Delaware takes aim at human trafficking

 

DOVER — Delaware’s fight against human trafficking continues to coalesce.

Legislation passed two years ago strengthened the stance, clearly defining the offense and associated penalties, along with protecting victims of the crime.

Still, the law’s sharpened teeth have taken a minimal bite out of the problem; the amount of ongoing trafficking, forced labor and sexual servitude remains lightly quantified and somewhat unknown.

“I think (the legislation) is a good step, but I know of no (cases) that have come (directly) from it yet,” said Amy Day, founder and president of the Meet Me at the Well Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to addressing human trafficking issues in the First State.

Deputy Attorney General Abby Layton, who chairs the Human Trafficking Coordinating Council created through state legislation, concurs. “Traditionally there’s never been an investigation and arrest for the crime of human trafficking” in Delaware.

Just one pending case has been sent to the Department of Justice, she said, and March meeting minutes for the council indicated “this is likely a law enforcement training issue.”

The council continues to assess the extent of trafficking in Delaware with the goal of forming a plan to thwart the exploitation of often underage and female victims, officials said.

“We’re still trying to get a handle on this in Delaware,” said Ms. Layton, who also heads Delaware’s Child Predator Task Force.

“We don’t have data on it, but believe there’s a fair share of both (labor and sexual) trafficking going on up and down the state.”

According to the council meeting minutes from March, “Delaware does not seem to have any human trafficking data at all; we really need to be doing public awareness work and training on the issue.”

Superior Court President Judge Jan Jurden “is very concerned, as she believes that we continue to let cases slip by because they are not identified,” meeting minutes chronicled.

“The President Judge believes that Superior Court judges need training and overall we really need to do more to increase awareness of the issue.”

No public input was provided at the March meeting. The council next gathers on June 6.

Prostitution involved

Citing prostitution as a key contributor to human trafficking, Ms. Day said, “Personally I think it happens a lot.

“Most prostitutes are a victim of human trafficking. If you have a pimp, you are a victim of human trafficking.”

The state’s post-conviction Human Trafficking Court generally assists recovering women who have been involved in street-level prostitution, with drug and mental health treatment provided, along with trauma counseling.

“Part of the focus of our program is to reinforce to the women that they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their backgrounds,” said Mary McDonough, commissioner of the Court of Common Pleas Human Trafficking Court.

“The primary characteristic shared by the women in the Human Trafficking Court is that they were victims of childhood abuse and/or neglect and generally, of childhood sexual abuse,” she said.

“All of the women in the program have experienced extensive trauma, beginning as children/teenagers and continuing into their adult lives.

“The agency (Survivors of Abuse in Recovery) provides counseling to survivors of sexual abuse,” she said, “and does a tremendous job helping women in our program.”

But maybe more could be recognized.

“It seems that the extent of criminal justice-involved women who have exchanged sex for money or drugs is a problem that is ‘invisible in plain view’ in the Delaware court system,” Ms. McDonough said.

Obtaining statistics for human trafficking frequency is difficult, she said.

“It is difficult to quantify the incidence of prostitution/human trafficking in the Delaware Court system.

“Unlike a DUI or Drug Treatment Court in which the type of criminal charges signify the type of need, it is generally not a prostitution charge that brings these women into the criminal justice system,” she said.

“It is usually only a law enforcement sting operation conducted at a massage parlor or on the streets that leads to the charges of prostitution itself. Typically, the type of charges for our Human Trafficking Court participants include loitering, walking on the highway without a light, possession of drugs/paraphernalia and shoplifting.”

So far, only women have been through the Human Trafficking Court program.

“Undoubtedly, males are also involved in human trafficking, but we have only had females express interest in participating in our program, to date,” Ms. McDonough said.

The recovery period

Ms. McDonough said there’s a “tremendous need” in Delaware for housing that shelters human trafficking survivors, as Pennsylvania does.

“Along with treatment needs, these women have practical needs of housing, a job and transportation, etc.” she said.

Most women prostitutes became involved as teenagers, according to Ms. McDonough.

“Family members sometimes put them into prostitution, and others ran away from dysfunctional families or foster care, and into the arms of the pimp who held himself out as their boyfriend.

“Pimps often keep the women on drugs to maintain control. When some of our women have done the hard work of getting sober, the ‘boyfriend’ tries to get them back on drugs.”

