Thursday, April 14, 2016

Human Trafficking is Right Here in Westchester County

When Lauren Pesso saw an ad in search of a human trafficking fellow at My Sister's Place in White Plains, it was surprising to her that the issue actually existed in Westchester. "You might see it in your own neighborhood and not even know it," said the LMSW at a presentation at the Somers Library on September 12th. So raising the issue's profile at the local level is an important aspect of their work at this domestic violence shelter and a building block in someday ending this worldwide atrocity.

Federal Law Enforcement defines Human Trafficking as a form of modern day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud, coercion and threats to transport, harbor or obtain a person to perform commercial sex or labor acts against their will.

In 2009, an affluent Northern Westchester community was home to such a case. 12 young girls willingly came abroad in response to an online add for nannies which was posted by a Pound Ridge cookbook author. Over a period of several years, they received no pay and were forced to perform sexual acts on the resident. Typically, said Ms. Pesso, victims are duped into a circumstance like this and being locked in a room or chained to a radiator usually isn't the case.

Many times language acts as a barrier between the victim and the communities they live, while the threat of violence to themselves or family back also keeps them contained. When a network of accomplices exists or organized crime is involved, traffickers continually move the victims around in order to severe any community connections that arise. As for outreach to law enforcement, a culture of distrust is so built within the victim that it's easy for them to assume that cops must also be dishonest. 

At the same time, the police may not have a very good reputation in the victim’s native land so the same assumption is made here.  All told, she says, “People feel trapped even though they are free to go.”

But victims are not limited to foreigners coerced here with false promises.  By law, anyone under the age of 18 who is engaged in prostitution is considered to be a victim of human trafficking.

So while anyone could be a victim, the odds increase in ratio to a person’s vulnerability. In turn, she says, young people coming from a world of poverty, abuse or violence are more likely to view prostitution as an escape – and their introduction usually comes from an older relative or someone they know.

She credits the enactment of Federal and State Human Trafficking laws to opening up local communities to addressing the problem. Selected as a Human Trafficking site, MSP began training law enforcement and social agencies in the practice of identifying the problem. “That’s when we really saw an increase in referrals,” she says. 

The added attention also alerted victims and communities members where to call to get help but matters are complicated when willing coercion to America involves illegal immigration. Initially, the victim has broken the law but law enforcement has addressed this type of occurrence by setting up special visas so victims can come forward.

Called T-Visas, it creates a temporary stay that allows the person to reapply for a permanent visa as the trafficking situation is resolved. Unfortunately, very few T-Visas have been issued because victims must cooperate with law enforcement to help prosecute the offenders.  The fear of retribution keeps a lot people from seeking help, she says.

Either way, in this year alone, MSP is providing services for 50 human trafficking cases.  A significant intervention, she says, “Most survivors experience a lot of trauma.” 

As it stands, she can say that there's generally less success among younger victims. Considering their youth and homegrown background of abuse, they may not even feel as though they are victims and see prostitution as their most viable option. “A lot of times, she says, “they end up going back to the trafficker.”

Nonetheless, the numbers claim 12.3 million adults and children as victims and about 15,000 trafficked into the U.S. each year. That said, the tally really is a mystery. It’s almost impossible to arrive at an accurate figure since so many never come forward or are never found, she says.

For our efforts, being on the lookout for suspicious behavior is the best defense. She cautions against intervening yourself because that puts you or the victim in harm’s way. Notify law enforcement or an agency like MSP, she says.

She admits that this is a long way from solving the problem but vigilance on a small scale is really the best we can do. In this way, she concludes, we can at least change the odds for each potential victim.
Signs of Human Trafficking
Few or No personal Possessions
No Control of financial records or ID documents
Limited knowledge of whereabouts
Loss of sense of time
Controlled or restricted communication
Limited or restricted freedom to leave work (including excessive or inappropriate security features at the home and/or place of work
Excessively long  or unusual work hours
Unpaid, underpaid or paid only through tips
Living in multiple residences in brief period
Signs of trauma, fatigue or abuse
Excessive fearfulness of law enforcement and/or other authority figures

Minor engaged in commercial sex and/or in sexual situations beyond age specific norms

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