Sex-trafficking investigators, victims face gaps in services, funding

Posted: August 06, 2014

AS PERVASIVE a problem as sex trafficking is in the Philadelphia region, experts in the field say that gaps in services for victims and local funding make handling the tough cases even more challenging.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan, who prosecutes sex-trafficking cases in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, said she and her colleagues are constantly faced with the daunting question of how to help victims during their abusers' trials and postconviction - and too often, there is simply no place to send them for the help they need.

"This problem isn't simply about drug rehab," she said. "It's about sexual trauma in combination with drug abuse, so your standard drug program is not going to tap into the sexual-trauma issue, which is really what is the impetus for the drug use.

"Until there are programs that are tailored to that particular combination of problems, I think these girls are going to be shortchanged by social services and . . . not get the improvement they need."

One program in the city, Dawn's Place, offers services for adult women who were sexually exploited. But Dawn's has a limited number of beds and does not accept juvenile clients.

Covenant House Pennsylvania, a crisis center in Germantown, offers shelter and other services for homeless and abused youths 21 and younger, but Hugh Organ, who served as director there until June, estimated that less than 10 percent of the youths served by Covenant House are victims of trafficking.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office said that although prosecutors from the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit regularly apply for grants and other funding to pour more resources into sex-trafficking investigations, there isn't nearly enough money to dedicate the time and personnel it requires.

"The difficulty is we don't have any specific funding to focus on this," said James Carpenter, chief of the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit. "It's very difficult to do this when we're also prosecuting every case of child rape, adult rape, child porn, Megan's Law registration, and every case of domestic violence, which is 100,000 calls a year, with 18 prosecutors."

Carpenter said the D.A.'s office's partnership with federal authorities helps - but only in cases that rise to the federal level. Resources to proactively investigate sex-trafficking cases and put a coordinated response in place for investigations aren't there, he said.

We've told the funders, we've told the Justice Department - we are in a major trafficking area," he added.

"They're not looking at it from a perspective of how many victims will actually be protected.

"So it sort of becomes, 'Look what we've stumbled on, isn't this horrible?' And somehow we're able to put together without any resources, without a task force. . . . But there are hundreds of other girls in that situation."

On Twitter: @morganzalot


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