of drugs but also trafficked labor.

“We had a case with Lowes in Sayre on Elmira Street. They had hired a bunch of Mexicans,” Serfas said.

Hoffman pointed to worker encampments on drilling sites as a possible venue for sex trafficking.

“Whenever we see large populations of transient males with no family connection in the area, we see an increase in the demand for prostitution,” Hoffman said.

If demand outstrips the number of willing prostitutes, traffickers will look for new victims, Hoffman said. These victims could be imported from other states or countries.

“Trade routes used for regular commerce can be used for trafficking,” Hoffman said.

There is no state statute for human trafficking – all such cases are tried at the federal level, according to McCoy.

“There’s definitely been some cases in Children and Youth that could be defined in terms of human trafficking. I didn’t think of it that way at the time. They were charged criminally with endangering the welfare of a child,” McCoy said.

Promoting education and awareness among prosecutors, detectives and other officials likely to make contact with human trafficking victims is crucially important, Hoffman said.

“It’s not so bad, so big that there’s nothing you can do about it,” Hoffman said. “Nothing is insurmountable.”