SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) — A modern form of slavery is tearing apart families in western Massachusetts.
Local clinicians said a hub for youth sex trafficking has shifted from Boston and is spreading into the Pioneer Valley.
Experts working in the field said youth sex trafficking isn’t what much of society thinks it is.
Often times it takes a closer look to see traffickers in our midst, and western Massachusetts residents might not need to look far.
Hollywood portrays victims in the sex trade as willing participants, but in reality there is often little choice in the manipulative realm of human trafficking.
Child exploitation is a slow process with dire consequences.
“Often they don’t know what they’re doing. They think they’re running the show. They think they are manipulating and get what they want,” said Clinician Yolanda Scavron.
Western Mass News sat down with clinicians from the Gandara Center.
They are among the many undergoing specialized training to help children who fall victim to trafficking.
“Chicopee and Springfield are on a major traffic route, for which exploitation tends to occur. Sometimes through truck stops or through other hubs like that,” said Clinician Kim Ritter.
Federal investigators are following these routes to save young lives. The average age of victims is just fourteen years old.
“We see a lot and it’s definitely increasing with the casino,” Scavron added.
Clinicians say that entertainment destinations are prime spots for traffickers. Potential clients generally have money to spend, making it an attractive location.
“These victims are essentially bussed, trucked to these events which is really unfortunate,” said Clinician Kaylee Nicholls.
Western Mass News reached out to Springfield Police.
“There have been no instances or accusations of youth sex trafficking in Springfield since the casino opened or in the years prior. It has not been an issue in Springfield and we do not anticipate it to be one,” said Ryan Walsh, Spokesman for Springfield Police.
MGM confirms that their security personnel is trained to watch for sex trafficking.
“With the casino opening in Springfield there has been a lot of training and education with MGM as well as Spingfield Plice and other local businesses and such to have great awareness,” Ritter added.
MGM is also involved in ‘Western Massachusetts Businesses Against Human Trafficking’ a coalition dedicated to fighting the issue launched in January.
MGM responded in a statement that read:
“MGM Resorts is committed to human rights and anti-human trafficking efforts across our entire company. We continue to collaborate with law enforcement and other like-minded Western Massachusetts businesses and organizations to address this important issue. We believe that the partnership we forged with local businesses and community leaders prior to our opening helped raise awareness and prevention of this issue in the region.”
Still, this is a nationwide uphill battle.
“They didn’t know what they are walking into,” Nicholls added.
Sex trafficking here in Massachusetts is mired in misunderstanding as it is a crime that falls in the shadows.
But the more you know, the more you can make a difference.
Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking hotline has received more than 22,000 cases in the United States have been reported.
In 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that one in six endangered runaways reported to them were victims
Globally, the International Labor Organization estimates there are 4.5 million.
Breaking out of the cycle is difficult, and some never make it out of the human trafficking ring.
There is hope, and for more information on resources and help, please visit the link here.