The scenario is all too common, Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Shea Rhodes told City Council on Tuesday in describing how "modern-day slavery" ensnares women and children into forced labor and commercial sex.
"J.L. was sexually abused by a family member beginning at age 9," Rhodes said, using initials to protect the victim's identity. She was placed with grandparents and, after they died, into foster care. She went to a group home, but ran away.
"She met a man who promised to take care of her," said Rhodes. "Instead, he took photos of her and placed them on the Internet, offering her for sexual services. When she refused ... he repeatedly raped her ... then began selling her to customers."
Today, J.L. is in treatment for substance abuse and sexual trauma.
The FBI has identified the Philadelphia-Camden hub as a "high-intensity trafficking area" owing to its easy access to interstate highways and international airports in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.
The hearing, called by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, took note of the domestic and international aspects of human trafficking and sought to quantify the problem locally.
The United States not only faces an influx of immigrant victims, but also has a "homegrown problem of interstate sex trafficking," noted the resolution calling for Tuesday's hearing.
Capt. John Darby, commanding officer of the Philadelphia Police Special Victims Unit, which investigates sex crimes, said victims of trafficking, "similar to all sexual-assault victims," are often hesitant to report to authorities.
"As a result," he testified, "our experience has been that direct reporting of sex trafficking, especially by adults, to police is almost nonexistent."
He did recall a case that became a federal prosecution "involving a juvenile escort service/prostitution ring operating out of a Northeast Philadelphia hotel" in which two adults, including one who impersonated a police officer, were arrested.
"The secretive nature of human trafficking means that law enforcement officers are not always the first responders," testified Rhodes. "Instead, first responders may be emergency-room workers, rape-crisis treatment center staff, immigration authorities, or schoolteachers."
Such groups need to be educated on some of the telltale signs that people have been trafficked, such as when someone else controls their identity documents.
"While it may be easy to believe this does not happen in our city," testified Hugh Organ, associate director of Covenant House Pennsylvania, a shelter for runaway and trafficked youth, "the truth is, every day in Philadelphia, people, mostly women, are being sold on street corners and on the Internet. This past Thursday, in one night, just one Internet site had over 230 ads advertising women for sale all across the city."
Dawn's Place, founded in 2007, is a nine-bed, residential therapeutic program for immigrant and American women who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation.
Teresita Hinnegan, a registered nurse and nun with the order of Medical Mission Sisters, is board president of Dawn's Place. She brought with her an immigrant from Ecuador, identified only by a pseudonym.
Hinnegan said the woman was arrested about three years ago when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided two brothels in Norristown. Five of the women arrested were referred to Dawn's Place.
Shielded from public view, the woman fought through tears to testify in Spanish, translated by an interpreter.
Her captors had threatened to hurt her daughter, a 4-year-old still living in Ecuador.
"They threatened they would kidnap her," sniffled the woman. "We got arrested, but the people who did this to us are free."
Reynolds Brown said she hoped to continue the hearings in 2013.
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