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Welcome to the Battle: Panelists discuss fight against human trafficking

North Star Initiative board member Kelly Gooch, right, introduces Executive Director Melinda Clark, left, at “Welcome to the Battle” at LCBC Manheim on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Human trafficking in real life almost never looks the way it does in the movies, a quintet of panelists told their audience at a forum this week.

Films like “Taken” and “Sound of Freedom” show criminals bodily snatching their victims and carrying them off, Gabriel Fabian said. In reality, he and his fellow panelists said, traffickers typically search for vulnerable people to recruit by psychological means, bending them to their will over time through manipulation and coercion.

Fabian is an agent with the Pennsylvania Attorney General Office’s Human Trafficking Section. It is a newly formed unit within Organized Crime Section; the reorganization allows its personnel to focus on trafficking exclusively.

He was one of five experts featured at “Welcome to the Battle,” held Tuesday evening at LCBC Manheim. The faith-based anti-trafficking nonprofit North Star Initiative organizes the event annually in January to mark National Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

More than 200 people registered for this year’s forum, North Star Executive Director Melinda Clark said.

Clark served as moderator and emcee, asking panelists about common misconceptions, about the struggles they face in preventing trafficking and healing victims, and how the community can help.

(Source: AOPC)

From 2018 through 2022, prosecutors filed 809 human trafficking offenses in Pennsylvania, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Lancaster and York counties were in the top 10 counties for offenses, each accounting for about 3% of the statewide total.

That’s actually a good sign, the panelists said. A high number of charges in a particular jurisdiction shows that police and prosecutors are doing their job, not that the underlying problem is any worse.

Human trafficking “is happening everywhere,” said Detective Kevin Quinter, who founded and supervises the Berks County Human Trafficking Task Force. It is a partner of its counterpart task force in Lancaster County; both are coordinated by Brad Ortenzi of Zoe International.

The grooming process is insidious, the panelists said. Traffickers provide emotional connection, then transmute that into a sense of dependency and obligation.

That’s why victims don’t “just leave,” even when they have the opportunity, said Andrea McHenry, executive director of Freedom & Restoration for Everyone Enslaved, or FREE. Grooming can take up to a year, she said, as traffickers patiently fortify the “trauma bond” that keeps their victims in thrall.

Trafficked individuals disproportionately come from broken homes and foster care. They often consider themselves to be the romantic partner of their trafficker, said Mandy Billman, director of YWCA Lancaster’s Sexual Assault Counseling and Prevention Center.

Counselors often have to start by helping them realize they’ve been trafficked.

“Not even recognizing that something’s wrong is a huge barrier,” she said.

For more information

To get help

If you are a victim of human trafficking, or you suspect that someone else is, call the State Police Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 292-1919 or via email; or contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888)373-7888.

Women can be traffickers, McHenry noted; and traffickers can target men and boys for exploitation as well as women and girls. There are parents who traffic their children, often to feed a drug addiction.

Increasingly, social media are the main conduit through which traffickers work, often by making fake profiles to catfish young people. It’s important to realize just how dangerous it is out there, the panelists said. They advised parents to monitor their children’s online activity.

(Source: AOPC)

But even more important, they said, is maintaining trust and communication, so that they will turn to you if they run into trouble.

Survivors of human trafficking are left feeling confused and betrayed, said Celeste Hutchinson, North Star’s clinical program director. Traffickers create a transactional dynamic, she said, so that “you’re constantly trying to earn something back.”

As often as not, trafficked individuals see law enforcement as an adversary disrupting their lives, not a savior, Fabian said. It can be difficult or impossible to get them to testify against their traffickers, which keeps prosecution from proceeding, Quinter said.

The panelists encouraged the audience to raise awareness and get involved in the effort to combat trafficking. In particular, they said they are eager to foster relationships with more school districts, so they can ramp up education and prevention efforts.

Trafficking is a community-wide issue, so it needs a collaborative, community-wide solution, Clark said. She said her goal is to end trafficking in her lifetime, by “closing the gaps” that allow it to take place.

“I think that’s possible,” she said.

“Welcome to the Battle” attendees visit booths set up by local nonprofits that address human trafficking. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)