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Human trafficking in the spotlight; New Hampshire passes safe-harbor law

When Jasmine Marino was 19, she fell in love. She thought the man loved her back, but it wasn’t long before he turned from boyfriend to pimp, and she was being trafficked from her home in Massachusetts to all across New England, from Hartford, Conn., to Kittery, Maine.

“I didn’t feel safe enough to call the police, because I thought I would get arrested, or he would beat me. I was in constant fear. There was nowhere to go. There were no safe houses. No one was talking about this,” she told a roundtable group of advocates that included U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster.

Human trafficking has people talking now, including Kuster, who was in town last week to talk about a series of bills she’s co-sponsoring that address the crime. Five of the 11 proposed bills are likely to be brought to the House floor next week.

With the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls last month, and a promise from the terrorist leader behind the act to sell the girls into sex slavery, “human trafficking has captured the attention of the public in a way that’s not easy. This is a good time to be talking about it, to let people know there are people in government, education and charities that are working on it,” Kuster said.

But one of the biggest challenges the advocates face, they said, is getting out the message that it’s not just girls in danger of being trafficked.

Adult women and men and boys are also victims, despite the more common public service announcement script that focuses on saving young girls. Of the 25 victims of human trafficking the state has identified in recent years, 19 were male victims of labor trafficking, said Erin Albright, regional program director for Give Way to Freedom, a private foundation for survivors of human trafficking.

And despite training for law enforcement officers – often geared specifically toward noticing young victims of sex trafficking, she said – victims are most commonly identified by churches or at shelters for domestic violence victims.

So when she hears about training for cable television installers – “it makes sense, they are going into homes and they might see things . . . but if I have limited dollars, I’m going to spend them educating people at churches first. It’s too bad to think about it that way, but it’s the way it is,” she said.

All of the advocates at the event Thursday told Kuster more resources for their work are acutely needed.

Shirley Vasquez, the crisis service coordinator at the YWCA New Hampshire, said sometimes she’s caught weighing helping victims of human trafficking against helping more traditional victims of domestic violence.

“Human trafficking victims stay a longer time before they’re ready to be on their own. And there are a lot of needs. I have to weigh, how many (domestic violence) victims am I going to have to turn away? I do take them, I figure it out, because if I don’t take them, I know they’re probably going to stay in the life for the shelter and because it’s what they know,” she said, saying having more financial support for shelters would help.

Kuster told the group her first priority is passing the legislation that’s up for a vote next week, but that she’s interested in helping connect them with more resources.

One will target abuse of the visa system, while another will give prosecutors and the police tools to rescue victims. Another gives states incentives to set up safe-harbor laws, which protect underage minors from prosecution for crimes such as prostitution if they come forward for help.

New Hampshire’s Legislature passed a safe-harbor law this spring, one of many initiatives the group gathered at the table last week said were good steps forward.

Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice helped write the law, after serving on the attorney general’s Commission on Human Trafficking. Sitting at that table changed the way she viewed the issue, she said.

“I come from a law enforcement background. . . . I’ve come to see that law enforcement is a very, very small part of this,” she said. “I’m not sure everyone sees that yet, that prosecution may never come if we can’t get people identified as victims and into a safe place. It’s so critical that we get out and talk to schools and emergency room doctors and all of the people they touch.”

The attorney general is holding a conference next month where the commission will release a new set of guidelines and recommendations for people who may interact with victims of trafficking.

The U.S. Department of Education is planning to release a manual for school employees soon, too. It will include hotline information, training and protocols for school employees, focusing on the commercial sexual exploitation of children, said Cory Smith, the legal and policy counsel for the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking.

The Polaris Project maintains a national human trafficking hotline where people can report suspected human trafficking, connect with anti-trafficking services or request training or information, at 888-373-7888.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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