Prostitution, human trafficking county's secret problem
By BRIANNE OSTRANDER, The (Towanda) Daily Review
Mar. 31, 2018
TOWANDA, Pa. (AP) — Human trafficking. Prostitution. It's not just happening in foreign places too distant, unnamed people represented only by numbers in a statistic. It's happening in Bradford County too — it's just hard to see.
Young girls have been sold by their father to visiting hunters for sex in exchange for money to buy Christmas presents in Bradford County. Women have been transported from Canton to Williamsport to be sold to men there or decide to offer themselves within the county for sex in exchange for money to pay rent or to fund their struggle with addiction.
Area police departments, social workers, the district attorney — all confirm that sex crimes are being committed locally; they're just difficult to prove and hard to prosecute, tucked away beneath the atmosphere of friendly, sleepy, farm town Pennsylvania.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline's website, Pennsylvania ranked ninth highest in the United States for human trafficking cases, including both sex and labor trafficking, in 2017.
Of these cases, 87 out of 117 dealt with sex trafficking specifically, while 98 of the incidents were against women.
Pennsylvania has staggered on the list of cases of human trafficking each year, being named the 11th highest state for trafficking in 2013, 16th highest in 2015, and 14th highest in 2016.
While it's tempting to believe that the commonwealth's sex trafficking and prostitution are retained within the borders of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, that's just not the truth. It's not around every corner locally, not advertised in brothels or red light districts, not happening in extremely high numbers, but it is happening, according to local law enforcement and social workers.
"It's an issue in this county, there's no doubt about it," said Athens Township Police Chief Roger Clink.
"I know it's here," expressed Debbie Colton, founder of Oasis of Hope, a local ministry offering a safe place to live and rehabilitation treatment for women who have survived human trafficking. "You don't see it, it's pretty well hidden yet, but . it is here."
Though there has been one incident of an organized prostitution bust at Green Tea Massage and Spa in Athens Township many years ago, according to Clink, the much more active type of prostitution locally are isolated incidents such as where buyers use the internet to find prostitutes.
"Just because it's not jumping out at us . doesn't mean it's not there," said a Canton Borough police officer who spoke under conditions of anonymity. He was involved in arresting 12 individuals when the department posted a fake profile in efforts to bring individuals soliciting sex in the area through online sources to justice.
Though rural Bradford County has presumably far fewer incidents of prostitution and human trafficking than areas with bigger populations, one could do a quick Craigslist search and see individuals seeking or offering sex in Athens, Sayre, Towanda, Troy, Canton, even Ulster and Gillett. However, money wasn't often distinctly spoken of in the ads.
As of March 23, Craigslist personal advertisements have been taken offline by the site and replaced with a note from the page's officials explaining that Congress's recently passed HR 1865, "FOSTA" holds sites responsible for potential unlawful use of online personal ads by the public — a legal risk Craigslist is not willing to take.
"The internet plays a huge part in prostitution, and so that means that it can be happening in rural areas," stated Colton.
The difference between prostitution and sex trafficking is a thin line, and what it boils down to is consent.
Unlike prostitution, sex trafficking happens when men or women are sold for sexual favors and do not have a choice.
Colton shared that consent can be manipulated, however.
"I find that even the girls that are in prostituting, prostituting themselves out, it's not their choice. There's nobody that woke up one day and said, 'Hey, I guess I'll be a prostitute,' so it's survival, what we refer to as survival sex. They either have children that are hungry or for themselves."
Clink, as well as Canton police, said this sort of "survival sex" is difficult for law enforcement to handle. They know adults within their jurisdiction are prostituting themselves, but they often don't have enough evidence to investigate and don't have the man power to assign officers to the issue specifically.
"Discreet prostitution frequently stays under the radar," said Bradford County District Attorney Dan Barrett, elaborating that the county does not have an investigative unit designated to this type of crime and it often doesn't catch the attention of police until larger crimes are committed surrounding it, such as burglary or assault.
Amy Miller, a representative of the Abuse and Rape Crisis Center in Bradford County, explained that while the ARCC hasn't dealt with many cases of prostitution or sex trafficking in the area, many incidents she has worked with show what Colton referred to as "survival sex" in another manner — sex trafficking in the form of adults selling their children for sex in exchange for amenities.
"What we've seen more is parents trafficking their kids. They traffic their kids for drugs, they traffic their kids for rent money, they traffic their kids for whatever. We've interacted with the victims usually when they're actually in adulthood. So they're not currently being victimized, but maybe they were a victim of domestic violence or other sexual assault. . They'll disclose to us that what happened was their mom would sell them to the landlord or to other things in trade for rent and/or drugs, or both, and sadly that's not as uncommon as you wish it would be," Miller said.
While the causes of prostitution and human sex trafficking are many and should not be over-simplified, Barrett, Clink and Colton all pointed to two contributing factors to prostitution and human trafficking that are relevant in Bradford County — drugs and pornography addiction.
"Pornography plays a huge part in prostitution, it plays a huge part in human trafficking. . (They've) referred to pornography as the 21st century drug. It is an addiction. It's no different than heroin or any of the other drugs that are out there today. In fact, it is addictive if not more," stated Colton.
She described pornography as a fuel for prostitution and sex trafficking saying many individuals who are involved in pornography addiction turn to purchasing sex in order to act out scenarios they've seen in adult films. Of the survivors she's worked with, Colton estimated that 95 percent began in pornography since traffickers often force them to be filmed.
Speaking of prostitution as related to drugs, Colton said, "It's definitely in the area. Wherever there's drugs there's prostitution. Drugs bring prostitution. It makes people do crazy things. It's a way women — once they get hooked on drugs, they don't have money to do it — it's the way they can. And even men. I mean, men are involved in prostitution as much as women, and it doesn't exclude anybody . some of the top buyers of prostitution are lawyers and judges and police officers . pastors, youth leaders. And a lot of it, the root of the problem, is pornography is what gets them started."
Miller shared the same sentiment, stating, "Drug trafficking, human trafficking, billions of dollars of industry — so I think it would be a naïve viewpoint if people didn't think it were happening here. I mean, the opioid epidemic and everything like that, and you're talking billions and billions of dollars. A lot of people, I think, get a picture of human trafficking in their head, that it's an immigrant and it's sex, and it's in a weird house or in a truck, but that's not the majority of it. It could be you or I. It kind of can be anybody."
Signals of human trafficking or prostitution often arise in hotels or medical settings, but Miller said people should be aware if they encounter individuals that appear subdued, seem to be with someone who will not let them out of their sight or are speaking or handling money for them.
Individuals in the area don't want to believe it's here, she explained, because it's frightening, "horrible" and they don't want to believe that people they know could be capable of committing such crimes. But turning a blind eye could come at the cost of a victim, adult or child, suffering longer.
Miller urged locals to not be afraid to report strange occurrences to police.
"If people are seeing something, take it from the opioid thing, the 'see something, say something.' If you see something odd say something, because it does happen," she said.
Miller also encouraged individuals with concerns to call the Polaris hotline, which is a non-government organization that works to combat human trafficking.
"They'll do an investigation . and if it's nothing, it's nothing," Miller said. "But if it's something, you might have saved somebody's life."
Information from: The Daily Review, http://www.thedailyreview.com