Feature: Sex Trafficking: Youth a disturbing target – Worcester Mag

Feature: Sex Trafficking: Youth a disturbing target – Worcester Mag

(Editor’s Notes: This story is part of an ongoing series in Worcester Magazine on sex trafficking. The online version of this story contains information received from the state Department of Children and Families after deadline.)

Sex trafficking affects cities and towns nationwide, and officials in the second largest city in New England are acknowledging its reach here. The light appears to be shining brighter on sex trafficking — in particular, the trafficking of youth — recently.

Just last month, Ashley Goodrich of Lynn was indicted by a grand jury for allegedly trafficking an underage girl from a Saugus group home, where Goodrich worked as a case worker and where the victim lived, in Boston and Worcester. Two Worcester men, Genaro Cabeza and Richard Saya, are also facing trial for the alleged sex trafficking of two 17-year-old girls. In separate cases in June, one Worcester man, Fabian Beltran, was convicted of human trafficking charges, while another, Mohamed Abdi, was also also sentenced for sex trafficking.

So far this year, the city has already seen more than triple the number of cases of youth sex trafficking over last year. 

Statewide, the numbers are alarming. According to the state Department of Children and Families, between March 1, 2016 and Aug. 31 this year, there were 516 child victims involved in investigations of commercial sexual exploitation of children or human trafficking supported by the agency. 

Departments across the city have acknowledged it is an issue, including Worcester Public Schools, the district attorney’s office and police. Now they are taking steps to combat the issue.

Members of several different organizations met at City Hall in September to talk and begin strategizing about the trafficking of youth under the age of 18 for sex. Among those represented were the city’s public schools, DCF, the state Department of Youth Services, police, the DA’s office and other community organizations. The city manager, mayor and a couple city councilors were also on-hand

“[That meeting was] the first time people have tried to work together that I’ve seen, I mean publicly, and no longer brushing it under the rug because we don’t want that reputation for Worcester,” said Robin Currie, founder and director of the Central Massachusetts Freedom Coalition, which aims to end modern slavery and human trafficking. “If they’re going to come together in a public meeting like that, then that’s huge progress.

WHAT ARE WE SEEING?

“We decided a long time ago in this country that it wasn’t OK to buy and sell people, said Lisa Goldblatt Grace, co-founder and director of the Boston-based organization My Life My Choice, who works to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children, “yet it still happens every day.”

Youth sex trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for a commercial sex act in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not reached the age of 18.”

The sexual trafficking of youth hasn’t been as explored — or tracked — as much other issues in Worcester, such as drug addiction, but recent numbers show cause for concern.

Police saw five new cases of sex trafficking of youth under 18 in 2017, according to Det. Donna Brissette, head of the Special Crimes Unit that handles trafficking cases. As of Oct. 15 this year, 18 new cases — more than three times the number of cases last year — had been opened.

But before 2017, those cases weren’t being tracked.

That, said Sgt. Mike McKiernan, was because police may not have been classifying the situations properly, coding them instead as crimes such as “rape of a child.”

Now, he said, “We’ve received training to identify these cases” and they’re looking at it with a “wider lens.”

Brissette said police started coding these cases as “human trafficking” last year.

It is, both Brissette and McKiernan said, important to note an increase in the number of cases statistics-wise does not necessarily mean that trafficking is on the rise.

“The number of cases will increase because we’re better trained to identify them,” said Brissette.

Even then, the stats may not be accurate as to the true scale of the situation.

“Any statistics you get are way lower than the actual number because those are the identified cases,” said Nikki Bell, CEO and founder of the anti-trafficking organization Living in Freedom Together.

As a survivor herself, Bell knows the issue firsthand.

“This is such an underreported crime,” she said.

Even so, Brissette said she doesn’t believe youth were typically trafficked in Worcester before the department started looking into the issue.

“I can’t tell you it wasn’t happening, but I don’t think it was,” she said.

Maura Mahoney, manager of social emotional learning for Worcester Public Schools, however, said while it may not have been known as trafficking, the practice was happening.

“As long as I’ve been doing social work, which is longer than I’ve been with Worcester schools, there have been kids who were engaging in the behaviors that we’re now seeing and identifying as being pulled into trafficking,” she said.

Worcester schools have dealt with these instances in the past, she said, without going into specifics, and it won’t be the last time they do.

“I think, unfortunately, it’s something that we’re only going to continue to deal with more and more,” Mahoney said. “I’m sensing that it’s something that’s been happening for a while and now it’s that people are aware this is going on.”

Grace said she has seen cases of youth trafficking since My Life My Choice was formed in 2002, but the major thing that has changed is the visibility of victims.

“When we started this work, the kids were [sold] on the streets in plain sight,” she said. Now, “they’re in hotels and motels and apartments where they’re placed and sold online. That’s been a big shift.” (See: “Checked in, pimped out: The role of hotels, motels in sex trafficking,” Worcester Magazine, Feb. 23, 2017).

