Cracking down on human trafficking

12-31-2017 human traffickingHuman trafficking – also known as modern slavery – is rapidly on the rise nationally and right here in Montgomery County, in the form of both sex trafficking and forced labor. I’ve been working on this issue for years. And last month, I organized a first-ever 1½-hour presentation for a joint meeting of the council’s Public Safety and Health and Human Services committees.

The county has a responsibility to not only crack down on human traffickers, but do whatever we can to help the survivors, most of whom are girls and young women.

What do these survivors need? Safe housing. Education. Job training and placement. Drug and mental health treatment.

That’s what experts from law enforcement, nonprofits, social service agencies and the medical community told councilmembers during the briefing.                                                    

Among those speaking was Andrea Powell, executive director of FAIR Girls, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that provides services to female survivors, including a safe house where the girls — some as young as 12 — and young women can live securely while they receive the counseling, job training and other services they need to get their lives back on track.

FAIR Girls — FAIR stands for Free Aware Inspired Restored — has served more than 1,000 young female survivors of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation in the past decade. Annually, it provides safe shelter and life skills to 50 survivors ages 18 to 24; about half the young women are from or were trafficked into Maryland.  

Other speakers included Heidi Alvarez, from the University of Maryland’s SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors; Jessica Volz, a registered nurse at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center and co-chairwoman of the new county committee’s Victim Services Subcommittee; Sgt. Dave Papalia, head of the Montgomery County Police Department’s Vice and Intelligence Unit; and Assistant County Police Chief Russ Hamill. All are active members of the county’s new Human Trafficking Prevention Committee.

Papalia and Hamill reported on the nearly tenfold rise in human trafficking cases in the past three years in the county, from three to 29 – all of which involved forced sex work. Likewise, the number of arrests and warrants has grown from two to 16. Advocates are confident these numbers are greatly underreported.

Much of the coerced sex trafficking in Montgomery County occurs at its hotels, especially in Gaithersburg, Rockville and Silver Spring. Police are working more closely with these hotels to have staff detect and report suspected sex trafficking, Papalia and Hamill said.

Earlier this year, I sponsored successful legislation creating the first civil penalty our police can now assess on men who are creating the market for human trafficking by soliciting prostitution. We are giving police more tools like this to crack down on sex traffickers and “johns” here in the county, but we can – and must – do much more.

Our police force needs more detectives dedicated to fighting this scourge. Our county’s social service agencies and nonprofits need more resources to help its survivors. We can’t sit idly by and let this horrible business flourish in Montgomery Count

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