Ten years ago, Heather Shnyder scoffed at the idea that human trafficking was taking place in the Valley.
“I hadn’t seen any signs of it and really doubted it was happening here,” Shnyder, education specialist at Transitions of PA, said of his reluctance to learn more about the issue and educate others. .
In 2014, Pennsylvania enacted its first comprehensive anti-trafficking law designed to prosecute traffickers, protect survivors, and prevent trafficking.
Still, Pennsylvania ranks 12th in reported human trafficking cases with 221 cases reported in 2020, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Shnyder’s original concept of human trafficking was that of kidnappings, like the one portrayed in the Hollywood movie “Taken.”
“I was imagining people bound and gagged in basements,” Shnyder said.
What she’s learned over the past 10 years is that while kidnappings do happen, the scope of the problem is vast, and in some ways, even more frightening.
“Family members are trafficking other family members and it’s happening right before our eyes,” Shnyder said. “It’s global, but it’s also very local.”
Going after the most vulnerable
One of the factors that puts Pennsylvania near the top nationally, said Michael Gillum, a licensed psychologist from Williamsport, is Highway 15, which is a major artery used by traffickers and runs through Union and by Snyder.
Gillum, who is also president of the nonprofit Silent No More, has worked with victims of sex trafficking across the region and the country.
He assesses the case of a 15-year-old girl who nearly became a victim after a man in his late twenties approached her at a gas station in Montandon and offered to drive her. As they drove away, Gillum said, police noticed the man’s taillight on his vehicle was off, so he was arrested and authorities discovered he was a sex trafficker.
“Sex traffickers seek out vulnerable teenagers in hangouts and many of those places in our areas are gas stations and convenience stores,” he said.
Often relatives, friends
Traffickers are not always strangers who gain a person’s trust through financial rewards and other means, but are often relatives or friends.
A recent case in the Valley faced by Gillum involves a couple who allegedly allowed others to have sex with their five children in exchange for drugs.
The case came to light over the past year and is still being investigated as authorities and counselors work with the young victims, he said. No charges have been filed in the case.
“This is not an isolated case,” Gillum said, noting that while the number of victims in one family is unusual, many other children are victimized by their parents.
Often, Shnyder said, victims of human trafficking don’t see themselves as victims, which adds to the difficulty of fighting the crime and providing treatment.
Changing attitudes towards rape and sexual exploitation and educating court personnel, law enforcement and the general public about human trafficking is important to understanding the crime and identifying victims.
“Too many times victims are arrested,” Shnyder said, pointing out that more victims are accused of being prostitutes than sex buyers.
According to the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE Institute), there have been more arrests in the last three years in the Valley of so-called prostitutes than people who pay for their services.
“Those who sell sex rarely have a choice; they are coerced by poverty, homelessness or lack of formal education, or are exploited by a sex trafficker. Sex buyers always have a choice. A sex buyer never needs to buy sex, they just want it,” reports the CSE Institute website.
Statewide, in 2019, there were 401 arrests of people selling sex and 172 arrests of buyers of their sexual services.
Greenlight Operation, a local Cumberland County ministry that started as a nonprofit last year, is another Pennsylvania group working to raise awareness about human trafficking.
The organization reports that in 2021, there were over 40 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. Of these, approximately 403,000 victims were in the United States and 540 victims were identified in Pennsylvania in 2019.
Education is crucial
Uncovering the insidious crime of trafficking is key to catching predators and education is the starting point, experts say.
In 2019, all staff at the Evangelical Community Hospital received training on human trafficking and staff will work with Transitions of PA on other initiatives related to the issue, the hospital spokeswoman said. , Deanna Hollenbach.
Middle District U.S. Attorney John Gurganus said he will continue to push Valley counties to add resources for victims.
“Human trafficking is a serious crime and can happen in any community,” he said. “Traffickers prey on our most vulnerable citizens, often using manipulation and false promises of romantic relationships or high-paying jobs to lure victims into commercial sexual exploitation. We remain diligent in bringing these types of cases to justice and are committed to providing victims with the necessary resources at their disposal.
That sentiment is joined by Valley District prosecutors – Tony Matulewicz in Northumberland County, Michael Piecuch in Snyder, Pete Johnson in Union and Angie Mattis in Montour County.
Piecuch is currently working with state and federal authorities on several sex trafficking cases, including one involving a teenage victim who was allegedly abused by multiple people.
“It’s not like what people think of rape where the bad guy drags a woman down the aisle,” he said. “The digital age has completely changed it. The tools available to authors are now limitless. Victims don’t even need to be removed from their homes.
Piecuch said he has seen many instances where victims are reached via social media by an abuser who creates a “relationship of trust” before coercing them into sexual activity through threats.
He has had no cases of labor trafficking, but adds, “That doesn’t mean it’s not here.
Matulewicz said while Northumberland County has no active cases, his office and several police departments have investigated human trafficking offenses in the past.
“We take these reports very seriously and are actively investigating,” he said. “I am 100% behind any initiative that would provide more resources to victims.”
The issue is attracting a lot of attention at the federal level. The second annual Human Trafficking Summit was held this week with representatives from the US Department of Health and Human Services and others working to disrupt human trafficking in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia , West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Also earlier this week, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the department’s strategy to tackle the issue.
“Human trafficking is an insidious crime,” Garland said. “Traffickers exploit and endanger some of the most vulnerable members of our society and cause their victims unimaginable harm. The Ministry of Justice’s new national strategy to combat human trafficking will bring all the strength of the ministry to this fight.