Human Trafficking: Modern Day Slavery in Pittsburgh

“I think there is a perception that human trafficking is something that happens in large, urban centers or on the coast,” said Elizabeth Miller, chief of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

But she often sees girls and women with mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder, along with those who need treatment for physical issues like sexually transmitted diseases, malnutrition and other health consequences of trafficking. “This is really uncomfortable stuff, to think that there are young people in our community where adults who should be taking care of them are exploiting them — using them sexually.”

Legally, human trafficking is compelling a person by force, fraud or deception into forced labor, domestic servitude or sexual commerce, or enlisting a minor in the sex trade. “We call this modern-day slavery,” said U.S. Attorney David Hickton. “There are many people here who are not here voluntarily, who are being oppressed, who are being subjected to substandard housing, substandard labor conditions, and often are being used for sexual purposes.”

Subtle clues include unnecessary bars on windows, people frequently coming and going in residential areas, businesses — such as massage parlors — open in the middle of the night, said Mary C. Burke, executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Coalition  and director of training for the doctoral program in counseling psychology at Carlow University.

“If a new business pops up, and it just says ‘Massage’ up front, and there’s no phone number and you can’t see in the windows, that may be an indication” of illicit activity, said Brad Orsini, FBI supervisory special agent. The FBI has a specialist whose job is to take an initial assessment and reach out to coalition members and social service providers so that victims can be connected to services.

The city is seeing both sexual and labor trafficking, said Pittsburgh police narcotics and vice Commander Linda Barone. “We see the restaurants, the Vietnamese, Chinese restaurants, where they bring people over to work in these restaurants and they have to pay their debt for getting over,” she said.

When trafficking victims are rescued, they need places to stay. Elizabeth Echevarria founded the group Living in Liberty that provides a safe house in the Pittsburgh area where up to four women can stay until they get back on their feet. Most of the women who have been helped since the safe house opened in August are foreigners who speak little English, though Ms. Echevarria said it’s just as likely that she will provide housing for domestic victims as well. Living in Liberty also provides counseling, job training, English lessons and other programs for women and families in need. The group is now seeking to find a safe house where children could also stay, and plans a May fundraiser to help with the cost.

Legislative changes are sorely needed in Pennsylvania, according to the nonprofit group Shared Hope, which recently completed a comprehensive study of existing state laws to combat domestic minor sex trafficking. Pennsylvania received an F grade from the group, and at least one state senator is aiming to change that. State Senator Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, proposed legislation to aid prosecutors that redefines trafficking and provides increased criminal penalties. It passed the Senate and has moved to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.

Learn more at Janice Crompton’s and Rich Lord’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article: Human trafficking: modern-day slavery.

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