Human trafficking a 'huge problem,' expert tells Penn State Fayette audience
A community awareness forum at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, on Monday night shed light on human trafficking — a $32 billion a year worldwide industry that sexually exploits adults and children.
The two-hour forum, hosted by the Crime Victims Center and Fayette County Children and Youth Services, drew attention to human trafficking problems in southwestern Pennsylvania, including Fayette County.
Anne Rackow of the Project to End Human Trafficking and the Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Coalition, and U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton outlined the local, national and worldwide problem to more than 100 people in attendance.
Data provided through the Polaris Project indicated that about 320 tips of human trafficking were received in Pennsylvania last year, and 59 cases were investigated by law enforcement officials, Rackow said. A total of 14,898 calls and tips were made to the national hotline from Jan. 1 through June 30, 2013.
Rackow said an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 youth are at risk each year in the United States, according to statistics provided by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
“Erie is a huge hub for human trafficking,” Rackow said. “That's my hometown, and I really didn't believe that when I first heard about it. But Interstates 90 and 79 are located in Erie, and people are trafficked in cars and trucks on interstate highways across state lines.”
Rackow said the majority of people who become victims of human trafficking know their perpetrators. They are not normally victimized by strangers.
She outlined the definition of human trafficking, discussed why it happens and informed audience members how to recognize victims.
“Human trafficking doesn't always include crossing borders,” Rackow said. “The number-one problem is drug trafficking followed by human trafficking. It is a growing crime because there is an extremely high demand for commercial sex.”
Rackow said the problem is growing in the United States because there is a very low risk of prosecution, and in most cases, human trafficking goes unreported.
“Sometimes, the victims don't want to participate in the court process,” she said.
Some of the conditions that led to human trafficking include high unemployment rates, economic problems and home instability and drug problems for teenagers, according to Rackow.
In some cases, Rackow said teens become victims of human trafficking because they lack basic needs, including food, clothing and shelter, and psychological needs such as love and a sense of belonging.
“If you feel like you don't belong and you have low self-esteem, you are more vulnerable to become a victim,” she said. “In many cases, older men pose as boyfriends at first and then encourage teenage girls to become prostitutes as they then become their pimps.”
Hickton said he visited Fayette County to discuss human trafficking because community awareness is an important part of the solution.
“This is a huge problem that requires an all-hands-on-deck, 360 solution,” Hickton said. “Without this awareness and effort, we wouldn't be able to do this on our own. This is a federal problem. It is not confined to Fayette and Allegheny counties. Trafficking people and depriving them of their civil rights is a huge problem that must be stopped.”
Hickton said one in five women and one in 75 men are raped, according to statistics.
“More than 25 percent of males are younger than 10 years of age when they are raped,” he said. “Children between the ages of 12 and 17 are more likely to be victims of sexual assault. We need to work together to protect our most vulnerable population.”
Hickton said the college years are especially dangerous for young women because 25 percent of them are victims of a rape or attempted rape while they are college students.
“But fewer than 5 percent of the rape cases are actually reported,” he said. “We're also concerned about intimate partner rape and stalking. We have to constantly strive to expand protection to vulnerable populations.”
If anyone suspects that someone is the victim of human trafficking, Rackow said they should not try to assist the victim. Instead, they are encouraged to call the national hotline at 1-888-373-7888 to provide tips that will be investigated by law enforcement officials and the FBI.
Cindy Ekas is a contributing writer.