Experts: Human trafficking happens in N.H. and the opioid crisis is “exacerbating” the problem

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Monitor staff
Published: 3/16/2019 4:09:57 PM

Victims of human trafficking in New Hampshire are more likely to have grown up in the Granite State or somewhere in New England than to have immigrated from another country.

Most have a history of childhood trauma to include physical, emotional or sexual abuse and are lured by traffickers with false promises of a better life to include employment and financial success.

These victims are manipulated and often don’t realize they’re being trafficked for sex or labor or both until they’re cut off from the world, threatened with violence and told to fear the consequences should they ever dare to leave.

“At first, they may see themselves as doing something for someone they care about; they see themselves as being in a relationship with the person who trafficked them,” said Linda Douglas, trauma specialist for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “For a long time, there is a strong sense of denial, and they’re unable to see that they were coerced from the beginning. What they thought was their choice was, in fact, not, and now they’re someone’s property.”

Since the National Human Trafficking Hotline was created in 2007, more than 40,000 cases of human trafficking have been reported in the United States. In 2017, the hotline learned of 8,759 cases, a 13 percent increase over those reported the prior year. The hotline provides the largest publicly available data set on human trafficking and yet it captures only part of the story.

In New Hampshire, human trafficking cases have been reported in each of the state’s 10 counties. Experts say human trafficking is not an exclusively urban problem and that people are being held against their will and exploited for labor and/or sex in rural areas, too.

“People assume it doesn’t happen here because they’re not familiar with the form it takes in New Hampshire or how it manifests here,” said Rebecca Ayling, project director of the state’s human trafficking task force. “Trafficking can happen anywhere and to anyone. It’s about vulnerabilities, and traffickers target those people who are looking for new opportunities, a new role model in their lives or a way out of poverty. The more a person struggles and the more vulnerabilities they have, to include drug abuse or a history of child abuse, the more a trafficker will target that person.”

The New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force, which brings together law enforcement and social services, opened 29 new investigations into cases of reported human trafficking in 2018. Of those cases, 79 percent were sex trafficking, 17 percent were labor trafficking and 3 percent involved both. Law enforcement identified 29 victims of human trafficking that same year, which is consistent with 2017 statistics. The majority of those victims were adult women who were trafficked for commercial sex in hotels, motels and private homes. However, experts caution that trafficking can happen to anyone regardless of gender, race or age.

The crime of human trafficking thrives in secrecy and therefore most victims are too afraid, too isolated and without the resources to come forward and ask for help. Traffickers may also sell illicit drugs and use those drugs – commonly narcotics – as a tool to coerce their victims to stay and do as they’re told. In turn, the victims, often women, are forced to have sex against their will with paying men because they owe their traffickers a mounting debt they can never pay off.

“Many pimps will use drugs like an invisible chain,” said Catherine Wilson, a teenage sex trafficking survivor and now advocate who speaks to audiences across the country. “They’ll give the person enough so he or she is alert and can perform their duty as a slave. Then, just as they start to come down off that high, they’ll return to the pimp because if they don’t they’re going to be sick, and they don’t have the money to get the drugs elsewhere.”

Wilson, who founded “Stop Trafficking US” in her home state of Maine, said wherever sex trafficking exists drugs are usually involved because traffickers often have a hand in both illegal markets. Because so many trafficking victims have a history of trauma, their substance abuse is further complicated by the fact that they use drugs to mask untreated pain and to seek acceptance.

Unrecognized and untreated childhood experiences like neglect, sexual abuse, an absent parent and mental illness are the real silent crisis in this country that can lead to further victimization, Wilson said.

“Child sexual abuse is the precursor to sex trafficking,” said Wilson, who was repeatedly raped by a family member as a young girl. “We must start at the genesis and that is the genesis.”

Law enforcement officials said drug addiction and poverty are among the other vulnerabilities that traffickers identify in their victims and seek to exploit to make high profits. Experts agree the opioid crisis is exacerbating the human trafficking problem in New Hampshire, but emphasize that there is no causal relationship as both occur independently of one another.

“When you have a home with drug-addicted people looking for an outlet, human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, may not have been something they’d normally have done or considered,” said Bedford police Det. Matthew Fleming.

Fleming, who is also a member of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said what may begin as a technology-facilitated child exploitation case can evolve into a human trafficking case. As more young people take to social media to communicate and explore their sexuality, Fleming said, investigators are trying to stay at the forefront of the issue, which includes early education in schools so students know how to protect themselves online.

Manchester police Det. Eric Tracy, a member of the state’s human trafficking task force, echoed those concerns, saying people may not know human trafficking is happening in their communities because they don’t see evidence of it on the streets, but online chat rooms and escort websites say otherwise. For example, parents addicted to drugs can sometimes take desperate measures to get their next fix by turning to the internet to exploit their children, he said.

“They may say, ‘I’ll let you have some time with my children if you give me whatever my drug of choice is,’ ” Tracy said. “On the neglect side, what we see is parents who are not supervising their kids or giving them what they need, so those children will go on websites and reach out to strangers to get what they need and that could include engaging in what’s known as survival sex.”

Homeless youth and runaways may sell their bodies to get basic life necessities. Experts say not only is that practice illegal if they’re underage and cannot consent, but it can quickly lead to more dangerous forms of sex trafficking – and, further, continue into adulthood.

“Some people will argue, ‘Why not make sex work legal?’ That is the individual who is selling him or herself for a specific short-term goal,” Wilson said. “What I would say to people is the vast majority of human beings who are selling their bodies for sex are not in that place of ‘I’m grown up; this is my body; I can do what I want in the world.’ They are trapped in a desperate situation that if they had resources would not be doing it.”

Douglas agreed, noting that prostitution is the wrong word to describe much of what advocates see in New Hampshire.

“Often times these people are caught in a sting and when you really dig into it, you learn that the person charged with prostitution was, in fact, being trafficked for sex,” she said.

Douglas will be one of two presenters at an upcoming educational and training event in Concord on Tuesday night. “Human Trafficking in NH – It Does Happen Here!” is a presentation sponsored by Women Stronger Together, a collaboration of women’s organizations in the Concord area and Waypoint. The event will kick-off at 6:30 p.m. at the Hatbox Theatre on Loudon Road.

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