AN UNSEEN CRIME: Awareness spreading of human trafficking

Awareness spreading of human trafficking

For local agencies that work with victims of human trafficking, the best way to fight an unseen crime is by teaching the community to see the warning signs.

That’s the message from local people who began raising awareness here about this issue in recent years. The Sun-Gazette checked in with them after the state Department of Transportation in Harrisburg issued a January news release saying its workers would wear blue to work to raise awareness about the issue, which also prompted the formation of a county task force in late 2013.

Human trafficking is not just an international problem but also a domestic issue, and local efforts to help everyday people recognize the problem can be what it takes to save a victim, said Chad Hahn, victim advocate for YWCA Northcentral PA, a city-based organization that promises support for victims of domestic, violent and sexual abuse.

“While we do in fact have victims and survivors in our county, chances are we are what we call a hub county,” Hahn said. “We are where victims are located for a short period of time while they are being moved to a larger area. The problem is being able to identify them and get the help they need before they move on to other cities.”

In the past year, advocates have seen an increase in people interested in learning what to do if they see signs of trafficking.

“Groups are more than receptive to having a speaker come in to talk about human trafficking,” said James H. Sortman, Lycoming County Human Trafficking Response Team chairman. “People weren’t turning a blind eye before; it was just the ignorance of not knowing what this is.”

Throughout 2017 and into the new year, PennDOT also has made strides in raising awareness by training thousands of employees, including driver license center, welcome center and transit agency staff, to recognize the signs of human trafficking.

“It’s just trying to broaden the number of eyes who can see something and educate people on this issue,” said Erin Waters-Trasatt, PennDOT spokeswoman. “Part of it is recognizing that we have a lot of people who see a lot of people.”

According to Hahn, a 2017 goal that the YWCA was able to see to completion included presenting information to local hotels.

“We wanted to get in there and to give presentations on the signs and symptoms of victims so they understood the impacts on the victim and how it could affect them as an employee,” Hahn said.

One of the organization’s goals for this year is laying the groundwork for the creation of a training program for local police officers and first responders so they too can better recognize “red flags.”

Oasis of Hope, another local organization that works with raising awareness concerning sex trafficking as well as offering housing to victims, recently began increasing its efforts to raise awareness.

“Certain circles of people, they know of this issue,” said Alana Opdahl, Oasis of Hope program director. “But there is still so often that people think it is an international issue and not so much a domestic issue.”

Oasis of Hope also began to shift from working with minors to women 18 and over.

“Our vision is, once women are rescued out of the life to bring them into healthy, restorative living, we want to do holistic healing, spiritual wellness, mental and emotional wellness so they can become a whole person who can go back into society given the tools they need for healthy living,” Opdahl said.

Over the next year, Oasis of Hope is hoping to increase its staff to help further its plans to increase awareness.

“It allows people to understand when they are witnessing it, what it actually looks like,” Opdahl said. “It’s like when you buy a new car and you see it everywhere after you had never seen it before.”