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PROVIDENCE—The underground world of human trafficking is not just a brothel in a third world country or a prostitution ring in some European city, but within many communities throughout the United States. Rhode Island is not immune to sex and forced labor trafficking among its streets, and legislators, law enforcement and advocacy groups are beginning to realize the growing problem.
“Human trafficking is becoming an increasingly troublesome issue for all states, including Rhode Island,” said Amy Kempe, spokesperson for the Office of Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin. “What was once seen as something that ‘couldn’t happen in my community,’ that is just no longer the case.”
According to the attorney general’s office, human traffickers reap approximately $32 billion in profit globally, selling the labor and sexual services of men, women and children to those who can pay. Last week, legislation was introduced in the General Assembly by a number of representatives to strengthen the state’s ability to bring criminals taking advantage of other human beings for money to justice.
House bill H7612, sponsored by Rep. Mary Duffy (District 62—Pawtucket) seeks to distinguish between individuals who are trafficked for forced labor and those for commercial sexual activity. The bill, moreover, would deem profits and property gained through illegal human trafficking as forfeitable by the state, similar to drug and other organized crime offenses.
“To get at the heart of the operation, we need to have the ability to go after the profits which [criminals] get from human trafficking,” said Kempe.
Rep. Doreen Costa (District 34—Exeter, North Kingstown) has also submitted a bill which would increase the penalty of imprisonment for the sex trafficking of a minor from 40 to 50 years, as well as increasing prison time for obstructing law enforcement in investigating sex trafficking crimes from 25 to 30 years. Costa’s bill would also increase fines to $40,000.
“The sex trafficking bill is something that has to be done,” said Costa. “There have been several cases of trafficking that have made their way to Rhode Island, [and] I have been studying this issue and I find it very disturbing. It seems that this is more frequent and disturbing then most people think.”
According to the Polaris Project, a non-profit resource organization tracking and assisting victims of human trafficking, approximately 15,000 cases of sex trafficking have been reported at their resource center from 2007 through 2013.
“Nationally, human trafficking is the second largest form of organized crime in the world,” said Sarah DeCataldo, advocacy director at the Day One Sexual Assault Advocacy Center (SAAC) in Providence. “The average age of entry into trafficking for young girls and boys is 12-14 years old, with some reports of 9 to 12-year-olds.”
“Pimps make about $1,000 per day on a girl, but they have about four to five girls under their control,” she continued. “This is millions of millions of dollars being brought to this pimp, buying and selling young girls essentially.”
According to DeCataldo, the circumstances in which persons are coerced into human trafficking varies, from Asian massage parlors to brothels run by city gangs. “In Rhode Island, what we are seeing is very similar on the national level with international and regional networks of human trafficking,” she said. “[Massage parlors and brothels] are a small portion of what actually is going on. Domestic trafficking is what we see more often, such as gangs exploiting girls and tracking them into prostitution.”
“We may see parents with a substance abuse problem who pimp their kids out to local sex offenders to support their habit, and we see trafficking and exploitation as a form of power and control in domestic violence cases when abusers exploit their victims, making them go to hotels and get money for sex.”
DeCataldo further stated that young girls, many of whom come from troubled family lives, are particularly targeted by older men who promise gifts and a false sense of security in exchange for sexual labor.
“Guys will gravitate towards those girls because they are easy to take advantage of,” said DeCataldo. “Developmentally, our brains don’t fully function until 22, so it is hard for young people to know who is telling the truth. Guys tell them the things they want to here and shower them with gifts.”
“The guy says, ‘well I show you how I love you, but you don’t show me’,” she continued. “Girls believe all that, and that is the hook in for them to start prostituting. Now the guy knows he has her under his control, so if she doesn’t bring home enough money or sleep with enough men, that is where the physical abuse starts. Some of the physical abuse they do is the worst I have ever heard of in the 10 years. It is torture.”
Because many cases go underreported in Rhode Island and throughout the country, DeCataldo noted that full grasp of how many are becoming victims human trafficking has yet to be discovered. She emphasized, however, that social services at local, state and national levels must be improved in order to provide victims with safe and secure resources to recover successfully from the physical and emotional abuse they endure.
“There are a lot of barriers that prevent [victims] from coming forward, such as fear of the perpetrator or fear that no one is going to believe them,” said DeCataldo. ‘Their self-esteem is totally wiped away, and they think ‘I am no good, what is the point of telling people if no one is going to believe me?’”
Rhode Island State Police, the attorney general’s office and other state and federal agencies are currently working together to share information across city and state lines in order to attack the problem and bring perpetrators to justice more successfully.
“We are working with the court system and law enforcement on training,” said Kempe. “The police need to have the proper training in order to first identify human trafficking, forced labor or commercial sex activity. They need to identify how to relate to the victim and build trust with the victim in order to go after the person behind the trafficking.”
“Our goal is to review what is existing right now and what can we do in Rhode Island to provide training for first responders, so we can all intervene,” said DeCataldo. “Human trafficking is so intertwined with so many other crimes that it is easy to overlook the trafficking part. Once everyone becomes educated in identifying all those signs and asking the right questions, people will hopefully get information and let victims know they aren’t in trouble, that they want to hold the offender accountable.”
DeCataldo has gone on raids of brothels and witnessed the impact of human trafficking first hand, helping to rehabilitate victims at the Day One facility through counseling and survivor mentoring. More, she stated, can and should be done.
“This stuff is happening, and the more information that is out there in the community, the more people are educated of the warning signs and how to talk to a victim,” she said. “The more we see of reporting, we can create social services that are really specific for victims of human trafficking.”
Costa hopes that the recently introduced legislation will give lawmakers a better grasp on the devastating emotional and physical harm criminals participating in human trafficking place on other individuals.
“There was a young lady that was taken from Rhode Island just near the end of last year,” said Costa. “That young lady is now in therapy, not sleeping and struggling with day to day life. Her life will never be the same. Her family will never be the same.”
“These monsters must stay locked up as long as possible,” she added.
For more information on advocacy against human trafficking through the Day One Sexual Assault and Trauma Center, visit www.dayoneri.org.