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Editorial: When an international crisis hits home

A year ago, when former New Hampshire attorney general Michael Delaney announced the formation of a task force to combat human trafficking and the exploitation of young girls, the news raised eyebrows. The issue seemed remote to some readers. Was this truly an issue of big concern here?

Last week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put that issue to rest in chilling style.

Kristof told the distressing story of a 15-year-old ninth-grader from Boston who had run away from home. Her parents were desperate to find her and frustrated that the local police did not seem to be doing all they could. Kristof asked the worried parents if they had checked Backpage.com, which he describes as the leading website for prostitution and sex trafficking in the country. He pulled out his laptop to show them. When the website appeared, voila, there were semi-nude photographs of their daughter, described as a “mixed Latina catering to your needs” and “fetish-friendly.”

Turns out, the girl had been advertised for sex in four states: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut.

The Times columnist sent the information to the police, and within hours officers had located the girl in New Hampshire. They raided a hotel, rescued the girl and arrested an armed man they believe was her pimp.

“New Hampshire citizens pay traffickers every weekend to exploit these women for personal satisfaction,” Delaney said in creating his commission. He referred to online ads promoting sex with “very young” women in Manchester, Nashua, Portsmouth and Salem. And he estimated that nearly 300,000 children are exploited by sex traffickers every year across the nation.

As it turns out, New Hampshire was among the first states to make human trafficking for sex or forced labor a crime. The law makes such activity a Class A felony, punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

But victims’ advocates say a unified effort is needed to put that law to work – training law enforce­ment and other first ­responders on how to recognize victims of human trafficking, many of whom provide false information to authorities for fear of retribution.

Cases can be complicated and expensive, particularly when they deal with sophisticated criminal organizations that can be national and even international in scope. Locally, officials are particularly concerned about the Interstate 95 corridor between Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, which makes it easy to move victims back and forth among cities and states.

Advocates describe a need to coordinate services to better address the needs of victims and improve data collection and organization. Perhaps most important of all is the need to increase public awareness of human trafficking – a crime that can flourish in part because it exists in the shadows and because it is often poorly understood.

In the case of the girl from Boston, she seems to have run away and connected with her pimp voluntarily. And she attempted to recruit at least one girlfriend to join her, boasting via text messages about the money she was making. Unlike the images from movies, no one was holding a gun to the young woman’s head. No one had threatened her life – at least as far as we know. But she was underage. And, according to the police, she was having sex with a half dozen men a day and handing over every dollar she earned to her pimp.

Should such exploitation be a state and national priority as Delaney insisted? Of course it should.

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