Browsing through classified ads websites, it’s not hard to find plenty of leads for human trafficking investigations—shady offers of “entertainment” or outright prostitution abound.
Why then, did the Justice Department open fewer than 250 human trafficking prosecutions last year and secure fewer than 450 convictions?
A human trafficking case is a tough nut to crack.
“The biggest challenge is to get the cooperation of the victim,” said Inspector Jim Klein, commander of the NYPD Vice Enforcement Unit, which combats human trafficking in the city of 8 million.
Police often rely on the person who is trafficked to testify against the pimp. But many “victims don’t identify as victims” and “show a loyalty to their captor, to their pimp,” Klein said.
People subject to sex trafficking are typically girls and boys averaging 14-15 years old.
“The only world they know is based around their pimp, and it’s controlled by coercion, it’s controlled by fraud, it’s controlled by force, and so, when a girl or a person is rescued by the NYPD and we’re asking them to testify, to cooperate with us against their pimp, it’s very hard to get that cooperation,” Klein said.
Ali, a former prostitute, agrees.
“In the beginning, it’s easy for them to manipulate you when you have nothing, and they are literally providing you with everything, and they have that control over you,” she said.
She was even willing to endure physical abuse.
Pimps learn to exploit whatever weakness the boys and girls may have (one-third of juvenile sex trafficking victims are estimated to be boys).
For Ali it was her heroin addiction. For others it could be a lack of legal immigration status.
“He had this charisma about him. I was just very sexually attracted to him,” Lacy said.
She left him multiple times, and came back to him time and time again.
“I wanted to be his friend. I didn’t want to be his prostitute. I just wanted to have a relationship with him,” she said.
But he always convinced her to prostitute.
Prostitution can function similarly to an addiction, according to Jody Williams, who founded Sex Workers Anonymous, a volunteer network of support groups for former prostitutes and others in the sex industry.
Just like with drug addicts, prostitutes often quit and then relapse. Or, just like drug addicts, they don’t want to quit at all.
“We have a girl who is 14 years old,” Klein shared. “She runs away from her home in South Carolina. And the sad thing about this story is at 12 years old she was being trafficked in South Carolina. She runs away, she comes up to NYC, she meets a pimp who’s related to her pimp in South Carolina, and he’s posting her on Backpage [classified ads website]. And he’s setting up dates in hotels in and around NYC. And this 14-year-old girl is fully aware of what she’s doing to the point a 14-year-old girl can really comprehend what she’s doing. It’s scary sad when a 14-year-old girl is walking down that street hand in hand with her captor and thinking, ‘This is normal, this is what 14-year-old girls do. I’ve been doing this since I was 12 years old.’”
The girl’s family tracked her down, came to New York and also called the police.
“We finally locate this girl. After we locate her pimp, who abandoned her in the Bronx. And we lock him up. He’s playing Mr. Innocent, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just trying to help her.’ We finally track her down and we rescue her, and she had nothing but contempt for the NYPD, ‘Everything was going fine until you guys got involved.’ Well, you know, a 14-year-old telling us that is kind of sad, but giving her back to her mother and her brother was pretty rewarding. So as frustrating as it was to hear a 14-year-old girl to have to suffer through that kind of situation, it was pretty rewarding for my team, for myself, to understand we’ve got this 14-year-old girl and we put her back together with her family,” Klein said.
“You want to hear the frustrating part about it? Right after that she runs away again and she’s back in NYC. But the good thing is, we caught her again. We were able to reunite her with the family and she’s getting help.”
Comparing prostitution to an addiction may give the idea that prostitutes are addicted to sex. But that’s not necessarily the case.
“There is an element of that too, but I don’t think that’s the main force that drives a prostitute to be a prostitute,” Lacy said.
In retrospect, she identified two factors that pulled her to prostitution: the ability to make money fast and a lifestyle of not caring about anything.
Sex Workers Anonymous follows a 12-step program similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous. It not only helps the prostitutes quit, but also re-examines their values and beliefs and helps them learn how to function outside of prostitution.
Williams discovered many prostitutes don’t want to quit, but change their minds when provided a viable alternative.
Yet providing that alternative is the hard part. Klein said he has trouble even finding a safe place to spend the night and have a meal for the survivors his team encounters.
“There are not many places that we can place these children, places that are secure. We could place them in homes provided by the ACS [Administration for Children’s Services], but they are not secure places. These kids can walk away. And the bad guys know that. The bad guys know where these places are. And they go there. And they wait. And they'll recruit right from these locations,” he said.
Another problem with weeding out human trafficking is its transient nature.
Prostitutes no longer need to stand on a notorious street corner. They just need to put their phone numbers online. They could be at a different motel every day.
The online ads are easily found by the law enforcement, but their sheer volume makes it hard for police to get a grip on the problem.
One social media site alone posts 2000 prostitution ads per hour, according to NYPD.
So how bad is the problem? Nobody knows for sure. There are an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 prostitutes in the United States. An unknown number of them are underage or under coercion.
Klein swears by his team of detectives and vows to do even better, but he also acknowledged arresting people can only take us so far. There are deeper causes in the bones of society that everyone needs to reflect on.