Human trafficking: Suburbs' dirty little secret

Posted: August 06, 2013

While other 7-year-olds were playing with dolls and going to summer camp, Amy was being prostituted on the streets of Texas, Virginia, and Oregon.

By her grandfather.

Now deceased, he pushed her into the commercial sex trade as a prostitute and recruiter of other girls.

Ten years later, a man in the Doylestown area bought the remaining days of her adolescence and became her pimp. She lived in a pricey Doylestown apartment for a couple of years, working in the adult-movie and sex industries.

Amy, who asked to be identified by only a fictitious first name, says she was so inured at that point to her life as a sex worker she didn't see the wrong that had been done to her.

"I knew what human trafficking and sex trafficking were," she said in a telephone interview Thursday from another part of the country where she now lives. "I didn't know I was being trafficked."

Human trafficking, called a modern-day form of slavery, has been gaining a higher profile recently, with more cases emerging in suburbs and towns outside Philadelphia and more groups forming to battle it.

"It's happening right under everyone's nose," said John Kelleghan, special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Investigations in Philadelphia.

There are two types of human trafficking - sex trafficking and labor trafficking, when people are forced to work without pay in places like nail salons, restaurants, on farms, or as nannies and housekeepers.

But it's the sex trafficking that has gotten more attention lately.

Last week, the FBI announced that a three-day operation in 76 cities had led to the rescue of 105 children who had been trafficked into the commercial sex trade. Two of the children were in Philadelphia suburbs.

Authorities also arrested 152 pimps on state and federal charges, including five in New Jersey.

Local law enforcement agencies that participated included those in Bensalem Township, Tinicum Township, and Upper Merion, and, in New Jersey, Atlantic City, Galloway Township, and Egg Harbor City.

The scale of the problem is huge - and it's not just a big-city problem.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline received 20,652 calls nationwide in 2012, many of them tips or crisis calls from victims or those who suspect trafficking is occurring, including 461 from Pennsylvania and 330 from New Jersey.

Unlike cities, where trafficked girls often are visibly on the streets working as prostitutes, in the suburbs, the problem is more discreet, said Kate Keisel, director of the national nonprofit Polaris Project's program in New Jersey.

Trafficked women in suburbia are offered up for sex in ads on Internet sites. They often work in brothels advertised as "massage parlors."

Those parlors are everywhere, Keisel said. "They are in every suburb. I would say they cater to more of the suburban communities."

A survey her program conducted three years ago found about 525 massage businesses operated in New Jersey as fronts for brothels. The businesses were, Keisel said, "very discreet, operating in extremely affluent suburbs."

In Delaware County, Assistant District Attorney Pearl H. Kim is chief of the human-trafficking unit. Kim prosecuted what is believed to be the first case in the state to fall under Pennsylvania's 2006 antitrafficking law.

The investigation began when a local child-advocacy group told county detectives about a personal ad featuring an underage girl.

In that case, Deryck Alston and Amanda Scott, both of Collingdale, pleaded guilty in 2012 to offenses related to trafficking of persons.

In South Jersey, Holly Austin Smith didn't know she was walking toward the world of human trafficking when, at 14, a man in a mall motioned for her to come near.

"I felt very special that he pointed me out of the crowd," Smith, now 35, said last week. "My friends were kind of moving on without me and I wasn't dealing with that very well. I also wanted a boyfriend but couldn't get a boyfriend."

So she walked over to the stranger, who she guessed was in his 20s, they began calling each other, and then she ran away with him.

Once she did, his demeanor turned cold, and within a month, Smith was taken to Atlantic City's "kiddie track," where she was forced to sell herself multiple times in 36 hours. Her escape came when police arrested her.

That's how trafficked children can be victimized twice - by the traffickers, and sometimes by being treated like criminals themselves.

Though any child in the sex industry is considered forced into it, prosecutors must prove that adults suspected of being trafficked faced force, fraud, or coercion, said Rosemarie Vesci, a special agent in the FBI's Philadelphia office.

The Montgomery County District Attorney's Office saw that recently.

On July 26, it charged Florencio Perez Martinez, 45, with corrupt organizations and other counts for allegedly running a prostitution operation in Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Philadelphia Counties.

Court documents suggest investigators thought they had a sex-trafficking ring on their hands after getting a tip that a sex-trade business was operating in the Souderton area.

One red flag: The women were closely monitored in the Philadelphia region by Martinez.

Martinez admitted to authorities that he operated the sex-trade business, according to the court papers. But, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said, her office couldn't charge him with trafficking in persons because the women wouldn't admit they were forced to work.

Reluctance to admit they were trafficked or to name their trafficker is common. Victims may fear retribution, believe their traffickers care about them, or, like Amy in Doylestown, don't realize they are victims.

Amy's epiphany came about three years ago, when her pimp let her get a smartphone and she read about human trafficking on the Internet. She contacted a woman in Texas who has an Internet radio show on trafficking. That woman helped organize Amy's rescue.

It has not been a smooth path out of the business, however.

Amy has fallen back into the sex industry because, she says, it's the only work she knows. But she is optimistic this time and hopes to take classes in the fall to become a nursing assistant.

She wishes that there were more support services for trafficking victims and that people would stand by them through relapses. Because, she said, "Every time they come out, they'll get a few steps farther."


Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or follow @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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