There has been a mentality of “if we’re not seeing it, it’s not here,” Grace said, but “it most certainly is there.”

IN THE SYSTEM

Typically, Worcester police are seeing trafficking cases among females ages 13-17 who are typically associated with local gang activity, Brissette said.

According to national statistics, victims tend to be people of color and are often involved in the foster care system, although victims span across ethnicities and walks of life.

“I can absolutely tell you stories of kids who came from healthy supportive families, of kids who had every economic, social [and] emotional advantage who this isstill happening to,” Grace said. “But some kids are disproportionately vulnerable and those are the kids who are most vulnerable in our communities.”

Of the youths her organization serves from Worcester East to Boston, Grace said, “85 percent … are coming out of the child welfare system.”

The DCF acknowledged the issue in its 2018 Annual Progress and Services Report, saying, “Children and youth who are placed in substitute care are at higher risk for issues such as human trafficking and exploitation.”

In the report, the department also noted LGBTQ youths are particularly at risk, as their “vulnerability is amplified” due to experiencing “discrimination, isolation and exploitation.”

Given the age of the victims, the issue has seeped into the halls of Worcester schools.

“It’s an issue that we are aware of and we are aware that we need to increase our ability to deal with it,” Mahoney said, noting the district is implementing training on the issue. Bell led one of those trainings at a Worcester school just this week.

It’s not necessarily that traffickers are targeting certain schools, said Worcester Police Sgt. Kerry Hazelhurst, who serves as the public information officer for the department.

“It comes across that it is targeted, but the fact is that some of the kids involved in gang activity or other criminal enterprises go to the same school as the ones targeted,” he said. “The kids usually hang out within the same group or are known to each other.”

The sexual trafficking of youth also doesn’t appear to be organized by the gangs as a whole, Brissette said. Rather, it seems individual members are involved.

“I think, instead of selling drugs, some [gang members] are selling girls,” said Brissette. “It’s more profitable to pass girls around than sell drugs.”

It’s also easier to hide, she said, because it’s not as brazen as selling drugs on the street corner.

While police have seen trafficking cases going back several years with local gangs, Brissette said, the focus has been more on adult victims.

“We’ve only recently seen it with juveniles under 18,” she said.

Not only can it be difficult to detect these cases, it can also prove challenging to prosecute them because of the unwillingness of victims to come forward, both Brissette and McKiernan noted.

A lot of times, Brissette said, “They don’t even realize what they’re doing is wrong.”

Cases could take months, even years, to bring to court, she said, and the process takes patience. They take it as far as they can go and wait until the victim is ready. But sometimes, it won’t even make it to a courtroom.

“I would say not every case is going to result in a prosecution,” said McKiernan. But, he said, the information they obtain can be used to help provide services for the victim.

“We have to do what’s right for the victim,” he said. “They have a huge say in how we move forward with this. When they’re ready to discuss it, we’ll be available.”

CAUGHT UP IN THE WEB

A common misconception with sex trafficking is that girls are usually snatched off the streets.

“It’s not the movie ‘Taken,’” said Grace. “That’s not what it looks like here. These are kids who grow up right in our communities, right in our schools.”

The issue, as highlighted by the training run at City Hall, is “how easily [these girls] can be brought into the fold and once they’re brought into the fold, how hard it is to get out,” DA Joe Early Jr. said.

Often, traffickers lure girls through manipulation, with the use of gifts or attention.

“[Traffickers] know there’s a way to make this money,” said Early. “They start out being loving and displaying caring behaviors, and it turns into ‘I need you to do a favor for me. If you love me you’ll take care of someone.’ It expands to more people until they’re getting the maximum amount of money out of these girls.”

Part of that can involve attachment to the trafficker due to the attention they give to victims, he said, which can progress to a fear of violence.

“They don’t feel like they can run,” said Early. “There are emotional and mental bonds that hold them down. Usually, they will get beaten up. They might be assaulted from several different people in a gang who let them know, ‘You’re ours and if you try and leave, we will kill you. We will hurt your family.’”

What’s important is detecting the signs beforehand to prevent this, he said, or find the victims to get them out.

That’s why Worcester has become involved in Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) training to detect behaviors that could indicate a youth is at risk of, or already involved in, trafficking.

Risk factors, according to Worcester County CSEC protocol, include frequent running away, possession of new clothing or accessories with no explanation, association with a known pimp, presence in an area or on a website known for commercial sexual activity, receives or sends naked pictures or videos, or has scars or signs of “branding.”

Without detection, and more importantly intervention, victims can be trapped into adulthood.

“Most of these adult women that are on the street were at one point kids that were exploited that nobody engaged and intervened with,” Bell said. “And now they’re on the streets as adults.”

The difference between a child sex trafficking victim and an adult victim, Bell said, is a matter of 60 seconds.

“You’re a victim of trafficking at 17 years old,” she said. “And then, in that 60 seconds that you turn 18, now you’re an adult, complicit [as a] criminal in prostitution.”

