A Circle of Mistrust
Feb 09, 2015 04:19PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
When Jessica O’Kane is asked about the effort to stop human trafficking, her response reflects her feeling that it has progressed to the point that she can offer a simple, one-word response:
O’Kane, the chair of the Anne Arundel County Commission for Women, feels that, due to the efforts of the federal and local governments, law enforcement agencies, and affected business sectors—notably the hotel industry—all concerned are becoming more aware of how they can thwart this ugly specter of society.
The commission held a panel in collaboration with Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) several months ago and O’Kane estimated that about 100 people attended. “We could see that our efforts were starting to pay off and that the word is getting out,” she said. “You see more posters concerning the issue around BWI [Thurgood Marshall] Airport, for instance.”
That’s the good news, but the numbers today are staggering: There are 300,000 victims in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice; and the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime has reported that 27 million victims around the world are caught in the tragic web of a $30 billion industry.
Last year in Maryland, the Human Trafficking Task Force reported that the 12 help centers in Central Maryland counted 217 survivors, including 155 adults, and 62 children.
Spreading the Word
Just prior to the commission’s forum, AACC held a week-long event to delve into the topic. All told, O’Kane said those educational efforts resulted in increased media exposure (including an article in The Capital), spurring even more awareness.
The forum focused on the domestic angle and how human trafficking occurs closer to home than the public realizes, especially around transportation hubs like airports, train stations, and interstate highways. “People need to understand that it’s not just foreign victims,” she said. “It’s happening in your area and even sometimes your neighborhoods.”
Part of what made the commission’s presentation at AACC powerful, said O’Kane, was the contribution of a panel member, Stacy Jewell Lewis, who became a victim at 19. She has spent considerable time talking to groups and heightening awareness of human trafficking.
“She did a wonderful job in explaining to the audience just how this can happen,” O’Kane said. “She was targeted in the D.C. area. One day when she was walking home and she accepted a ride from an elderly man. He proceeded to take her to a pimp. She didn’t get away until two years later.”
Efforts to contact Lewis for comment for this article were unsuccessful.
How It Happens
Also on the forum panel was Dan Dickey, a federal task force officer who is assigned to the FBI’s Maryland Child Exploitation Unit and works through the Anne Arundel County Police Department.
“From my perspective, what we’re seeing is mostly from the local area. These victims are being flown in from other places, throughout the country, even some internationally,” said Dickey. “In Anne Arundel County, a great deal of human trafficking takes place around BWI Marshall, also due to AMTRAK, MARC, the light rail, the car rental facility, and even the Greyhound bus station on Russell Street in Baltimore City. We always watch the transportation alleys.”
Dickey said that the hotels around the airport “are extremely cooperative about the red flags in various rooms. They don’t need to prove what happens, we just want them to call and let us do it.”
He added that his unit has held training seminars at all of the airport area hotels, noting that Marriott Corp. holds an annual meeting at the BWI Marriott to invite the authorities to discuss trends.
Whether management knows what’s happening on a given day or doesn’t, “I can’t say,” said Amanda Rodriguez, manager of domestic violence and human trafficking policy for the Governor’s Office of Crime, Control, and Prevention, “but I think the people with the most information are the front desk staff and housekeeping. There are often condom wrappers in rooms where this goes on, for instance.”
Another clue is that the pimps rent more than one hotel room. “He may have his own room, then rent another to offer services,” Rodriguez said. “When you pull records, you can see that the pimps consistently go to the same place over and over. If you see a male coming in with a couple of young females, the bells should go off.”
Human trafficking encompasses many of the same characteristics as drug trafficking and gun running, Dickey said. “I don’t have quantitative numbers, but I can tell you that when we put three decoy ads on Backpage.com or Craigslist.com, within 72 hours we’ll have 60 to 80 contacts and anywhere from 8 to15 will show up,” he said. “And we act accordingly.”
As O’Kane mentioned, the public can’t understand how the victims fall into such circumstances, but it happens a variety of ways. “I’ve assisted girls from broken families who have abusive boyfriends, yet others are 100 percent straight arrows who got roped in with the wrong guy,” said Dickey.
One aspect of Stacy Jewell Lewis’ story that is crucial to point out is that she’s somewhat of an exception, as the average life expectancy of a prostitute or trafficking victim, after they enter that world, is around seven years. They often commit suicide.
“The problem is that we may have interaction with them, but the police are presented as the bad guys by their pimps,” said Dickey, “who the victims often see as their caretaker.”
Dickey said the police have options to arrest the victims, get them help, etc. There are plenty of success stories, but for the police to proceed, “the victims need to trust us, so they see that we are here to help them make their own way.”
The trend today is that streetwalkers are disappearing due to the popularity of the Internet, which rends ringleaders practically invisible. “In the Net world,” Dickey said, “you’re not paying for the act, but the allotment of time, up to $200 an hour. [And] Nothing is paid for in cash,” with Green Dot and Vanilla cards the rule (prepaid Visa or Mastercard debit cards). And sex can be sold over and over.
While trafficking doesn’t happen much on the street anymore, there are areas in the Anne Arundel County where it still occurs. They include Route 198 around Laurel Park, in Brooklyn Park on 4th Street and Ritchie Highway, and in Annapolis on the stretch of West Street between Chinquapin Round Road and Clay Street.
The Next Step
Jurisdictions are prosecuting, with sentences for the pimp ringleader ranging from one year in jail to upwards of 35. But most all cases are dependent on the victim testifying. Relatively few pimps have done much, if any, time, due to the recent human trafficking laws that went into effect. “If the girl doesn’t testify or say much if she does, and she is our primary evidence in that case, the pimp or trafficker may get a lighter sentence,” said Joshua Mouton, detective first class with neighboring Howard County Police.
Mouton said that he’s been the only vice detective in his position with Howard County’s Police Department and that the human trafficking cases have generally come to him. He has other duties that take up considerable amounts of time, as well.
“At the moment, it’s not how many pimps we arrest, but how many cases we can investigate,” he said. “Until the last couple of years, we didn’t know ourselves just how bad the problem of human trafficking is. We’re going to discover some things. No doubt, people will be surprised by what we come up with.”
O’Kane agreed and is relieved that the society is becoming more aware.
“As more and more people get educated as to what human trafficking is and how to help, hopefully the number of incidents will decrease,” she said, noting that federal legislation, called the Uniform Act on Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking, is pending.
“That’s important,” she added, “as we’ve seen, the local police departments obviously have limited budget and staff to pursue this issue.”
What also has to improve, she said, is the public’s perception of the victims. “When people think of prostitution, they blame the prostitute for being in that situation, but most were sexually abused as children,” said O’Kane. “The public has never been empathetic to the victims,” she said. “We want to change their perception.”