Members of City Council met Tuesday afternoon in an attempt to put a face on modern day human trafficking in Philadelphia, which, as one official testified, all too often goes unrecognized.
"The secretive nature of human trafficking means that law enforcement workers are not always the first responders," Assistant District Attorney Shea Rhodes said. She emphasized the need for broader education about how to recognize victims, who often first encounter the system through hospitals, schools, advocacy agencies or rehabilitation programs.
Rhodes recounted the case of Calvin Freeman, who she called "a kingpin of human trafficking." Freeman was arrested last summer for allegedly beating and strangling a woman, then forcing her at gunpoint to go back out and work the street. Investigators didn't realize the woman was a trafficking victim and bussed her back to her hometown the night of Freeman's arrest.
"Ultimately, this led to her disappearance and made it impossible to bring Freeman to trial," Rhodes said. "To make matters worse, we now believe that Freeman had many other victims in and around Philadelphia, but without the assistance of the first woman, it was impossible to identify and assist those other victims."
Advocates told scores of similar stories about local teens – many of them runaways – who are physically and mentally abused, housed in squalor and manipulated into the underground sex economy, often by close friends or temporary guardians who promise them a better life. "Domestic sex trafficking in the United States often takes the form of pimp controlled prostitution," said Hugh Organ of nonprofit youth shelter the Covenant House Pennsylvania.
"Cases like this are not uncommon," Rhodes said. "And, in fact, Philadelphia – with its international airport, bus and train stations, busy harbor and intersections with major highways – is poised to become a major hub of human trafficking."
Organ described a recent evening he characterized as typical for the organization. "This past Thursday, in just one night, just one internet site had over 230 ads advertising women for sale across the city," he said. "Our street outreach on the same night in a few hours encountered 12 women working on corners."
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown called for the informational session to examine the issue's scope and identify possible solutions. Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. chaired the Committee on Public Safety hearing.
One victim's story
Despite the increased incidence of domestic human trafficking, foreign nationals still fall victim at a disproportionate rate, according to Juliane Ramic of the Nationalities Service Center. One such victim, a 28-year-old Ecuadorian native forced to sell sex at a brothel in Norristown, testified under the pseudonym "Yadira."
"I came out of the situation, but what happened to me, I was there under threats," she said through an interpreter. She said the traffickers kept her trapped by threatening to harm her 6-year-old daughter, who still lives in Ecuador. "It's very difficult to understand why would a person do this, but when it happens and your children are involved, any woman will do what they have to do to keep their children safe – no matter what."
Like most crimes surrounding sex abuse, sex trafficking is grossly under-reported due to intimidation, fear and shame, according to Capt. John Darby of the Special Victims Unit. "We don't have a way of tracking that data at this particular time because it's so minuscule," he said of the incidence of trafficking in Philly. That's why coordination between police, prosecutors and human services is so important, officials and advocates overwhelmingly stated.
They testified that more people must be educated to recognize the signs of human trafficking and city, state and federal agencies must work together to proactively identify and rehabilitate victims, as the majority do not self-report the crime because they are either fearful or do not even consider themselves victims. Current efforts include:
– Project Dawn Court, a diversionary program founded two years ago by the District Attorney's Office. If a woman has at least three prostitution-related convictions, she can plead no contest and enter the residential program, where she will receive substance abuse counseling, sexual trauma therapy, and job and housing assistance. If she completes the program, which takes about a year, the arrest will be expunged from her record.
– The Philadelphia Crimes Against Children Task Force, formed in September by Philadelphia's Special Victims Unit, the FBI and several local townships to share information and resources.
– The SVU-DHS co-location center, set to open its doors in April. The new center will make interagency cooperation easier by housing under one roof the Department of Human Services, their contracted forensic child abuse interviewer – the Philadelphia Children's Alliance, the Special Victims Unit and prosecutors from The District Attorney's Office.