‘Modern Day Slavery': Human Traffickers Haunt Cities with At-Risk Children

In Philadelphia, traffickers "sell love" to local youths looking for an escape

In Philadelphia’s darkest corners, traffickers are exploiting vulnerable kids for profit.

“Human trafficking is modern day slavery,” said John Ducoff, executive director of Covenant House Pennsylvania, a youth homeless shelter that cares for about 50 survivors of sex trafficking each year. “Criminals will always find new ways to commit old crimes.”

It's nearly impossible to pinpoint how many children in Philadelphia wind up victims of sex trafficking because there is no reliable data. In addition to those who stay at Covenant House, the shelter's staff says they've met far more victims during street outreach.

“You want to believe it happens somewhere else, it’s somebody else’s kid,” said Hugh Organ, Covenant House's assistant executive director and chairman of the Philadelphia Anti-Trafficking Coalition. “It’s a third world country problem; it doesn’t happen here. But it happens here every day, and that’s the scary part and the sad part that people don’t want to take a look at.”

Ducoff appears in a new documentary, "I Am Jane Doe," which takes a closer look at sex trafficking. Narrated by actress Jessica Chastain, the film -- which premiered on Feb. 10 -- follows mothers who have waged court battles against Backpage.com, an online classified ads service, over their daughters’ sexual exploitation. 

“We know Jane Does, and we know young girls who have had these experiences,” Ducoff said.

Sex trafficking affects all parts of the country, and the figures on hidden populations could be staggering because abuse often goes unreported, experts said. In Texas alone, 79,000 children could be victims of sexual exploitation, according to a recent University of Texas study

"It’s difficult to pin down the numbers," said Melissa Torres, a research associate who co-authored the paper. "The same study should be done in other places, (because) you can’t solve a problem without having measured it."

In Philadelphia, the city's proximity to highways and a major airport make it an attractive hub for traffickers. Survivors often tell Organ that they were trafficked along the I-95 corridor, from New York to Florida. Traffickers set up temporary bases at extended stay and micro-hotels near the airport, according to Christian Zajac, assistant special agent in charge at the FBI’s Philadelphia Division.

“You can jump on and off a plane, and the hotel’s right there,” Organ said. “The amount of trafficking that goes on at those hotels by the airport is unbelievable.”

Child sex trafficking is such a problem in Philadelphia that the FBI added a second task force to handle its local caseload.

“We were getting pummeled with child sex trafficking tips that were coming in,” Zajac said.

In 2016, the FBI's Philadelphia and Harrisburg field offices rescued 31 minors who had been trafficked, up from 26 in 2015 and 23 in 2014. 

This month, four men were arrested on minor sex trafficking charges, and during a nationwide FBI sting in October 2016, 22 more around the Philadelphia area were taken into custody over a three-day period.

But, Zajac said, “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this." 

Survivors need access to housing, schooling and vocational training, and trafficking-related therapy during their early recovery, experts said. But Philadelphia’s service providers are struggling to meet the demand, according to Family Court Judge Lori Dumas, whose Working to Restore Adolescents’ Power (WRAP) Court connects trafficking survivors to resources in the area.

“We don’t get a good grade on the report card for that,” Dumas said. “There are more services that need to be developed and made available to these young people. We don’t have enough.”

How It Happens

Kathleen M. Brown, who runs a rehabilitation program, Breaking the Cycle, recalled a trafficking survivor who at 14 was abducted, chained in a basement, and gang-raped for days. Her traffickers told her it was a privilege when she was finally allowed upstairs alongside others who were being forced to sell themselves.

But Brown, who is also an associate professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, said most youth sex trafficking is much subtler, and there’s a formula through which traffickers find their victims.

Whether from Philadelphia or surrounding rural areas, many trafficked youths leave a hostile living environment. The young people are not involved in extracurricular activities because their parents won’t invest the time, Brown said. They usually aren't doing well in school, often because family tensions make it hard to apply themselves.

“There [can be] a sexual component to whatever horrible thing is going on at home, so that by the time they leave their homes, they’ve already learned that their bodies do not belong to them,” Brown said. “This is something you give to other people, it’s not theirs. They’re a little bit surprised that anyone would want it.”

Runaways, particularly those who leave repeatedly or who have been on their own for a month or more, are susceptible to becoming trafficking victims.

“If you don’t have a place to stay, you gotta do what you gotta do,” Organ said. “There’s a term called survival sex -- sleeping with someone for a place to stay for the night. That’s a common thing that’s done.”

Traffickers identify targets at malls, online or through personal connections. They “sell love,” offering children who are looking for a way to escape their homes an alternative, Organ said.

“It’s the promise of a better life,” he continued. “It’s the promise of a job. It’s the promise of a place to stay. And by the time the kids realize what it really is, it’s too late. They’re caught up. Now, they have pictures of these kids. Now, they have threats. They know where the kid lives.”

Once victims are introduced to trafficking, they're taught how to behave, how to dress, and how to make themselves look older, usually by another woman. They’re shown how to slip a condom on with their mouths and how to perform oral sex as a substitute for vaginal penetration.

As a means of control, many traffickers pretend to be their victims’ boyfriends.

“It becomes the first person to tell this girl that he loves her, that she’s beautiful,” Organ said.

Especially among minors, relationships with traffickers often become violent, and victims are sometimes physically branded. One man in Philadelphia tattoos all of his girls with his name in an attempt to mark them as his, Organ said.

“They’re dehumanizing these individuals and making them property,” he said. “And it really gets scary. We just talked to a kid the other day. We were trying to get her to come into the shelter, and she said, ‘I can’t now, because I belong to this guy for the next 48 hours.’" 

Some warning signs to spot victims: Minors who are traveling between states or have multiple hotel card keys in their wallets. 

