LATROBE, Pa. (AP) — A 15-year-old girl got a "no" from her mom three times before she was allowed to go on a trip with the family friend that became her sex trafficker.

Decades later, Dr. Marlene Carson spoke about the horrors and recovery that drove her to found The Switch National Anti-Trafficking Network. She was the keynote speaker at the St. Vincent Grove on a recent Saturday, for the third annual day of outreach and prayer at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, hosted by the college's campus ministry and Greensburg Diocesan Council.

Carson grew up in a suburb of Columbus within a close-knit community where she was expected to be home before the street lights turned on.

Her mom made sure she was at church every week, or she couldn't go out. If she was out after dark, she had an assigned family to take care of her. A new couple moved into town and became very active in community functions and with their local church, hosting Sunday dinners. Carson's parents would go over to play cards. The couple began taking Carson on trips with friends farther and farther from home. But Carson's mom drew the line at the New York City trip, even though the parents of three other girls said it was OK. So he told her to ask her mom when her parents were arguing.

"But my mom wasn't that slow. That didn't work for her at all," she said.

When her aunt was injured in a car accident, the man said to ask again. She got her "OK." The group of girls and the couple sang gospel songs in the car all the way to New York City. At the hotel, he asked them to wear revealing clothing. When Carson refused, he hit her friend. She complied.

"I will tell you, that weekend I was sold as a virgin girl 27 times," she said.

For eight months, her trafficker manipulated her, threatened her family, sold her body and broke her spirit. Eventually the trafficking ring was identified, the trafficker was arrested, and Carson was set free to begin her journey of recovering from the trauma.

"I was a victim," she said. "But look. I'm here. I'm standing here in front of you guys today."

A local problem

Our area is a target location used by human traffickers for transport and recruitment because of its geographic location and high youth poverty rates, advocates said.

"We are in this lovely, rural hamlet setting, but it's also ideal for traffickers," said Pat Mowen, co-chair of the Fayette County Human Trafficking Task Force.

Suspicious indications of human trafficking networks frequently spring up in Fayette County, advocates said. Last year, a suspected teen victim of human trafficking was identified, but ran from authorities. Several years ago, more than 150 workers who were identified as suspected victims disappeared overnight from a Fayette County town, eluding a raid planned for the morning. An agricultural human trafficking ring was reported in Westmoreland County. Area businesses have been identified by authorities as possible fronts for human trafficking.

"We all want to believe we live in a safe community, and we all probably do, for the most part," Carson said. "But we can't be so naive as to think this doesn't happen in our communities."

Dr. Jo Ann Jankoski, Fayette County Human Trafficking Task Force co-chair, said she was approached after a speaking event by a woman who said she was nearly lured into sex trafficking. She told Jankoski she was a social outcast who suffered from severe depression when she was approached by an older man.

"She was thrilled that this older guy loved her, and was trying to spend time with her," she said. "He was a John trying to recruit her."

Pennsylvania is a prime location for traffickers because of its location in the country and highway infrastructure, officials said.

Fayette County District Attorney Rich Bower said traffickers target multiple locations and move their victims from one target location to another.

"Where is the best place to bring someone to commit this crime? In a rural area where people don't expect it to happen. I wouldn't have expected it to happen here before I came into this office," he said.

Pennsylvania had the seventh-highest rate of human trafficking reports in the country in 2017 with 117 incident reports, according to data collected by the Human Trafficking Hotline. Eighty-seven of those reports were for sex trafficking, and 16 were reports of labor trafficking. Domestic labor was listed as the top industry for labor trafficking, and massage parlors and spa businesses were listed as the top industry for sex trafficking. The majority of the reports came from women, and more than half came from U.S. citizens.

"If you can't see it, dig deeper. Human trafficking is always underground. It's hidden in plain sight," Carson said.

Enslaving victims

Fayette County has a high youth poverty rate, second in Pennsylvania only to Philadelphia, Mowen said, making local children and teens highly susceptible to human trafficking.

Many runaway teens are lured into trafficking as they try to escape negative situations at home, such as abuse.

"Then, they are lured into another horrific lifestyle," Mowen said. "They fled from one difficult situation to a much more heinous situation."

Jankoski said the tactics can escalate quickly, for example, by offering a person work as a model. Then, a trafficker might drug the victim.

"When a kid runs away, within 24 to 48 hours we know they are being approached by a bottom girl to suck them in to this invisible, dangerous world that is around us," said Jankoski.

Drugs are often a factor in human trafficking cases, Mowen said. Traffickers provide basic needs, such as food, shelter and clothing. A victim might initially deny that they are held against their will.

Social media and free online advertising platforms are often used by traffickers for recruitment and profit.

Carson said many victims of sex trafficking are lured through fraudulent modeling opportunities as young teens. Some traffickers strike up romantic relationships. Others recruit through gangs. The majority of trafficking victims are targeted through social media, she said. Some traffickers even hire popular students at high schools to bring unpopular students to parties. Others are trapped through business opportunities, such as magazine sales, that serve as a front for a trafficking organization. Major sporting events are often hotspots for traffickers with a high number of travelers in one area.

Invisible networks

"Everyone thinks this is a small community and we don't have these problems, but we do," Bower said. "It's hidden, even from law enforcement."

Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry, according to the Polaris Project, with 20.9 million victims globally. Human trafficking is the second most profitable criminal industry in the world, second only to drug trafficking. Unlike drug trafficking, in which drugs are sold, Mowen said, "Human are recycled. That's why it continues."

"There is hope," Janskoski said. "But greed is what drives this. Just greed."

How to help

Hotels and hospitals are often the first line of defense against human trafficking, advocates said. Most traffickers will take their victims for medical care, because a sick or injured person is not useful for profit. Many hotels are locations for sex trafficking.

"You could be walking down the street with people who are victims of human trafficking, and you don't even know," Bower said.

Mowen and Jankoski said if a person is never alone or often travels in groups, it is a possible sign of trafficking. A young person accompanied by a much older person can be another indication. A person who does not know what town they are in might also be a victim.

Advocates said to never approach a suspected human trafficker, use caution if approaching a victim and only approach the person if he or she is alone and safe. A person could ask if the suspected victim is free to leave his or her job, if they would be hurt or threatened if they tried to leave, or where they sleep and eat. Carson told her audience not to be vigilantes. She told each person to find what they love, and use that to fight what they hate.

"We as a community have got to open up our eyes. We have got to pay attention," she said. "This will not happen on our watch. Not with our babies."




Information from: Herald-Standard,