Enhancing the fight against human trafficking in the Granite State  

  • Darlene Pawlik was once terrified of the old mill buildings in downtown Manchester from the dark memories of her youth. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

  • Darlene Pawlik has empowered herself through self-defense classes and leading the charge against sex trafficking. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Darlene Pawlik was once terrified of the old mill buildings in downtown Manchester from the dark memories of her youth trapped in the sex trafficking in her teenage years. Now, years later she has overcome her fears as she stands outside an old Mill building on Amherst Street in downtown Manchester last week. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Darlene Pawlik was once ensnared in sex trafficking in her teenage years testifies for the passage of House Bill 1640, Parent Notification Bill at the State House on Wednesday, January 29, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

For the Monitor
Published: 10/22/2022 6:00:30 PM

Darlene Pawlik vividly remembers the moment her 14-year-old self was taken to Plaistow, N.H., by a physician – not for medical treatment, but for sex.

Pawlik had just been bought by this older man.

“So, why are you doing this?” he asked.

“Uh – just bored, nothing else to do,” Pawlik said.

But it was not boredom that got her there. She had been carefully chosen and groomed by another man. She didn’t know how to escape.

She was one of New Hampshire’s human trafficking victims.

In 2020, more than 10,500 trafficking cases were reported in the United States. Densely populated states like California, Texas, Florida and New York see far more instances of human trafficking than New Hampshire, but that doesn’t mean the Granite State is immune.

In 2017, 44 active human trafficking cases were reported in the state, according to a report by the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force, an organization aimed to combat human trafficking. In 2021, there were 73 cases reported – a majority were sex trafficking.

The Task Force consists of New Hampshire law enforcement, service providers, attorneys, and other state agencies.

The Task Force said it received more than 100 tips on human trafficking in the state last year. The tips included adult and child victims in every county. More than 80% of those tips involved sex trafficking.

“A lot of things that are happening are very hidden,” said Tori Nevel, the director of the Task Force and the Human Trafficking Project Specialist at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Groomed and sold

Pawlik’s story began in Haverhill, Mass. She grew up in a turbulent and abusive household. Pawlik was just a toddler when she was sexually abused in her grandmother’s barn.

“He did a lot,” Pawlik said of the abuse. “There was also actual touching and stuff like that, and he would encourage me to touch him.”

And when Pawlik was 12, she was molested by another family member.

“That was when my world spun completely out of control,” Pawlik said. “Once that happened, it brought up all of the rage, all of the hurt, all of the rejection – everything that was contained in me from the early childhood abuse, rose right to the surface.”

A man who called himself “Ace” became Pawlik’s escape from reality.

Ace came into her neighborhood when Pawlik was 11.

“He was friendly to all the kids,” Pawlik said.

“He would hang around and talk to us kids – he made himself a real fixture in the neighborhood.”

What began as a harmless conversation with Ace then escalated into something else. Ace would invite Pawlik into his car during conversations. Not long after, Ace started to take Pawlik back into his apartment and have sex with her. Pawlik was 13, Ace was 25.

“He made me think that it was my idea,” Pawlik said. “He was gentle and slow in the grooming process.”

By that time, people in the neighborhood had used Pawlik at parties and passed her around. And at 13, Pawlik was exposed to having sex with strangers.

But it was on Pawlik’s 14th birthday when things finally took a toll.

Although Pawlik’s life has been tumultuous, her household still celebrated birthdays.

“My mom came home that morning from running some errands and I said, ‘It’s my birthday,’ and she was like, ‘Uh-huh,’ ” Pawlik said.

Pawlik’s mother threw her two crumpled dollar bills on the table.

“Here,” her mother said, as she walked passed her.

Irritated, Pawlik called Ace to celebrate her birthday.

“He sold me that very day to a man from Atkinson, N.H.,” Pawlik said.

From there, she was sold and trafficked to buyers in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine for four years between 1981 and 1985.

‘Modern slavery’

Jennifer O’Brien, assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Social Work, said children who are survivors of sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, drug use, homelessness or have been involved with the juvenile systems are at “risk” of exploitation.

“The biggest risk factor for future trauma is past trauma,” O’Brien said.

Human trafficking was only criminalized federally in October 2000 under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

“The two main statutes are the forced labor statute and the sex trafficking statute,” said Mark Zuckerman, Chief of the Criminal Division at the New Hampshire U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The forced labor statute involves somebody being forced or threatened with serious harm to them or somebody else that causes them to engage in labor. The sex trafficking statute involves forcing somebody into commercial sex acts with the element of force, fraud, or coercion.

“It is essentially a modern slavery statute,” Zuckerman said.

Penalties for forced labor include a sentence of up to 20 years imprisonment. Sex trafficking penalties range from a minimum of 10 years imprisonment to life.

