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Pennsylvania’s sex trafficking problem misunderstood

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(The Center Square) – Few understand the complexity and scope of sex trafficking in Pennsylvania, experts say, making it harder to combat the issue at the legislative level.

The seminal issue arose during the Senate Majority Policy Committee’s recent public hearing in Pittsburgh in keeping with Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

While experts and law enforcement professionals were happy to have the spotlight shown on a little-understood issue pervading the state, the hearing demonstrated a need to align language, priorities and interests around the topic.

The committee heard testimony from experts ranging from law enforcement professionals to those working in outreach, education and victim services, who emphasized the widespread and home-grown nature of the crime.

“These cases are not what you see in Hollywood,” said Michele Kelly Walsh, executive deputy attorney for the state’s Office of Attorney General.

Testifiers said that most victims are from the communities where they’re trafficked, often vulnerable young women experiencing personal hardships like drug addiction and homelessness. Predators use these vulnerabilities to draw them in, offering opportunities before trapping them in a life of slavery.

The issue sits at the intersection of several problems pressing the state, including crises in mental health, homelessness and drug addiction. Human trafficking is on the rise, in large part because the sale can be replicated over and over once a victim has been enslaved.

“It’s hard to identify those victims of human trafficking and hard to prosecute,” said Kathy Buckley, director of the PA Office of Victim Services. Many who have been trafficked as children are not aware they are the victim of a crime, while many adults don’t want to self-identify.

Sen. Cris Dush, R-Brookville, noted that survivors he’d spoken with would never call a hotline.

Part of the problem relates to the criminalization of sex work. Because the labor they’re forced into is a crime, victims are hesitant to come forward. Many have also been charged with other offenses during their enslavement, like theft and assault.

Brad Ortenzi, retired detective and Eastern USA Regional Director of Zoe International, noted that organizations like his are crucial to bridging the gap between enforcement and victims.

“As a retired detective, I can tell you that law enforcement is not always easy to work with, but from a services side, they’re not speaking the same language,” he said.

“It’s critically important that we center the needs of survivors who are really expertised at their lived experience and know what they need best,” said Sidney McCoy, director of advocacy for Shared Hope International.

Senate Republicans took the opportunity to capitalize on the political traction of the crime to meander into mentions of the southern border, Jeffrey Epstein, and human smuggling. Majotity Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, reminded the audience that attorneys general are elected officials, and the “quality of law enforcement” is “in the hands of the voter.”

Pittman later attempted to draw a contrast between efforts in the United States and perceived problems abroad, asking Jordan Pine, founder and CEO of Greenlight Operation for her reaction.

“When we talk about everything from our educational efforts to the safety net to the engagement of our law enforcement, our expertise, our resources, I just can’t believe that many others can be even comparable to what we’re trying to do on this front,” Pittman said.

Pine noted that she was first made aware of the problems in the commonwealth while working with organizations in Greece, where she was asked about the trafficking crisis in Carlisle in Cumberland County – underlining that much work has yet to be done to increase awareness of the problem at home.

One takeaway from Paul Lukach, executive director of Crime Victim Center, is the need to start educating children in schools about potential dangers beginning in kindergarten. This includes teaching about safe people, safe secrets, and safe touching — topics under scrutiny from conservatives who are currently working locally and federally to censor mention of sexuality in the classroom.

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