PORTLAND, Maine — The national Polaris Project released a report Thursday dissecting data gleaned from calls placed to its human trafficking hotline, a help number that has seen a sharp increase in contacts over the last five years.
In Maine, the organization reported that its hotline netted 19 of what Polaris Project defines as high- or moderate-level indicators of trafficking in the most recent year. However, local experts say that number is just the tip of the iceberg and that a continued push to provide comprehensive services to victims is necessary.
The indicators on the high end of the Polaris Project range, meaning the callers are highly likely to be reporting actual cases of human trafficking, include information from people who say they have been involved in the activity themselves or are considered subject matter experts, among other criteria. Moderate-level indicators come from callers who are suspicious of the activity, but offer few concrete details.
The report was released the same day Maine’s Legislative Council voted unanimously to allow the larger Legislature to consider a bill by state Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, that would create avenues for convicted prostitutes to expunge their criminal records when they’re victims of sex trafficking.
The Thursday vote by the council represents a reversal of the panel’s previous decision. Volk’s bill, which was motivated by a previous Polaris Project report on states’ legal shortcomings when dealing with human slavery, was previously turned away along party lines, triggering outcry that state Democrats were insensitive to the plight of trafficking victims.
Nationwide, the Polaris Project reported Thursday that calls to the hotline have increased by nearly 260 percent since its launch in late 2007, from 5,746 in 2008 to 20,650 in 2012.
The Polaris Project’s human trafficking hotline received 44 calls placed from Maine in 2012. That compares to 46 in 2011, and represents a new approximate baseline for human trafficking tips in the state after two years in which the organization fielded less than half that many — 22 and 20 calls in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
Not all of the calls yield indicators of specific cases of human trafficking. Many calls come in seeking general information or access to training, for example.
Destie Sprague, a program coordinator for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Thursday that while the Polaris Project report is important, Mainers should not reach the conclusion that only 19 people in the state were victims of trafficking in the past year.
She said the number is in reality much higher. In Maine, where sex trafficking is considered the form of human slavery most prevalent, more victims are turning to local hotlines, agencies, shelters and resources, Sprague said.
And still many more victims are not reporting the activity at all, she said.
“I don’t think there’s a connection between victimization in Maine and calls to a hotline,” Sprague said. “We know confidently that it doesn’t correspond with the victimization in the state, but it shows how many people are in a position to reach out for help and know how to do so. Those are pretty high barriers.”
Among the data breakdowns revealed in Thursday’s study are that 41 percent of sex trafficking cases reported to the hotline involve victims who are U.S. citizens.
Children were referenced in 2,668 cases, according to Polaris Project data, with callers reporting children in 33 percent of sex trafficking cases and 20 percent of labor trafficking cases. The release of those numbers comes about a week after 348 people were arrested and 386 child victims were rescued in a massive international child pornography investigation led by Toronto police.
Sprague said her organization and other Maine groups such as the Greater Portland Coalition Against Sex Trafficking and Exploitation are making progress training service providers to recognize the signs of forced prostitution and human slavery, as well as building networks of groups that can offer services to victims who often are battling wide ranges of problems.
Those provider networks include shelters, domestic and sexual violence counselors, child protective services, mental health and substance abuse counselors, police and lawyers, she said.
The Portland social service agency Preble Street and a group of partners was awarded a $400,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant last month to develop a multifaceted bundle of services for people who are exploited in the sex trade.
“No one provider can provide everything a victim is going to need,” Sprague said. “That’s going to be the first funded model in Maine. I really see that as the future, and we hope we will be able to adapt it for other communities around the state.”