Justice elusive in world of sex trafficking
DOYLESTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Victims, law enforcers and anti-human trafficking groups describe the uphill battle they face in seeking justice. Earlier this month, the death of Jeffrey Epstein, accused of abusing and trafficking young women and girls for decades, sent shockwaves through victims advocacy communities because it will mean he will not stand trial for his crimes. Some groups are pushing for laws that would curb demand by increasing penalties on “sex buyers.”
No form of justice could satisfy most victims of human sex trafficking, local victims advocates say.
Days, months or years of trauma can’t be erased, so when a victim steps out to fight for justice and an investigation crumbles, the suffering deepens, they say.
The death earlier this month of Jeffrey Epstein, accused of abusing and trafficking young women and girls for decades, sent shock waves through victims advocacy communities because it will mean he will not stand trial. This comes after he dodged a long prison sentence a decade ago, despite an abundance of evidence showing he abused girls at his Palm Beach mansion.
“When something like Epstein happens, it shows this offender again took control and silenced victims that could have been heard,” said Charity O’Reilly, a trauma counselor for more than a decade who now serves as counseling coordinator at Network of Victim Assistance. “For victims, it feels like another silencing. It’s a microcosm of what happens to victims every day.”
For those who seek justice, “few receive it,” O’Reilly said.
Getting enough evidence to make an arrest in a sex trafficking case is already an uphill battle for investigators and prosecutors, who say such crimes are increasingly difficult to detect and prosecute because victims often don’t see themselves as victims, the high cost of investigating cases, the emergence of online and social media technologies that expand a trafficker’s reach, and obstacles in getting witnesses to testify against their traffickers, local and federal law enforcement officers say.
Though reports of the crime are on the rise across the state, the scope of human sex trafficking is unknown.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline connects victims and survivors of human trafficking with supports and services and, in certain cases, facilitates reporting tips about suspected human trafficking to the appropriate authorities.
Awareness of the true nature and number of cases is further obscured by a complex web of emotional, social and legal barriers that prevent victims from reporting crimes and make it tough for law enforcement to prosecute them, experts say.
While human trafficking has many forms — international, domestic, sex, labor — it is defined as labor or sex induced by force, fraud or coercion or if the victim is under 18. In 2018, 275 cases of human trafficking were reported in Pennsylvania, up from 91 in 2012, according to the national human trafficking organization Polaris that pulls statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Villanova University’s 2019 Report on Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Pennsylvania shows 116 cases where traffickers were charged in Pennsylvania between 2014 and 2019, resulting in at least 46 convictions. Of those cases, 32 were withdrawn, eight dismissed and 15 were prosecuted in federal court, said Sarah Robinson, senior attorney with the University’s Institute to Address Commercial Sex Trafficking.
Pennsylvania ranked fifth in the nation in 2018 for the number of active criminal human trafficking cases making their way through federal courts with 42 cases, according to the Human Trafficking Institute. Of these cases, 38 involved sex trafficking.
Robinson and other legal experts believe the number of victims in Pennsylvania to be in the thousands.
“Most cases we see are never prosecuted in the criminal justice system,” said O’Reilly, adding that many victims wait years and even decades to share their stories. One woman in her 70s walked into NOVA’s offices in Warwick to share her story for the first time, despite knowing “she had no recourse” for justice because the statute of limitation had long since lapsed.
Stephanie Shantz-Stiver, a human trafficking advocate with NOVA, said that even when victims are willing to talk, “some only know their traffickers by their street names. One client could describe tattoos and even the area she was in, but even with a full description, the search came up empty.” She said many victims who can’t find justice go missing or “go back into the life again.”
“A lot of times victims don’t want law enforcement involved, at least initially,” she said. “Many times they are told not talk to police; they fear retaliation. It takes time for them to be ready to disclose it — if ever.”
Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Chelsey Jackman, chief of the county’s human trafficking unit, said Bucks has had a greater chance prosecuting cases involving the trafficking of youth because when a person younger than 18 performs a commercial sex act, it is a crime for the person promoting the exploitation of the minor regardless of whether there is any force, fraud or coercion.
Since 2015, she said the county has had between 35 and 40 cases that involved human trafficking or promoting prostitution, with many of them coming out of Bensalem mostly because the concentration of hotels where police have been able to trace crimes, she said.