By the time they arrive in court, the trafficking survivors have little, if any of a support system, to meet the demands of rebuilding their lives.

“Many of the women in our program tell us that our program becomes their ‘family’ because they don’t have one,” Ms. McDonough said.

“After graduation from the program, a mentor-type program is needed to help provide ongoing support to these vulnerable people who don’t have family support.”

A severe issue

Through the council, awareness of the severity of human trafficking issues is being addressed.

“I think, at this time, there is little public awareness that human trafficking exists in Delaware,” Ms. McDonough said.

“(The council) is trying to increase public awareness of this serious problem, as well as awareness on the part of professionals in various sectors, such as emergency room health care providers, school guidance counselors/teachers, law enforcement, Kids Department staff, including foster care, and the judiciary and court staff.”

“Human trafficking can be a hidden crime with a lot of misconceptions of what the crime really is,” said Courtney Walsh, a spokesperson for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

“(There’s) still a process of learning all the nuances of it,” she said.

Part of the learning process is developing action plans and educating the public about human trafficking.

The council acknowledged that the Polaris-driven NHTRC gives Delaware a mixed review, recognizing the state has a comprehensive statue, but also stating “Delaware is behind in terms of policies and procedures on human trafficking.”

The Delaware Children’s Department has developed policy and guidance for caseworkers to identify possible sex trafficking clues, including:

• An unexplained possession of money, clothing, phones, or other goods.

• Apparent control of activities of another person.

• Changes in behavior such as withdrawal, depression, angry outbursts or inappropriate sexual behavior.

“Through the diligent work of the HTCC and adherence to our internal policies, we are attempting to gain a full understanding of the scope of human trafficking in Delaware,” Delaware Child’s Department spokeswoman Dawn Thompson said.

“The Children’s Department is committed to working with other state agencies and our community partners to bring awareness to this issue throughout Delaware and to fight for the safety of our children.”

Far ranging damage

The affects and damages go far beyond Delaware’s borders and impact more than just the specific victims themselves, officials said.

“We understand the issue to be of global concern and affects millions of victims and their families worldwide,” Ms. Thompson said.

“But the harmful effects do not stop there. Our entire community structure, in terms of public health, economy, education, public safety and the like, are influenced by human trafficking tragedies.”

Regarding Delaware, Ms. Walsh said, “Delaware has passed all relevant laws and now is in the process of implementation.”

Senate Bill 197 was signed into law by Gov. Jack Markell on June 30, 2014, and coincided with the federal Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act that President Obama signed that year.

“Delaware is taking a leading role in fighting human trafficking here in our state and also across the globe,” then-Attorney General Beau Biden said in an April 2014 news release pushing for the legislation.

“The bill expands criminal penalties to cover people on the ‘demand side’ of human trafficking. Equally important, this bill brings Delaware into the next phase of fighting human trafficking – helping victims escape the vicious circle of trafficking and enabling them to rebuild their lives.

“Human trafficking victims are among the most vulnerable among us. The bill gives law enforcement important new tools to protect them.”

Said state Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington South, at the time, “ … we must do everything in our power to put an end to this inhuman practice.

“In Delaware, vulnerable boys, girls and women are being coerced into prostitution and are victimized and abused …”

Frequency rising

Delaware’s bill noted that human trafficking became the nation’s second fastest growing criminal activity by 2012, trailing only drug trafficking.

According to Ms. Walsh the NHTRC received 28 calls to it’s 1-888-373-7888 hotline number from Delaware in 2015, five of which specifically referenced human trafficking concerns; similar numbers were reported in 2013 and 2014, she said.

That’s just a small indication of Delaware’s issues, Ms. Walsh said, since about only 7 percent of the population even knows there’s a hotline to contact.

“We need the general public to be involved,” she said, noting the complex issue required a myriad of stakeholders to collaborate, and the state’s coordinating council is a key element to that.

Ms. Day has participated in the council, which she said is working on spreading information around the state.

“We do free presentations and have gone to a number of organizations, including churches, businesses and schools, about it,” she said.

“People when they learn about it are shocked … they then want to help.”

One weapon in the state’s arsenal is bringing more attention to human trafficking, including a statewide training session. It’s planned for Nov. 17 at Dover Downs and could include national speakers in the morning and breakout sessions in the afternoon.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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