CLARION — Trinity Point Church of God hosted a presentation on human trafficking and suspicious activities on Monday night. Sponsored by state Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion) in conjunction with the Clarion state police barracks, the event attracted more than 400 area residents.
Megan Sands, an analyst from the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center, emphasized that human trafficking takes place across the state. While urban areas have been major hot spots in the past, rural areas have seen a sharp upswing in trafficking in the past six years.
Human trafficking is defined as coercing, threatening or defrauding people for the purpose of exploiting them for monetary gain.
Ohio has been identified as one of the biggest trafficking hubs in the country. Pennsylvania’s extensive highway and interstate network makes it an ideal pass-through state. The commonwealth is now the 12th busiest trafficking state.
“We have to realize that stuff doesn’t just happen ‘over there.’ It happens right here,” Sands said, emphasizing that human trafficking is not just a third-world problem.
More than 20 million people are trafficked each year, netting criminal organizations $150 billion in profits annually. It is the second fastest-growing market segment for criminal activity in the world.
Twenty-five types of trafficking-related jobs have been identified, from door-to-door salespeople to nail salons to hospitality establishments. The I-80 corridor through Pennsylvania is host to hundreds of businesses.
Sex trafficking and labor trafficking are both activities that take place across the state, Sands said. Of those trafficked for sex on a global scale, 98 percent are women.
“Prostitution has been glamorized in movies,” Sands said. “Julia Roberts in ‘Pretty Woman’ is far from everday reality.” As a result, females trafficked for sex have been dehumanized and stigmatized by law enforcement and healthcare professionals, effectively victimized twice.
“The fact is, anyone can be trafficked,” she said, “You, me, the kid down the street – anyone.”
“There is no such thing as child prostitution,” she said. “Anyone under the age of 18 in the sex trades is defined as being exploited and trafficked, whether they are willing participants or not.”
Pimps, who look nothing like television stereotypes, recruit victims from all socioeconomic groups. Children from single-parent homes or middle-class neighborhoods, anyone lacking something in their lives, can be targeted and groomed. Runaways make up 86 percent of trafficked children, with those identifying as gay, lesbian or transgender being at particular risk.
There is no single indicator for a child being groomed and trafficked. Sudden changes in appearance, such as new hairstyles or professionally done nails, unusual truancy from school or activities, and behavioral changes such as tiredness are all clues.
Rural areas with high rates of child poverty are ideal for identifying and recruiting victims. Armstrong, Clarion and Jefferson counties all report an average of 20 percent of those under 18 live below the poverty line.
Sands said that community members are the most frequent callers to state and federal trafficking hotlines. Paying attention to tattoos, brands, drug use, missing teeth and malnutrition provides clues to possible trafficking.
Major sports events, such as the Super Bowl, and large-scale industrial activity often attract human traffickers, she continued. “Prostitution flourished in those counties affected significantly by Marcellus gas fields in recent years.”
Labor trafficking mirrors sex trafficking, with many victims homeless, addicted or both. More than 50 percent caught in its web are American citizens entranced by promises of high wages and better lives. The advertised wages are usually highly inflated, and the so-called clients fall into wage debt which most do not escape.
“Those posters nailed to utility poles advertising great jobs paying $16.50 to $20 per hour? Other than a contact phone number, there is no other information,” Sands said. “That’s something to watch out for.”
Victims of sex and labor trafficking exhibit some similar behaviors while in the custody of their captors. Most are visibly afraid, may not speak English or are forbidden to speak to anyone other than their captor. They are seldom left alone and are under constant surveillance.
Male pimps may be their controllers, but often female accomplices, known as bottom girls, keep an eye on their victims. Bottom girls take care of the females while in public, accompany them to emergency rooms or physicians’ offices when they need medical care, or provide bail to get the women out of jail.
Community members are the first line of defense against human trafficking. Becoming more informed is a major step, followed by either calling a state hotline or 911. Local authorities are preferred if there is an emergency.
Whether uncertain or in an emergency, community members were urged not to become involved directly with traffickers or their victims.
“Not only do you put yourself at risk, but you may endanger the very people you’re trying to help,” Sands said. “Traffickers often threaten victims’ families as well.”
The same skills used in identifying potential human trafficking activities are useful in noting suspicious activities related to violence and terrorism. There are a few unique to suspicious activities, though.
An unknown person holding detailed maps, sketches or blueprints marked with key locations and specific times should stand out. Loitering or parking near buildings for an extended period of time qualify as suspicious, as do people taking photographs of sensitive building areas, wearing clothing inappropriate to the weather or parking in odd locations.
“People are warned about unattended packages in public spaces,” Sands said. “Never leave your luggage or shopping bags to do something else. Despite the warnings, people have picked up suitcases containing bombs, which did not detonate, fortunately.”
Citizens should be alerted by large purchases of items that can be used to make weapons, such as drones, firearms and pressure cookers. An aluminum soft-drink can packed with explosives can blow up a building.
In addition to overly nervous or oddly calm behavior, other identifiers should be noted by community members. Gender, age, height and weight, physical build, hair color and style, method and direction of travel and as much detail as possible will help law enforcement track the suspects.
Noting details about vehicles can be central to catching up with terror suspects. Make, model year, color and body damage are clues. Even a partial license plate number is helpful, because law enforcement agencies can cross-reference it against makes, models and colors contained in their databases.
“But you need to remove as much of your own personal bias as you can,” she said. “All terrorists do not look like they are from the Middle East. Other than the 9/11 attacks, most acts of terrorism on American soil have been committed by people who look just like you.”
The key to success is getting rid of complacency. Someone who says he is going to kill a lot of people, for example, should set off warning bells for anyone who hears the statement.
As with reporting suspected trafficking, community members should not approach suspects directly. In an emergency, contact 911 and stay out of the way of responders.
Oberlander said that she became more aware of human trafficking after reading about its existence in corrections.
“While talking to Sgt. Scott Bauer from the Clarion state police barracks, I wanted to know how I could help him more with this issue. One thing led to another, I talked to some fellow legislators and we set up the town meeting tonight. In particular, Rep. [Chris] Dush from the Brookville area is extremely interested,” she said.
Oberlander noted that there is interest in offering more presentations on human trafficking across the state.
Bauer said that he was gratified by Monday night’s turnout.
“I’m glad we had access to such a big room,” he said. “It seats about 500, and I expected maybe 100 to show up.”
Among the people to show up were Linda Ferringer, Redbank Valley Community Center board member, and Ann Kopnitsky, Redbank Valley school board member. Both are from the New Bethlehem area.
Ferringer said, “You hear about human trafficking in a general way in the news. Then I learned that it happens in western Pennsylvania.”
“I had heard about trafficking on the news,” Kopnitski said. “I heard about the town meeting tonight and want to know more.”
Ginger Mahle, a nurse at Cherry Run Campground near Sligo and Rimersburg, wanted more information on a topic that campers’ families have asked about in the past.
“I’ve had parents ask me about how well we keep an eye on the cars that drive past the campgrounds,” she said. “They worry about losing their kids to abductors.”
Along with the other 400 attendees, the three women were brought up to speed and realized that community members are on the front lines of stopping human trafficking in the area. Law enforcement agencies are often stretched to the limits of their capabilities. Community involvement extends their reach.
To report potential human trafficking that is not an emergency, community members can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. In addition to reported suspected trafficking, victims can also call the number or text BEFREE for assistance. The number is displayed prominently on placards in rest areas along interstate highways in Pennsylvania and other states, sex-oriented businesses, and some hotels and bars known to be public nuisances.