Tips of human trafficking stemming from massage parlors, however, come from all over the county, Jackman said.
“That is where the community seems to get involved,” said Jackman. “These massage parlors that are open on Sundays at midnight where lights are on and people are coming in and out ... that is when we get information, and it’s easier for the public to be part of the solution by letting the police know.”
Even with the public’s cooperation, Jackman said, such cases are difficult to prove and prosecute because of victims’ often unwillingness to talk.
One exception was a woman who came to the country for a job. “She thought she was getting involved in just massage and when she showed up, she was sold for a sex act,” said Jackman, adding the case stemmed from a human trafficking ring out of New York.
Most of human trafficking victims seen in Bucks County, she said, are not from overseas, nor do they look like victims portrayed in movies like “Taken,” where they are kidnapped and sold across borders, she said.
“They are people who look just like us,” said Jackman. “And oftentimes they don’t look like they are seeking any help from the situation they are in.”
Young suburban women were victims in one of Bucks County’s most high-profile sex-trafficking cases, which resulted in a 40- to 80-year state prison sentence for Enoch Smith in 2013.
From an operation he ran out of Bensalem motels, Smith recruited and trafficked victims, including a 15-year-old girl and a 21-year-old New Hope woman, who was struggling in addiction.
Who are the victims?
Common threads exist in the lives of victims, advocates say. Many struggle with emotional health challenges or substance abuse, and traffickers can easily sense these vulnerabilities and exploit them. In the Bucks County area, Jackman said victims are most often runaways or foster youth searching for a home or a sense of belonging or someone in the throes of addiction seeking drugs to stave off the physical and mental pain of withdrawal.
“With the opioid epidemic, many women are seeking ways to find drugs and traffickers know how to find them,” said Shantz-Stiver, of NOVA. “Through social media, other people, they’ll say, ‘Hey if you do these tricks, we will buy drugs.’ And if they are that dope sick and in need of that next fix, they fall into it quickly.”
Janine Bonanni said she fell into that trap when she was homeless, addicted to heroin and living on the streets. At a shelter in Atlantic City, a man approached her. Bonnani, then in her early 20s, was drawn to the attention he offered and noticed that the women around him wore nice dresses and shoes and “their nails were always done.”
“Here I was not bathing or eating, and all my money was going to drugs,” said Bonnani, who was trafficked across Pennsylvania and New Jersey before she landed in a Bucks County jail on prostitution and drug charges.
Often, if she didn’t make enough money, she would be locked out of the home she shared with four other young women: “He’d say, ‘You can’t come in,’” said Bonnani, who had to reach a quota of $500 some days.
The business of sex trafficking was also made lucrative by the website, Backpage, which has since been taken down. The internet site linked her with men in hotels across the region. She was in a Bensalem hotel on Street Road when federal and local law enforcers arrested her about six years ago. When in jail, she wanted to protect her trafficker and she was resistant to the idea of testifying against him.
Though Bonanni said she felt victimized by the criminal justice system, it was in jail that she was connected to counselors from NOVA and a support network to help her heal.
At first, she didn’t feel she needed help. She knew her trafficker as her boyfriend: “We were family. Me, him and four to five girls.”
“I wanted them to stop calling me a victim.” She tied the word “victim” to weakness, she said. “I realized he used me. He saw me as a never-ending ATM and used all of my vulnerabilities against me.”
Brainwashed, she had refused to disclose the extent of his crimes in court and his human trafficking charges were eventually dropped.
He served nine months on related crimes, and was extradited to his home country, England. Bonanni is still upset about charges leveled against her during the throes of her addiction and exploitation.
Robinson, of Villanova, said such scenarios are unique to sex trafficking cases. “There is no other victim of a crime that we charge with a crime in order to certify their compliance,” she said. “It comes from slow slog of changing minds of what prostitution is and how exploitative it is.”
Getting help “as a victim” isn’t as easy as it seems. Bonanni, now a victims advocate and certified recovery specialist in New Jersey, said victims are so brainwashed, addicted or gripped with fear, they either can’t or won’t seek help, she said.
Bensalem’s Director of Public Safety Fred Harran said it is not unusual to run into victims unwilling to help.
