Selling Innocence: Human Trafficking Along the I-90 Corridor
The selling and purchasing of human beings happens every day in America, and the Erie area is no exception.
"This is happening in Erie, Pennsylvania, this is happening everywhere,” Paul Lukach, executive director of the Crime Victim Center said. “It's not foreigners coming into our country, most of the time it's domestic people, they're stealing our children they're stealing our young ones and forcing them into human and sex trafficking."
Much of the trafficking that happens in Erie occurs on highways like the I-90 Corridor which connects Erie to major throughways and cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. This makes Erie a prime location for traffickers and a constant battle for law enforcement agencies and community organizations trying to save victims from modern day slavery.
“As drugs travel, people travel, I-79 and I-90 intersect, we're an hour and half from I-80, which means that people are brought here, they're sold for a couple of days and they're moved onward," Betsy Wiest, the social justice coordinator for the Sisters of St. Joseph, said.
"They are trafficking victims so fast through cities, and they are very organized for all wrong reasons,” Lukach said. “When the heat gets raised they get on to another city."
Part of the heat comes from the work of community organizations and law enforcement like Millcreek Police and the FBI, which helped in the first prosecution of sex traffickers in the Erie area last year. Another law enforcement group in the fight against human trafficking is U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which along with the FBI and local law enforcement identified many victims of human trafficking in Pennsylvania last year.
"The exact number is not known because this type of crime often goes under reported,” U.S. Border Patrol Agent Robert Signorino said. “In Pennsylvania, last year there were 127 cases reported with over 250 victims identified.”
The agency has the Blue Campaign, a means for reporting suspected human trafficking, and the See Something Say Something campaign to educate the public on identifying suspicious activities and reporting them to the proper authorities.
"The United States Border Patrol is often used as a threat to help control victims of human trafficking but being identified by us could be the lifeline needed to help break the cycle of control and fear," Signorino said.
Joining them in helping break that cycle are community groups like the Crime Victim Center, Sisters of St. Joseph, Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and Gannon University. For many years, the groups have promoted awareness, provided advocacy, and helped victims of human trafficking directly. The latter two have partnered with the national “Saving Our Adolescents from Prostitution” project, taking informational packets to local motels, hotels, and gas stations with soap, and red flags to look out for people to identify victims.
“We put the National Human Trafficking Hotline on them with a label, we distribute them to rest stops on the interstates, we take them to Country Fairs,” president of the Northwestern Pennsylvania synodical women’s organization Patricia Bellingham said. “We take them wherever a kiddo might use the bathroom, in the past year or so we've distributed thousands and thousands of bars of soap.”
The Sisters of St. Joseph were one of the first to raise awareness of the issue in the Erie area.
"We have sponsored films, we have spoken to people, we have done trainings, we have partnered with the Crime Victims Center in bringing awareness,” Wiest said. “We have partnered with the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority who has put bus placards in their buses that talk about human trafficking.”
They are currently also partnering with several lawmakers in the area to make the rest stop signage, that warns of human trafficking and gives the National Human Trafficking Hotline number, more effective. Currently, most signs are posted only in the lobby areas of rest stops, but House Bill 1513, pushed by State Representative Bob Merski and others, plans to place the signs directly in bathroom stalls. This will allow the victim to see the number without the pressure or fear of their trafficker being present.
Still with all the work being done by community organizations and law enforcement, there are ways the public can help fight human trafficking as well. One of the main ways traffickers acquire victims is through online interactions with minors. Posing as a minor, traffickers will establish online relationships with real children and teens, a process experts call grooming. This is one reason advocates like Wiest and Bellingham recommend monitoring your child’s online activity.
Another way to help is to look for signs. National child advocate Rhonda Sciortino suggests five signs that could indicate a person is being trafficked. Some signs could be that the young person is dressed inappropriately or the adult seems mismatched with the young person. Drugs are one of the most powerful tools traffickers use to control victims, so a child looking sleepy or drugged could be an indicator that something’s wrong. Another sign is the young person seems anxious or scared or is in an inappropriate place or out at an odd time.
"For example, you’re coming home from a move at night and you see a girl who can't be more than 11 or 13 years old standing outside a bar,” Sciortino, said.
There could be more signs as well, but ultimately you get the feeling that something just doesn't seem right.
“Learn normal patterns of behavior, when something is out of place you will notice it, Signorino said.
If you believe you or someone else may be a victim of human trafficking contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline for help, 1-888-3737-888.
"If we can save one person, then it's worth all the work and all the effort," Wiest said.
READ MORE: Selling Innocence: Survival and Recovery