Commentary: Human traffickers ‘hiding in plain sight’ in Delaware

In 2018, five Delaware residents are arrested in Dover for selling a 16-year-old girl for sex, via an internet application. Who would want to acknowledge that the evil of human trafficking happens in Delaware? Sadly, we know that it happens in Delaware, though statistics are difficult to capture.

Federal and Delaware law define a sex trafficker as anyone who profits from sexual activity with, or against a child/youth, or with an adult through use of force, fraud or coercion. Similar language relates to exploitative labor practices. Recall the recent scandal in which female nail technicians were unpaid, sometimes for a year or more, and forced to live in abject circumstances with no source of income. Sometimes the two types of trafficking overlap.

Witness the recent arrests of “spa” operators in Delaware who promised women a job, only to effectively imprison them to be raped daily under the cover of “massages.” Even after Backpage.com was shuttered, internet ads for such operations have proliferated.

Leslie Brower

Traffickers are hiding in plain sight. Most people understand that children and youth who are sold for sex are truly victims, even if they have taken some action that put them at risk. Research suggests that girls (or boys questioning their sexual identify) who run away from home or from foster care, often because of sexual violence, are at the highest risk of being trafficked.

Traffickers know where to find these youth and how to lure them into sexual activity with promises of love and affection, “free” housing and travel, drugs and alcohol — all of which may appeal to a hurt, scared and lonely youth. Youth are increasingly lured through “sextortion”: Someone posing as a peer gathers screenshots of gradually more revealing images — blackmailing the youth into sexual activity with threats to share the images on social media.

The picture may look different when a youth turns 18. It may be tempting to think of an adult sex worker as voluntarily earning a living and sharing the proceeds with a “protective” pimp — this image is common in films and theater. The “protector” in this case may be called a boyfriend or fiancé, or may be an older male relative or father, or an employer, or yes, even a mother or a “pastor.”

But that “protector” is actually a trafficker if he, or she, compels that sexual activity through force (beatings, forced drug injections, rapes and gang rapes), fraud (as in the illegitimate spas), or coercion (threats to withhold housing, food, clothes, freedom of movement, medications or drugs.) Like victims of intimate partner violence, these victims often are unable to break away because of fear, intimidation, humiliation and devastated self-regard.

How many victims are in Delaware? Data are hard to pin down. Verified victims under the age of 18 are now considered victims of child abuse and mandated reporting applies. But data remain elusive for them and for other victims. Many child or youth victims are still trafficked after their 18th birthday — though suddenly prosecutors would have to prove the use of force, fraud or coercion to win a case against the trafficker. The barriers to identification and prosecution are daunting.

Law enforcement personnel, victim advocates and service providers tell a chilling tale: It is rare for a victim to self-disclose this crime. Chances are they are programmed either to believe their trafficker loves them, or that they don’t deserve love and respect, or that they are so broken and humiliated that they can’t bear to discuss what has happened to them. Therapists note that victims of sexual abuse, including trafficking, often take 10 to 20 years before they can discuss what happened to them.

Govs. Markell and Carney and many legislators support efforts to prevent and deter trafficking. Delaware’s Human Trafficking Interagency Coordinating Council is charged with addressing this situation by increasing public awareness and creating a plan to coordinate victim services. A primary challenge in meeting this charge is to create an approach to identifying, counting and serving victims. We are going to learn more from surrounding states and cities that have met this challenge.

For more information about the crime of trafficking and how to report it, please visit this link to the Human Trafficking National Hotline/Polaris project: https://polarisproject.org/

For more information about the Delaware Human Trafficking Interagency Coordinating Council and the council’s preliminary report, visit https://dhss.delaware.gov/dhss/admin/humantrafinteragcouncil.html

EDITOR’S NOTE: Leslie A. Brower PhD, RN is a psychiatric nurse who chairs the HTICC as well as the statewide advocacy group Trauma Matters Delaware.

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