For many parents struggling with a teenager bent on getting more freedom, a drop-off at the mall on a Friday night has long been seen as a safe compromise. The youths have the chance to roam while their parents feel good knowing they are in a contained, public environment. But most parents would be shocked to know that shopping malls are a hunting ground for those looking to recruit teenagers into the dark world of human trafficking.
“I could walk through any mall and point them out to you,” Elizabeth Fildes, a deputy with the Erie County Sheriff’s Department, said, referring to men and women on the prowl for vulnerable youths. “I hear about these parents who drop their kids at the mall alone and I think to myself, ‘Are you crazy?’” Fildes has spent 30 years working to end human trafficking.
In western New York, law enforcement officers rescued more than 400 victims in the past five years. That includes victims of both sex and labor trafficking, and like the global statistics, it’s a small percentage of the victims known to be out there.
When Fildes began her career, women who were found to be selling sex were arrested and charged as criminals. There was no consideration at the time that perhaps they were victims of a crime. That mentality has been slow to change. “I saw girls as young as 16 and as old as 60 brought in on prostitution charges,” Fildes said. “They came in abused, beaten, scarred up, burned and were then revictimized by the court system. As a young detective, I began to ask a lot of questions. What I found out was that most of them worked for someone and were forced to give up all of the money they earned.”
For too long, she said, law enforcement “turned a blind eye” to what was going on. The result? Girls circling back through the system and landing in jail for prostitution, drug charges and other crimes that could have been traced to their victimization, had the proper questions been asked. Advances in the way law enforcement handles youths who may be involved in sex trafficking have been aided by the passage of the Safe Harbor Act, which ensures that youths working in sex trades will no longer be prosecuted as criminals. Instead they will be given support and services to assist them in breaking free of what often becomes a vicious cycle.
Still, there is a gross shortage of services at the state and national levels. According to one study, there are less than 125 beds available nationally. There is still resistance to seeing these girls as victims and not prosecuting them and punishing them. According to Fildes, much of the success in western New York in rescuing victims can be attributed to multiple organizations that are collaborating on efforts to eradicate trafficking.
Yet, until people truly understand the depth of the problem in Western New York, it will be difficult to stop the flow of victims.
Learn more at Matt Chandler’s Buffalo Business First article: Human trafficking in WNY a ‘major problem’.