The anger in Krista Hoffman’s voice is unmistakable when she starts talking about victims of human trafficking.
The dark side of Asian massage parlors has become a standing joke in our culture, she said, but think about what these women have gone through.
They are transported in from another country, maybe thinking that a legitimate job awaits them in the United States.
They don’t speak the language.
They have no support network.
They’ve been broken, like you’d break a wild horse, Hoffman said, her words coming fast and sharp.
Then they are sent to locations along the East Coast and into the Midwest to have sex with paying customers.
“If they come in contact with any law enforcement, they’re thought of as perpetrators,” Hoffman said.
Massage parlors are just one face of the widespread crime of human trafficking claiming victims internationally and within the borders of the United States, including here in Central Pennsylvania.
Identifying the problem
Hoffman, the Criminal Justice Training Specialist at Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, first encountered sex trafficking during her first week as a volunteer working for a hotline in West Chester. That’s where a young woman told Hoffman her family sold her for sex at a poker game.
At first, when Hoffman said she shared stories like this she was met with a dismissive tone, which only strengthened her resolve. “You’re going to tell me that they don’t matter?” Hoffman said.
Increasingly, the answer is becoming more clear to her — they do matter.
“I think we are just starting to even know what to call human trafficking in terms of the law enforcement community,” said Kelly Cheeseman, director of the criminal justice program at Messiah College. “It’s a huge area that’s really been coming to the surface in the past five to 10 years.”
Awareness may be rising, but statistics detailing the depth of the problem remain elusive.
“We can’t really ascertain how big the problem is because we are missing so much,” Cheeseman said.
The number of arrests is so small that it doesn’t show the extent of the activity, Cheeseman said. Plus, those arrested for prostitution may well have been trafficked and forced into the act.
“In a sense, we’re starting to have a generalized awareness in terms of the idea that perhaps prostitutes are not necessarily choosing that profession — maybe they’re brought here,” Cheeseman said.
Nationally, more than 100,000 Americans are trafficked for prostitution within the United States each year.
James Dold, policy counsel at the Polaris Project, a leading organization in the global fight against human trafficking and modern-day slavery, said that the organization has taken more than 13,000 calls concerning human trafficking on the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline from Pennsylvania. Of those calls, 477 were made in 2012.
Those numbers put Pennsylvania ninth in the nation for the number of calls coming into the hotline.
Trafficking’s two forms
Human trafficking takes two forms — labor trafficking and sex trafficking.
Hoffman said that labor trafficking happens anywhere that people want cheap labor. “It can be at migrant camps. It can be at restaurants. There have been different cases I know at nail salons,” she said.
Victims of labor trafficking experience high rates of sexual and physical abuse and have no autonomy over their own decisions. “Keep in mind that it’s not just about being forced to do a job. It’s the emotional trauma that comes with it,” Hoffman said.
Websites like Slavery Footprint offer people a chance to see how many people are employed internationally to maintain their lifestyle. According to the site, the long list of raw materials obtained through slave labor in China includes: acrylic, cashmere, coal, cotton, gold, graphite, leather, limestone, linen, mercury, nylon, pearl, quartz, silicon, silk, silver, tin, tungsten, wool, pig iron, lead, lithium and polyester.
Sometimes labor trafficking and sex trafficking go together. Hoffman said that at migrant camps, one of the places where labor trafficking is commonly found, trafficked women are brought to the camp for the men on payday. The men would literally line up and pay $2 each to have sex with the woman, Hoffman said.
Cheeseman said, traditionally, it is known that trafficking happens at places like truck stops, massage parlors and nail salons. “Those are classic kinds of examples of places where you might find that kind of activity domestically,” she said.
The porn industry also has huge ties to sex trafficking, Cheeseman said. For example, a person could be trafficked and made to perform in certain films. People who watch it don’t even think about that, she said.
“Where are these people coming from? Are they doing it willingly? Or are they being coerced?” Cheeseman asked.
Beyond the truck stops
In March 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Pennsylvania State Police and the Federal Department of the Treasury launched an investigation code-named “Precious Cargo.” The investigation cracked a prostitution ring led primarily by pimps from Toledo, Ohio, who operated out of the Gables Truck Stop in Harrisburg and elsewhere.
To date, that investigation has resulted in the conviction of 15 pimps, two prostitutes and two corrupt state troopers.
“What we’ve seen is that it’s moved from the truck stops,” Hoffman said. “They’re a little more leery of that because law enforcement has cracked down on that.”
