Human trafficking: Danger grows in our own backyard

Jernita Hines- On Child Advocacy

During an interview with a client, I discovered that she had been subjected to human trafficking. She was a teenager who was growing up in the foster care system. She had had multiple foster care placements and, at that point, was not in an approved placement.

One day, she called, crying out for help because she was being transported to another state to perform sex acts. I traced the phone number back to a hotel in that state and made immediate attempts to locate her by questioning hotel front desk staff, who recalled seeing my client, and by reaching out to local law enforcement in Maryland and the other state.

It took almost two months for law enforcement to locate my client. Once we were reunited, I arranged for her to obtain mental health treatment and medical care. After this experience, though, this young girl’s demeanor changed. Ultimately, she returned to the “trafficking lifestyle.” Sadly, her life was short-lived. After returning to Maryland, she traveled back to the other state and allegedly committed suicide in a hotel there. The details of the cause of her death remain unclear.

After discovering my client’s fate, I truly came to appreciate how serious a problem trafficking has become — and it is literally happening in our own backyards. Geographically, Maryland is located in the heart of human trafficking. According to the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force, Maryland is the destination for many traffickers because it has a major transportation hub. Many traffickers target motels, hotels and even truck stops on I-95, an easily accessible and heavily traveled thoroughfare.

Another juvenile I represented was a victim of a human trafficking operation at a high-class hotel in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. My client was discovered by the FBI’s Crimes Against Children Task Force Unit, which obtained a lead on a known “solicitation website” that advertised my client as a young teenager available for sex trade. This website has 16 pages and updates daily with hundreds of advertisements for sex acts. My client was involved in an East Coast commercial sex exploitation scheme, along with three other adult women.

My client had been in foster care in another state along the East Coast. She was “trapped” and “scared” because the traffickers knew her family and Social Security number. At a certain point, despite her fear, she attempted escape by jumping off the 7th floor balcony. Upon receiving the case, I immediately started to work with a nonprofit organization that helped provide emergency shelter, support and services to my client.

Victims of human trafficking are often thrust into this criminal activity by deception or blackmail, with the perpetrators targeting vulnerable populations — generally females between the ages of 14-21, often with backgrounds that include early childhood trauma, a history of being sexually assaulted, witnessing community violence or parental neglect.

As in 2013, Maryland continues to rank eighth in the nation in the volume of calls for help involving human trafficking, according to statistical data collected by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC). According to the NHTRC, the Maryland call center received 624 calls in 2013 for trafficking, of which approximately 138 required the involvement of local law enforcement to make arrests and prosecute for human trafficking violations. In 2014, Maryland received 455 calls and approximately 112 were identified and referred for further action. The NHTRC operates 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, to provide services to victims and information to third-parties trying to help victims.

Many of these cases are prosecuted under federal law, not Maryland law, because of the tougher penalties imposed under U.S. statutes. For example, under Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 3-324(d) sexual solicitation of a minor is a felony punishable by imprisonment up to 10 years, a fine not to exceed $25,000, or both. That stands in sharp contrast to the Federal Statute for Sex Trafficking of Children, 18 U.S.C. §1591, which imposes a punishment of “any term of years or life” and further provides that if the victim is between the ages of 14 and 18, the punishment is 40 years. Additionally, mandatory restitution is provided to victims under 18 U.S.C. §1593.

While Maryland has taken great strides to combat human trafficking, not all efforts have been successful. In 2014, Senate Bill 819 failed to pass, despite its goal to increase law enforcement’s training, awareness and sensitivity on how to recognize victims of human trafficking. Clearly, there is still much more to do to protect young people from human trafficking, such as training professionals, increasing penalties, and developing resources for survivors.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation labels human sex trafficking as the fastest-growing business of organized crime, yielding over $1 billion annually by victimizing millions of people. It is the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world aimed at exploiting human beings for profit.

It’s imperative, therefore, for professionals interacting with vulnerable populations to recognize, identify, advocate for, and provide resources to victims of human trafficking.

Jernita R. Hines is a Staff Attorney at Maryland Legal Aid.

 

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