While sections of Chapter 119 in state law protect victims under the age of 18 from undue prosecution, those protections don’t apply to adult victims.

“Our goal is to help the victims,” said Early. “Theoretically, yes, there is the threat of getting charged. But we are not looking to prosecute victims who have been exploited.”

The adult trafficking victims My Life My Choice sees report the average age they’re getting into the sex industry is 14, Grace said.

But despite this, she said, the difference in perspectives between youth victims and adult victims is vastly different.

“The commercial sexual exploitation industry is about the absence of choice,” Grace said. “What’s challenging is that these kids turn 18 and they may still be trapped, but all of a sudden people see them as, ‘You chose this.’ There’s a real misnomer or misunderstanding. If they don’t get out, they become an 18-year-old or 20-year-old who is still stuck.”

TRAINING AND PROCEDURES

“I think folks in general have missed this because of a lack of awareness,” Mahoney said of sex trafficking. “We knew a child was engaging in certain risky behaviors, but trafficking wasn’t a lens we were looking for.”

It’s not enough to simply raise awareness of the issue, said Tammy Mello, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts.

“We really need to make a decision that kids are more valuable than this and we’re going to learn to do things differently,” she said. “People need to learn what they do if they see red flags. What are those red flags and how do they respond?”

In 2014, the Needham-based Justice Resource Institute received the “Massachusetts Child Welfare Trafficking Grant” from the Children’s Bureau within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to address the trafficking in minors in the state. The organization partnered with DCF and the Support to End Exploitation Now (SEEN) program, based in Boston, for the project.

The grant led to the formation of multidisciplinary teams in counties across the state, including Worcester.

Worcester’s multidisciplinary team consists of a variety of different government departments and organizations that play a role in fighting human trafficking, including police, schools, DCF, the DA’s office, and local advocacy organizations.

The DA’s office developed a protocol for handling youth trafficking cases in order to “break down those silos in communication among various agencies and groups,” said Courtney Sans, head of the Child Advocacy Center’s child abuse unit within the district attorney’s office.

Once a possible child exploitation victim is identified with the aid of the “risk factor” criteria list, a 51A Child Abuse Report is filed with DCF, even if the perpetrator’s name is unknown. DCF screens the report and immediately refers it to the DA’s office. Members of the multidisciplinary team who play in a role in the particular case are identified, as well as other departments and organizations as needed. The team convenes within 72 hours, either … in person or via conference call, and develops recommendations for how to proceed. After that, it’s a matter of investigating the case and providing services to the victim.

Since 2017, the DA’s office has received 109 referrals, said Sans, although not all of them have involved human trafficking cases. If a child fits any of the risky behavior criteria developed by the office, even if they’re not necessarily a victim of sex trafficking, it would result in a referral.

“The reason [the criteria] is so broad is because they don’t want anything to fall through the cracks,” Sans said. “It’s not a perfect statute, but the goal and the aim is to keep kids safe.”

The DA’s office, with the help of advocates and organizations that have dealt firsthand with human trafficking, is working with police, schools and other organizations to pick up on the signs of trafficking.

“Prevention is always underutilized and underfunded, but we’re trying to take a proactive approach to getting this stuff out there to literally save lives,” said Early. “I’d rather prevent human exploitation than have to solve it. I think prevention can never be used enough.”

PIECES STILL MISSING

With efforts to raise awareness and combat the sexual exploitation of youth being so new, as well as data collection, it remains hard to tell where Worcester stands as far as the severity of the problem.

“From our perspective, we’re just looking into this,” said Dr. Matilde Castiel, commissioner of Health and Human Services in Worcester. “I think we just need to get together, sit down and look at the gaps, what isn’t there, what is there and then what’s needed? I think we need to … meet again and really map out exactly what is going on.”

Part of it involves painting a complete picture, with each department holding its own data, she said.

“I can’t say what needs to be changed and what need to be done unless we have the data,” Castiel said. “Without that, it’s hard to know where we are for that.”

What has been frustrating for advocates is the issue isn’t new. The attention, however, appears to be growing.

“Worcester is kind of late to the game in getting their eyes open as to what this is,” said Currie. “We’ve been advocating for this for seven to eight years.”

Added Mello: “No one has quite figured it out yet.”

It is not a matter of pointing fingers and placing blame, according to Currie. Rather, it is time to move forward, with the City Hall meeting only the beginning in Worcester.

”We have tons and tons of work to do,” Currie said, “but people are starting to pay attention.”

Commercial Sexual Exploitation in the U.S.

• At least 100,000-300,000 youth are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation annually in the US. (Estes and Weiner, 2001)

• At least 100,000 children are used in prostitution every year in the United States. (The national report on DMST: America’s prostituted children, Shared Hope)

• The most common age of entry into the commercial sex industry in the US is 12-14 years old. (US Department of Justice, Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section)

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