BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — According to the Southern Tier Anti-Trafficking Task Force, sex trafficking is subtle but widespread. Hoping to help people identify trafficking survivors and form multiple circles of protection around them, they’re conducting a series of webinars for National Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
Members of the task force come from eight counties and include counselors, legal advocates, police officers, Homeland Security officials and an agent with the FBI.
Jenn Rodzinka, foster care program coordinator at the Berkshire Farm Center for Services and Youth and the co-chair of the task force’s outreach committee, said each member offers survivors a different way out.
“This is not any one person’s battle,” Rodzinka explained. “This is such a huge undertaking and it really takes a community to encircle these survivors, to empower them.”
Their goal is to educate different groups, from law enforcement and educators to parents and caregivers, on the warning signs of human trafficking. The more people who can look for signs, the more survivors are reached, said Rodzinka.
“The more educated our community gets the more opportunities people will have to step up and just surround them and give them multiple options to get out, so when they feel that they’re ready, they’re ready.”
Jessica Hyatt is a member of the task force and oversees Broome County’s Safe Harbour program. It serves survivors and helps organizations identify people at risk.
With the task force, Hyatt works to help more professionals recognize signs of trafficking. One group that would benefit most from the training are medical professionals, Hyatt said.
According to the Polaris Project, which researches trafficking worldwide, 85 percent of trafficking survivors said they received medical treatment for an illness or injury directly related to their exploitation, but 57 percent were never asked about trafficking or abuse during their appointment.
Hyatt said she once worked with a survivor who went to the emergency room for severe dehydration.
“Everything else was kind of overlooked because they were just looking at the dehydration—they’re just looking at the medical,” Hyatt said. “We really want to train them on digging a little deeper and thinking outside the box a little more of what could be happening to that person.”
That way, survivors in danger won’t slip past people who can help. Hyatt currently sits on the steering committee for a trafficking education campaign run by Our Lady of Lourdes Memorial Hospital in Binghamton.
Hotel clerks also commonly see victims of human trafficking. Before the pandemic, members of the task force went to every hotel in Broome County and talked to managers about the warning signs. The task force provided bars of soap labeled with the number of the Crime Victim Assistance Center’s hotline for each hotel room.
Hyatt said the task force wants to promote safe practices for helping survivors and increase the amount of information readily available wherever they go.
“In bus stations and all of those different places—how can we promote this and how can we put up information that might help anybody who might be a potential victim?” Hyatt emphasized.
Signs of trafficking can be subtle and secretive. It’s increasingly common online, where predatory adults might groom kids over social media and video games, sending them presents in exchange for explicit photos. The perpetrators learn a child’s weaknesses and begin to build trust.
Other warning signs include repeatedly running away from home, episodes of homelessness, having money or possessions a child would not otherwise obtain, and changing their stories each time they’re asked for an explanation.
A victim’s background can also be an indicator, especially if they experience abuse at home. According to Rodzinka, between 65 and 90 percent of people who are trafficked are in the child welfare system.
“That is because they don’t have stability, they don’t have that self-confidence,” Rodzinka said. “They have lots of abandonment issues and rejection, and they’re looking for love and they don’t even know what love is.”
Kids from families with lower incomes, children with developmental disabilities and LGBTQ youth are frequently targeted by traffickers.
Part of the task force’s efforts includes training police, schools and youth-focused agencies to use a comprehensive screening tool from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. If a child checks at least one box on the assessment, the child can then be referred to services at a county Safe Harbour and a caseworker will then further assess the child for signs of trafficking.
In 2020, 91 people sought help from Broome County’s Safe Harbour. That’s up about 5 percent from years prior. Similarly, the Polaris Project saw a 40 percent increase in the number of crisis trafficking situations from a 30-day period in February and March to April, when shelter-in-place measures were enforced.
Rodzinka, however, stressed the number of cases reported hardly indicates the full scope of people trafficked.
“That number, 91, is just a small percentage of the reality of what’s happening in this area because most trafficking cases go completely unreported,” Rodzinka said.
The survivors who Hyatt works with at Safe Harbour often reach out for help one week and disappear the next, only to resurface months later. The violent control and trauma of trafficking make escape difficult. However, each time a survivor reaches out is a chance for someone to plant seeds of hope and instill confidence in them.
“They may go to Jess and have one conversation with her over at Safe Harbour and she plants those seeds, and they come over here, and we plant those seeds, and then they go to a pregnancy resource center to talk about their options, and they plant those seeds,” Rodzinka said.
It’s a matter of creating a wide net of support so, eventually, survivors won’t fall through.
The task force will hold its last webinar of Human Trafficking Awareness Month on Friday, January 29.