“It’s just becomes a way a life, and it’s hard to convince them they are victims; they truly believe the trafficker loves them and wants to take care of them,” he said. “Many people don’t realize they’ve been trafficked; it’s not like they say, ” ‘Ah you found me in this room.’ That’s Hollywood, not real life. In real life they don’t like us, we are the enemy. You have to deprogram them.”
Harran said he knows that some victims groups are pushing to prevent arrests on prostitution charges.
“Although it sounds good on paper ... If we have no way of holding them, no way to get them to testify, then by the time it gets to trial, these victims are gone and getting victimized again,” Harran said. “When we try to break the cycle on something; it is painful and uncomfortable. What appears not to be kind is often kind in the long run.”
Rooting out the traffickers and the victims takes time and money, especially with the emergence of online sites and social media apps that further conceal transactions, said Harran, who recently made public a pamphlet of apps that he said parents should know about.
Jackman said that nearly every case involving a minor involved some kind of an “online element,” a trend that should raise concerns among parents, she said.
“When giving their kids get electronic devices, parents are really opening children up to the rest of the world,” Jackman said. “Just like they have their kids put on seat belts, they need to be as concerned with internet safety, the apps their children are downloading and who they are communicating with. That’s where the dangers are.”
The explosion of clandestine social media platforms is spreading opportunities for traffickers to expand their reach — especially with minors — and go more easily undetected. Purchase and payments between buyers and sellers are difficult to trace.
“The folks on the internet are getting crafty, making it harder for us,” said Harran, who said lack of funding to investigate the cases is a big hurdle. “Everybody in criminal justice is responsible for a budget and these crimes are expensive. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars that sometimes goes nowhere.”
Investigating a case could take $30,000, yet no state or federal funding source is allocated to local police departments to combat trafficking, Harran said.
With most of the pressure for prosecuting cases on victims, advocates are now asking lawmakers and communities to put more legal and social pressure on the consumers of sex trafficking. In Bucks County in 2018, 44 people were charged with “selling sex” while only one was charged with buying sex. Robinson said that the charge of buying sex was dropped.
“The reason human trafficking is an $150 billion worldwide is because of the demand for the purchase of sex,” said Abbie Newman, chief executive officer of Mission Kids in Montgomery County. “If there’s a prostitution ring, it points to the sex seller, not the buyer; buyers get warning letters and misdemeanors. The sex seller usually gets arrested.”
Deirdre Blackburn, an anti-human trafficking coordinator at Network of Victim Assistance, is working to stem demand by rallying support behind the Buyer Beware Act, which would double the amount of maximum jail time that an individual may serve for trafficking or patronizing a victim of trafficking.
“We really have to change our hearts and minds about this for real change to happen,” Blackburn said.
What else can be done?
But even without closure in the criminal justice system, more can be done to help victims heal.
“Being believed,” is the first step for many victims, who are often silenced when they first stepped forward, O’Reilly said. This denial, she said, leads to a cycle of shame and more silence “that re-wounds the victim.”
Healing, therapy and “believing” still must continue even if no arrest occurs, advocates say.
“No amount of jail time will make up for the time they suffered,” she said. “But we cannot overestimate hearing their voices. As a community, we need to say ‘We hear you we believe you.’ That is incredibly healing and empowering.”
Carla Clanagan, program director of The Well, a two-year long-term residential safehouse for survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, helps victims through the healing process and works to “get them to a point in life — mind, body and spirit — where they are ready to deal with everyday life and feel safe.”
Though the continued lack of justice in cases like Epstein is traumatic for victims, it shines a needed spotlight on the crime, said Clanagan.
“I believe that every case of trafficking that ends up in the news is a case for anti-human trafficking,” said Clanagan, who has helped many victims, including some sold by their own family members in Bucks County. “Most people don’t understand what it is and that is happening so local.”
Increasing awareness of the crime is one challenge, understanding the depth of the cause is another, Robinson said.
“In order to expand access to justice for victims, we, as a society, need to collectively address the underlying causes of sex trafficking,” she said. “Sex trafficking is gender-based violence; wherever there is a demand for prostitution, sex trafficking follows. So we must dismantle that pervasive and harmful “boys-will-be-boys” mentality — the same mentality that let Jeffrey Epstein to walk away with a slap on the wrist over a decade ago.”
Information from: The Intelligencer, http://www.theintell.com