Effort underway to open shelter in N.H. for victims of human trafficking

  • FILE - In this Feb. 19, 2019, file photo, a sign is posted outside of Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Fla., one of several spas closed in south Florida as a result of a six-month investigation into sex trafficking. The Florida prostitution sting that ensnared New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is a reminder of the human trafficking and abuse taking place behind the darkened windows of many of these storefronts, and how challenging those problems can be to address. (Hannah Morse/Palm Beach Post via AP, File) Hannah Morse

Monitor staff
Published: 3/2/2019 7:54:55 PM

Bethany Cottrell laments the fact that victims of sex trafficking in New Hampshire have few places to turn in their own state.

That dearth will soon change, the executive director of the Merrimack County Advocacy Center said. Last year, Cottrell approached Becky Ayling, the project director for the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force, then later consulted with Eric Adams of the Laconia Police Department.

The result is a fundraising drive currently underway, with a vision to buy land and a building somewhere in Laconia to house the state’s first shelter and treatment facility for victims of human trafficking. It will be named Brigid’s House of Hope, after St. Brigid of Ireland, who was born into slavery in the fifth century and became one of the most revered women in the country.

“I went to Becky and said, ‘I keep hearing we need safe housing,’ ” Cottrell, also a member of the human trafficking task force, said by phone from her office in Concord. Cottrell and Ayling decided to stop talking about it and do something to tackle it themselves. Then they approached Adams.

Cottrell said the fundraising is in its early stages, adding that it will take between $300,000 and $400,00o to get the project off the ground. But while collecting enough money to turn this into a reality is far off, Ayling and Cottrell are bursting with confidence, sure that their goals will be met.

“I have full confidence that this will happen,” Ayling said. “We’re working on it. We don’t want to open too early, but it will absolutely happen, a safe place for people who have been trafficked.”

The subject has been front-page news recently, since New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft was charged with soliciting a prostitute at a massage parlor in Florida. Police said they had video evidence showing Kraft and two women engaging in a sex act.

The massage parlor, police allege, was a front for a sex trafficking ring, featuring immigrant women who lived there in poor conditions and had few options when it came to building lives elsewhere.

Awareness about sex trafficking quickly spread nationwide, but Cottrell said she and her team have long known that this is a problem that should have been moved into the forefront far earlier, even in sparsely populated states like New Hampshire.

“It’s coming out in the media more,” Cottrell said, “but in New Hampshire, we have the task force and professionals working on it, and that has been spurring conversations.”

Cottrell said more than 50 women subjected to sex slavery were referred to law enforcement agencies and victims services in 2018.

“A lot of people are surprised,” Cottrell said. “It’s not like in New York City or Los Angeles. It’s not presented that way. The issues are happening in homes and hotels and motels. Here, you don’t have a strip mall where you would have that type of thing.”

Sean Ford, a lieutenant with the Concord Police Department, called the issue “a problem in the community, a quiet one. It is directly related to sex slavery. A lot of the information out there is accurate. This is an underbelly kind of thing.”

In fact, Concord police recently assisted in the arrest of a Concord couple – Sou Chao Li and Derong Maio, both 37 – charged with running an interstate sex trafficking operation.

A published report said the business had branches in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, and last month the couple was held without bail in Portland, Maine, by a federal judge.

Ford was not at liberty to discuss details, but said “the case came out of a multijurisdictional scenario.”

The arrest illustrated the urgent need for a facility to help victims reclaim their lives. Cottrell said she expects the program to include five paid employees, including an executive director, a program director, two case managers and a house manager. She said it will be staffed every hour of every day and might also feature volunteers and interns.

Cottrell said government grants will be sought to help pay for the day-to-day operations. There will be six to eight beds, and victims will be housed as long as 15 months.

Different phases will be incorporated: access to basic needs like food, clothing and shelter; combating drug addiction; addressing mental health concerns; providing education; forums for job training; and a process that will cater to transitional housing.

Ayling said the services will be designed to provide the kinds of help people may need.

“They could grow up neglected or raped or have parents with mental illness or they were simply were left alone,” Ayling said. “The child might have been abused, or there could have been parents with addiction problems that kept them from being parents.”

Darlene Pawlik of Raymond experienced the worst of the worst while growing up in Atkinson and Seabrook. She came from a poor family and trusted an adult who promised her gloves and boots, but wound up pimping her out to men when she was 14.

Pawlik turned her life around, working as a nurse for 27 years before opening a small education company and earning extra income as a residential property manager. She’s 52, married and has five grown children.

“Having a shelter enabled me to get free,” Pawlik wrote in an email to the Monitor. “Shelters are absolutely the most important way to intervene in the life of a trafficking victim. Brigid’s House of Hope will offer hope and a future.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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