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Senate committee to hear testimony on anti-trafficking bill

As a young cop in Derry in the early 1980s, David Goldstein remembers responding to a call at a strip mall. When he and his partner walked into one of the stores, they found two teenage girls hiding under a cabinet in a state of hysteria. Then they began screaming, and Goldstein saw a large man holding a gun outside the window.

That man, from East Boston, had tried to kidnap the two girls from Derry and turn them into prostitutes for a business he ran with a partner. This was sex trafficking, happening in New Hampshire.

“Their whole reason for being was to basically take these girls, any that they could find, lure them into his car and off they’d go,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein, now Franklin’s police chief, plans to share this story during a hearing this morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee on a bill that would increase protections for victims of labor and sex trafficking. The bill would also make the punishments steeper for those profiting from it, especially those exploiting children. Holly Austin Smith, a survivor of child trafficking and now a national advocate against it, will also travel to Concord to testify.

In 2009, New Hampshire was one of the first states to make human trafficking a state-level crime. The bill aims to improve the existing law, in part by using best practices from other states that have since implemented their own laws.

“Over the year I’ve had the opportunity to work a number of cases that could conceivably be collected under the rubric of human trafficking. . . . Like anything else, we’ve got to grow as a community, and we have to see this stuff for what it is – and it’s horrendous, it’s horrific,” Goldstein said.

An estimated 100,000 children in the United States are victims of commercial sex trafficking and at least 14,500 individuals are trafficked into the country each year, said Cory Smith, policy counsel for the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking and a Concord resident. The second labor trafficking case ever brought under federal law happened in Litchfield in 2003, when a couple was convicted of withholding wages and taking the legal documents of four Jamaican men, according to the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Sen. Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat who represents Litchfield, is the bill’s prime sponsor. She was the Senate’s chief of staff when a study committee was researching labor and sex trafficking in New Hampshire.

In the bill, trafficking is defined as knowingly compelling or coercing a person to engage in a service or labor, such as a commercial sex act or sexually explicit act, for the benefit of another. It would add several protections for victims, including allowing victims to petition to vacate prostitution convictions that result from trafficking and prohibiting victims who are minors from facing charges of indecent exposure and prostitution. The bill also makes prostituting a minor a Class A felony and allows victims to sue their traffickers in court. Under the bill, whether a victim receives payment shall have no bearing on determining whether the person was compelled to perform an act or labor.

There have been reports of worker exploitation from nail salons to farms, like the one in Litchfield, Soucy said.

“New Hampshire is not immune to those types of circumstance,” she said. “They’re happening everywhere, and we want to make sure that New Hampshire law continues to stay up to date and best practices are there so we can investigate, and hopefully resolve, those issues for the sake of the victims.”

The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence has seen other incidents of human trafficking in New Hampshire, said Amandy Grady Sexton, director of public policy and a Concord city councilor. In New Hampshire, Interstate 95 is a corridor that is “ripe for this type of victimization,” Grady Sexton said.

Since the state passed its first trafficking law, the coalition has been working with law enforcement and agencies across the state to teach them how to identify possible cases.

“In years past we’ve looked at a case of prostitution as strictly that, and now law enforcement has been trained to have the tools to look a little bit deeper into these cases to determine if there is the element of coercion and human trafficking,” she said.

The Senate committee could take a vote on the bill as early as after tomorrow’s hearing.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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