Now, it’s easier for drivers to use websites to find prostitutes and set up appointments at hotels, motels or truck stops.
“It doesn’t have to be just truck drivers. It can be anyone,” Hoffman said. “Anyone can access to those sites.”
The largest segment of trafficking victims comes from walk-away or runaway youth, Hoffman said.
Typically, the scenario goes something like this. A 14-year-old runs away from home or is kicked out of the house. Before long, an adult offers a place to stay and food to eat. Eventually, the adult tells the child that they have to help with expenses and forces the child into prostitution to pay them, Hoffman explained.
Citing a study by the Dallas Police Department, Hoffman said any child who runs away from home at least four times within a 12-month period has an 80 percent chance of being a victim of sex trafficking.
“If you know that you have a chronic runaway, reach out immediately,” Hoffman said. “I don’t care who you are. If you are working with a chronic runaway, you need to step out right now.”
There’s a special need to be vigilant in the gay community, Hoffman said. Gays and lesbians are at high risk of being kicked out of their homes and are at extremely high risk of being trafficked. “We tend to overlook our boys, and we just can’t,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman has also encountered cases of parents selling their children into prostitution. Usually, this choice is drug-related. “They have addictions and they may not have money, but they do have a child,” she said.
While Pennsylvania ranked high in calls to the national trafficking hotline, it ranked in the bottom 13 when it comes to enacting a basic legal framework to combat human trafficking, Dold said.
The state’s status got a boost last year when a bill was signed into law that mandated the posting of the trafficking hotline number — 1-888-3737-888 — in locations prone to trafficking. “That’s another great resource that victims have now. It’s really a lifeline that victims have to reach out,” Dold said.
Already in this legislative session, Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-12, introduced Senate Bill 75, which would extensively revise the law on human trafficking. “It would, for the first time, actually give PA a sex trafficking statute,” Dold said. “It would give law enforcement a lot more tools to prosecute sex traffickers.”
Sen. Pat Vance, R-31, is listed as a co-sponsor of the bill.
Dold said that the state’s rating would change dramatically if that bill is enacted. “If passed it could catapult it to the top tier,” he said.
Ending human trafficking requires vigilance and a willingness to get involved.
“Keep your eyes open,” Hoffman said.
Those near massage parlors should look to see if the clientele are all male, if the windows are covered or if the parlor is open until midnight, she said.
Another clue might be the address on the massage parlor’s license. If it’s from Flushing, it could be suspicious, Hoffman said. Some Asian massage parlors are supplied by a trafficking ring that brings women from the Fujian province in China to Flushing, Queens, where the women’s resistance is diminished before they are sent out to work, she said.
In regards to runaways, Hoffman said to be alert to children who are not coming to school or who are talking about older men or women they are dating.
Hoffman said people should pay special attention to economically depressed neighborhoods because that depression could lead to desperation. “That’s definitely not to say that poor people sell their children more,” she said. “We’ve worked with many that have been suburban families.”
Identifying labor trafficking might be as simple as watching when people show up to work. At most places of employment, people show up at different times. If all the employees show up at once, they may be victims of labor trafficking, Hoffman said.
If labor or sex trafficking is suspected, people also have to be willing to call the hotline to report their suspicions.
“Be willing to step out and ask those questions and just be a good citizen and report that information when you just don’t think something’s quite right,” Dold said.
Engaging law enforcement
“If you don’t have the district attorneys and law enforcement on board, you can help the victims, but you’re never going to get rid of trafficking,” Hoffman said.
In 2011, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association announced the creation of the Human Trafficking Response Team, comprised of law enforcement officials, advocates, social services and professional trade associations. The team holds traffickers accountable and extends crucial services to victims.
“Cumberland County is great,” Hoffman said. “They are trying to take a proactive stance on that.”
However, the most lasting solution to sex trafficking is to “teach our men and boys not to pay for sex,” Hoffman said.
Legalizing prostitution can’t work, she said, because those who had been previously deterred by it’s status as a crime may decide it’s acceptable once it’s made legal. “That’s going to drive the demand and traffickers are savvy business people. They will flood the area with more victims,” Hoffman said.
And that’s what makes Hoffman the most angry.
“What really ticks me off is the mindset of the people doing it,” she said.
It’s a mindset, of entitlement and disregard for others, Hoffman said. “They can’t be allowed to get away with it.”