Modern-day slavery and "sexploitation" is alive and well in Western Pennsylvania.
This is the message that Dr. Mary Burke, director of the Western Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Coalition, drove home at a talk organized by the the Student Non-Profit Alliance at Slippery Rock University on Oct. 1.
SRU Women's Center sponsored the talk by the Carlow College psychology professor, who stated that she became an activist against human trafficking over 10 years ago - and began a non-profit organization that evolved into the coalition.
The coalition includes volunteers, law enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, social services and medical people in Pittsburgh.
The most common form of human trafficking in Pennsylvania is cheap labor with less-than-ideal work environments. Sex trafficking also exists in the state.
According to "Human Trafficking: Pennsylvania Fights Back," a video Burke shared that can be viewed on YouTube, modern-day slavery is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world - and the second largest, after drugs.
Traffickers make $32 billion annually. "It's very profitable, compared to guns or drugs, because a person can be reused and reused and reused," Burke said. The demand for sex work and cheap labor are what drive the traffickers, who make large profits from exploiting others, she noted.
Traffickers recruit people who are vulnerable, promising false love, support and opportunity. Youths most at risk are under 18, walk to school/store alone, have access to a computer, are attracted to consumer goods, want a romantic relationship, are insecure, feel misunderstood, fight with their parents, feel their parents don't care, want more independence and test boundaries/take risks.
"That's every teenager," Burke said.
Human slavery can affect both genders, all ages, U.S. citizens and foreigners in the U.S. Females comprise 80 percent of the persons trafficked internationally, with 70 percent for sex, she said.
The U.S. Department of State estimates about 17,500 trafficked into the U.S. annually. CIA estimates are 50,000 to 100,000 women trafficked every year.
Individuals are controlled, coerced, beat, raped and psychologically intimidated by traffickers who are exploiting them.
An individual can be bought for as little as $100, Burke said. The United Nations Human Rights Agency estimates 12 million people worldwide are enslaved.
"We've had cases everywhere throughout Western Pennsylvania," said Bradley Orsini, an FBI agent from the Pittsburgh field office, on the video.
"I think it's important to educate the public that the problem is out there and could be in your neighborhood. It could be something you have seen but aren't quite sure of."
FBI staff cannot cover all speaking requests, so it trains volunteers with the coalition to talk to community groups wanting to know more about human trafficking.
Even telling one person about human trafficking is an act of activism that counts, Burke said.
Certain professionals can help stop trafficking by observing what's going on around them, and report suspicious activity to the authorities, such as tattoo artists, hotel and restaurant employees, health care workers and truckers.
Victims of gang-related sex trafficking are branded by their perpetrators with tattoos such as "cash money," "money maker" or the trafficker's name, added Krista Hoffman, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (www.pcar.org), in the video.
Prostitution doesn't just happen on the streets, but through the Internet, at fake businesses and in the suburbs. The average age for prostitution is 14, and sometimes younger, said Commander Linda Rosato Barone, City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Narcotics & Vice, in the video.
Finding out who is being trafficked and who is willingly selling street sex takes a lot of questioning by authorities, because pimps use psychological tactics and beatings to make their victims loyal to them.
Every hotel in Pittsburgh, including upscale ones, have had individuals arrested in stings by undercover police, according to the video.
Authorities are always looking for juveniles being trafficked, so that it does not lead to a lifelong habit of substance abuse supported by prostitution, it added. Most of the sex sold by adults is to support a drug habit.
"People are hesitant to call law enforcement because they don't want to create 'a federal case out of nothing.' If you think you see something, call," Orsini stated.
Truck stops are breeding grounds for prostitution. One call by a truck driver to authorities about suspicious activity led to a crackdown of a 13-state prostitution ring recently, convicting 31 offenders who were taking juveniles across state lines.
Pennsylvania is a pass-through state for traffickers to transport victims from the East Coast to the Midwest. With 3.5 million truckers on the road, criminal activity can be thwarted significantly by more drivers reporting their suspicions. One national non-profit organization exclusively fighting trafficking at truck stops is Truckers Against Trafficking.
The common labor trafficking in Pittsburgh normally involves trades like construction, restaurants, agriculture, hotels and factories. People exploited by private families is called domestic servitude.
Trafficking laws had once received an "F" rating in Pennsylvania by Shared Hope International (www.sharedhope.org), but in December 2013, legislation was passed to help victims.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor published a "List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor," with 134 products listed with the most suspected trafficking countries. There are 74 countries selling things such as coffee, diamonds, cattle, turkey, etc.
In Pittsburgh, "Living in Liberty" is the first non-profit safe house for sex trafficking survivors (www.livinginliberty.org). Standing Together Against Real Slavery (STARS), educates at-risk teens and spreads awareness at events.
Northway Christian Community in Wexford (www.northway.org) has a team of volunteers who respond to requests from the coalition for basic needs like clothing.
A number of activities were held last week at Slippery Rock University by the Student Non-Profit Alliance, whose members are non-profit management majors/minors. Every semester, the alliance has a particular causes it focuses on for a week. In March, that will be economic inequality.
Visit the Western Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Coalition at www.endhumantrafficking.org
Published Oct. 8, 2014, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201A Erie St., Grove City.