While some victims still walk the streets, most are being sold online. Many were listed on Backpage.com before the company shuttered its adult services section in January. The classified ads service, which had faced lawsuits over an alleged connection to child sex trafficking cases, was held in contempt by the U.S. Senate for not providing information about plans to fight trafficking on its pages. 

“The internet is the new street corner,” Organ said. “You can order up a kid no matter where you are.”

According to Ducoff, traffickers are still selling their victims on Backpage, now in the dating section instead of under adult services.

Liz McDougall, general counsel for Backpage.com, said the site shut down its adult sections under "pressure and coercion" from the government. She believes that was a mistake because with ads spilling across categories and sites, it's harder for law enforcement to track sex trafficking.   

"Just as we predicted, shutting down our adult section didn’t make this content go away,” McDougall said.

Even if Backpage were taken down completely, trafficking wouldn't disappear, Ducoff said. 

“Human trafficking is much more than just one website," he continued. "It’s a massive industry, and it’s about aggressively attacking every link in the chain.”

Demand for minors is high. Children are popular among men who are afraid of contracting sexually transmitted infections and who assume that kids are less likely to be diseased, according to a Congressional Research Service report released in January 2015. Researchers recommended that Congress make the legal punishment for men who target minors more severe.

In Philadelphia, experts said that child sex trafficking victims range in age from about 12 to 17. Most are inching toward adulthood, but the preteens boast the highest price tag.

“If they’re able to recruit someone who’s 12, or 13, or 14, those are very, very valuable,” Brown said.

Once minors are indoctrinated into trafficking culture, it’s hard for them to get out, even after intervention, and many later return because they can’t imagine other possibilities. They know how to sell themselves, but they don’t have basic skills like managing money, cooking or shopping.

“We don’t say saved, we say recovered,” Zajac said.

Addiction and Trafficking

Maria Guerrieri’s daughter, Lisa, was 21 when she disappeared. She came from an upper middle class family in Bucks County free of physical abuse, according to her mother. After high school, Lisa and her then-boyfriend started dabbling with heroin. She thought she could control her use, but a year later, it spiraled out of control.

One January day, Lisa left home to stay in a hotel with a friend who was also addicted. They met a man, Enoch Smith, who offered them drugs for sex. Guerrieri said she searched everywhere for her daughter, but they were only reunited after Lisa was arrested for drug possession.

Smith was sentenced to 40 to 80 years by the state, and is concurrently serving a 30-year federal prison sentence for trafficking children and distributing child pornography.

After relapsing several times, Lisa has gotten sober and works as an advocate for recovery.

Lisa's background was not typical for a trafficking victim, activists said, but her drug use was. Sometimes victims have experimented recreationally with drugs; other times, they’re already addicted when they meet their trafficker. Often, they turn to substance abuse while being trafficked to numb themselves to the sex and violence.

“Internally, they know that this is not normal behavior,” Dumas said. “Even if they cannot articulate that, their brain is telling them that.”

The addiction becomes a shackle in itself. By the time trafficked youths become reliant on drugs, there’s no need for coercion by their traffickers.

“I haven’t met anybody that didn’t somehow have a connection with drugs,” Brown said.

Kathleen Coll, a nun at Old St. Joseph’s Church of Philadelphia and executive director at Dawn’s Place, a haven for trafficking survivors, said that she does not accept women younger than 20 to the program.

“The 18-year-olds who come are many times not ready to give up the life they have because they are addicted, in a way, to that life,” she said. 

Almost all of the women at her shelter are drug- or alcohol-addicted, and they sometimes willingly return to prostitution so they can afford drugs. They see their trafficker as a dealer, Coll said.

She remembered how one young woman tried to explain why she couldn’t overcome her addiction.

“She said, ‘You don’t realize, I have a monster inside me that must be fed,’” Coll recalled. “So she went back to her pimp."

‘These Are Not Criminals, They Are Victims’

Two years ago, state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican who represents portions of Montgomery and Bucks counties, introduced legislation to protect trafficking victims under the age of 18 from criminalization. Instead of arrest and incarceration, they would be offered rehabilitation resources, including long-term housing, access to education and trauma therapy. Safe harbor laws have already been passed in 34 states to protect minors who are victims of trafficking.

“It’s not a voluntary activity,” Greenleaf said. “These are children. They can’t even vote, but they can be a criminal.”

His bill would have routed victims of child sex trafficking through the city’s Department of Human Services rather than the criminal justice system, but it faltered over cost concerns.

Greenleaf plans to reintroduce the bill this year. 

Despite the lack of safe harbor legislation, Philadelphia's police and FBI officers no longer arrest minors accused of prostitution.

“These girls are victims," Zajac said. "When you’re under 18, there is no such thing as consent.

“Philadelphia police used to be of that mindset where even though they’re 15, 16, 17 years old, it’s prostitution and they’re arrested. That has changed.”

What's next?

Though instances of sex trafficking continue to rise, Organ has seen improvements in how local officials are handling them. The training for law enforcement has gotten better, legislation has been introduced, and organizations around the city are providing some resources for survivors.

“A few years back, [faced with] a human trafficking victim, I would have nobody to call,” Organ said.

Child sex trafficking harbors unique psychological and logistical obstacles, and they’re hard to overcome. At Breaking the Cycle, Brown has a concrete definition of a success story: “There’s not a guy you’re dependent on, and you have a job that will take care of you. You have your children back.” 

The probability of her “success” for survivors in recovery? She’s pegged it at one in 10.

Dumas’ approach at the WRAP Court is more incremental, focusing on the day-to-day. The lives of the young people will be touched by trauma forever, but “it’s getting them to the point where they’re able to lead normal lives despite the trauma,” she said.

“Every little step in the right direction toward normalcy or toward survivorship,” she continued, “that’s success.”

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