The second forced labor prosecution in the country happened in New Hampshire in 2003. Kate O’Dell and Timothy Bradley brought five workers from Jamaica to work for Bradley’s Tree Service. They were forced to work in crude conditions, their passports and plane tickets were taken away and they were underpaid for their work.

O’Dell and Bradley were sentenced to five-year imprisonments and fined more than $25,000.

Zuckerman said prosecuting traffickers could be tricky. Since the human trafficking law was passed in 2000, New Hampshire has had one federal conviction for forced labor and one conviction for sex trafficking.

“These statistics do not capture the true scope of human trafficking prosecutions,” Zuckerman wrote in a follow-up email. “It is not uncommon to bring an alternative charge in a human trafficking matter.”

Some sex trafficking investigations result in charges like child pornography. While forced labor cases may be charged as alien harboring or fraud.

Zuckerman said using different charges could work “better strategically.”

In 2014, the human trafficking statute was strengthened. Among other things, it increased protection for adult and juvenile victims, and accountability for traffickers was enhanced.

“Our biggest role is continuing to make sure that victims and survivors … are being represented and (to hold) perpetrators accountable,” said Pamela Keilig, a public policy specialist at the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “(We have to) make sure that our efforts across the state are up to date, relevant and victim-centered so that we aren’t punishing victims for crimes that they didn’t commit because they are trafficked.”

Last year, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signed House Bill 189, which exempts child victims from facing criminal penalties for non-violent offenses committed as a result of human trafficking such as drug or prostitution charges, into law.

The statute on human trafficking also applies to victims who are non-U.S. nationals. Immigration relief is available from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which will allow them to stay in the country if they are cooperating with law enforcement in a trafficking case.

On average, one out of five of the trafficking victims identified in New Hampshire is a foreign national, while the rest are U.S. citizens.

The issue has remained so under the radar in New Hampshire that the first safe house for trafficking victims only opened in June of this year.

“We are providing long-term safe housing that includes intensive case management,” Bethany Cottrell, the executive director and founder of Brigid’s House of Hope, said. “We’re ensuring that the victims or survivors have a safe home … as they create a plan and goals for them … to become independent.”

The house remains in a classified location to protect victims.

Investigations on human trafficking are led by Michael Posanka, resident agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigation in New Hampshire.

“When we receive a lead relating to human trafficking … our first step is always to ensure the safety of the victim,” Posanka said.

“From there, once we’re satisfied that the victims are stabilized … we seek to interview.”

When there is a minor involved in the investigation, the Department of Children, Youth and Family Services are engaged in the process.

Growing prosecution

Although the fight to combat human trafficking is intensifying, human trafficking cases in the state continue to make headlines.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice sentenced a New Hampshire man, Steven Tucker, to 21 years in federal prison followed by five years of supervised release for sex trafficking a minor and operating a prostitution and drug enterprise.

The court also ordered $20,800 in restitution to the victims.

In March, Tyler Townsend of Dover was accused of sex trafficking a minor. Prosecutors said Townsend advertised the victim on the website backpage.com for commercial sex transactions between July and September 2017.

In April, the DOJ issued a news release indicating nine members associated with a nationwide sex trafficking and prostitution enterprise who have carried out crimes throughout the country, including New Hampshire.

On July 12, the U.S. Marshal Service District of New Hampshire issued a notice in an attempt to locate and arrest Dwan Anderson, a man believed to have ties to human trafficking.

As for Pawlik, she managed to get out of trafficking just before she turned 18 by faking an abortion in 1985. Pawlik convinced her last trafficker she was getting an abortion of his child after he had threatened to kill her if she didn’t.

Pawlik got her high school diploma by taking the General Educational Development test and became a nurse.

To date, Ace remains a free man. The Haverhill Police Department said they are “statutorily prohibited” from discussing the case.

Zuckerman said the biggest challenge in human trafficking in New Hampshire is the resources and funding.

This year, Brigid’s House of Hope received more than $580,000 of funding from the DOJ’s Office for Victims of Crimes. The rest of the house’s funding comes from the Bureau of Housing Support, local foundations, fundraisers, businesses and individuals who donate to the cause. It will be holding one of those fundraisers in Laconia.

Trafficking is not isolated to one particular city or region. It has occurred in each of the ten counties within New Hampshire, according to the task force.

Advocates hope more funding will be available through the state budget as awareness continues to grow.

“The more attention that is focused on this crime will increase the likelihood that victims will feel comfortable coming forward and the more difficult it will be for traffickers to hide in the shadows,” Zuckerman said.

Laura Arman is an investigative journalist based in New Hampshire. She is a graduate student at Dartmouth College and not a member of the Monitor’s staff.

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