November 22, 2017
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Maine police know sex trafficking is here, yet many still fail to fight it

By Danielle McLean, BDN staff
Updated:

Last December, a 14-year-old Maine girl stood before a judge and faced the woman who sold her for sex to numerous men. She described the agony she had endured. Was life not worth living? she asked.

She didn’t talk about being repeatedly raped by strangers in Bangor and Boston hotels. With the words of someone far older, she shared how it changed the way she saw herself, stole her sense of self-respect and self-love, and made her feel less than human.

She talked about how she wanted to preserve her sanity to make sure what she’d been through wouldn’t happen to others.

“It doesn’t matter that I trusted them, and it doesn’t matter that the trusting was the first instinct,” she said. “I’ll turn the other cheek, sticking up for everybody who needs it.”

Her story is heartbreaking, but it’s the reality for what are estimated to be, on the conservative side, 200 to 300 Maine people each year. The officials and providers trying to stop such horrors and help victims, however, are ill-equipped, underfunded and, on the whole, unable to put a dent in the demand for purchasing sex, according to interviews with people working on the front lines.

“If the state doesn’t have the resources to deal with this, how can you tell someone you can help them when you can’t help them?” said Portland Police Officer Mark Keller. “Our range of what we can do is very limited.”

“We’re losing,” he added.

‘Tiny little kid’

Shawna Calhoun and Alvin Houston are each serving nine years in federal prison for their roles in transporting a person they intended to prostitute across state lines.

Shawna Calhoun and Alvin Houston are each serving nine years in federal prison for their roles in transporting a person they intended to prostitute across state lines. (Photos courtesy of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office)

The victim was 13 when a woman named Shawna Calhoun of Lewiston began chatting with her on Facebook. Calhoun promised the young girl money, dresses, and that she could have her hair and nails done, according to court documents. The victim told her she was a teenager.

It was manipulation, said the girl’s father in court. Later, all she could think about was what she could have done differently, he said. “There’s nothing that my daughter could have done differently,” he said, “not with people like this.”

Calhoun was “trying to teach her that she’s something that she’s not. She’s just a little tiny kid,” he said.

After the girl met Calhoun, a 24-year-old at the time, and Alvin Houston, a 27-year-old from Auburn, the three drove a rental car to Boston two days before Christmas in 2014. Over the following week, the “little tiny kid” became a classified ad. Calhoun advertised the girl on the website Backpage.com, which also sells household items, furniture, pet supplies, real estate and other goods. Men responded.  

Calhoun and Houston drove the girl to hotels throughout the Boston area where she was told to have sex with the men for money, which Calhoun and Houston then took. Under law, minors cannot consent to sell sex with an adult, meaning the girl was raped day after day.

Nervous about federal agents looking for the young teen, the three returned to Maine. They again advertised her on Backpage.com — as a 21-year-old “Spanish Doll” available for outcalls in the Bangor area. Again, men responded.

She was supposed to meet with another client on New Year’s Eve, at the Ramada Inn in Bangor, according to Bangor police Detective Lieutenant David Bushey. But that client turned out to be an undercover law enforcement officer. Investigators, who had been searching for the girl, arrested her traffickers.

This victim’s case is a rare one because of its resolution. Due to a coordinated effort by officials at the federal, state and local levels, police found her, and her traffickers are behind bars.

But many more victims are still being sold online and in the streets for drugs and for cash. Despite increasing awareness about the issue, police still struggle to devote the time, resources, manpower and expertise to pursue sting operations and investigations that could result in the arrests of johns and traffickers, and the recovery of trafficking victims.

In one statewide survey of Maine law enforcement officers, just 51 percent said their organization was adequately trained to handle any cases involving sex trafficking, and fewer than half felt prepared to handle trafficking cases involving minors.

To be considered sex trafficking legally, prosecutors must prove that someone used force, fraud or coercion as part of the commercial sex operation. Federal and state law also consider it to be sex trafficking if the person performing the sex act is under age 18.

Calhoun and Houston are each serving nine years in federal prison for their roles in transporting a person they intended to prostitute across state lines. They declined to be interviewed by the BDN.

‘You have to keep your promise’

Portland Police Officer Mark Keller said his department stages sting operations targeting johns one to three times a year. He'd like to see more, but resources, manpower and expertise are in short supply.

Portland Police Officer Mark Keller said his department stages sting operations targeting johns one to three times a year. He’d like to see more, but resources, manpower and expertise are in short supply. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

It can be difficult for police to build cases against traffickers when their primary witnesses — victims — are too afraid to talk, don’t trust police or don’t see a clear path to stability. In addition, police departments still conduct stings against sex workers, since it’s illegal to sell or buy sex in Maine, making it more difficult to gain the confidence of those who are actually trafficking victims.

In 2013, the Portland Police Department arrested four people on charges of engaging in prostitution, meaning they were believed to be working as prostitutes, according to Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck. Officers arrested 11 people on the charge in 2014 and four in 2015.

Arresting people engaged in sex work can engender distrust of police among trafficking victims, Keller, with the department, said. Pair the distrust with threats of violence by their traffickers if they speak to police, and it becomes clear why many victims would rather sit in jail than face the ramifications of turning in their trafficker.

“It’s kind of hard to convince someone to get in your corner when you convince them you’re not a cop, but you are a cop,” Keller said. “If you go in and make contact with a woman under the guise of a sting, you are in a rough position. You have to keep your promise to help her, and I’m not sure that we can keep that promise.”

To create more trust among potential victims and curb the demand for commercial sex, sting operations should focus more on catching johns and pimps, he said. In 2013, Portland police arrested 10 people on charges of engaging a prostitute, meaning they were believed to be a prostitute’s customer. They arrested two in 2014 and 14 in 2015.

The police department in Maine’s largest city pursues one to three operations per year targeting johns. “I would like to see more of that,” Keller said.

He also suggested changing state law to the so-called Nordic model, which makes it legal for people to prostitute themselves but illegal to pimp, traffick or purchase sex. The model is used by several countries, including Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Canada. Sweden, which first instituted it, has seen a reduction in its number of sex workers and in sex trafficking.

The model could help officers gain the trust of sex trafficking victims and better allow them to report their situation, Keller said. However, it was recently scrutinized in a report by the human rights advocacy group Amnesty International USA, which found it subjected sex workers to increased police scrutiny, evictions and other penalties since it was implemented in Norway in 2009.

The method of targeting pimps and johns instead of people engaging in sex work is controversial even in Maine, Keller said.

“I’m not sure the state of Maine is ready to devote more resources to this,” he said.

‘We need to be thinking bigger’

Destie Hohman Sprague is associate director of Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Destie Hohman Sprague is associate director of Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. (Courtesy of MECASA)

Police rely on coalitions, nonprofits and local service providers to offer sex trafficking victims the support they need to begin their recovery. If those organizations are short on staff, funding or beds, or victims can’t access medical care, it can be difficult for victims to find stability, making it less likely they’ll be able to help police build a case or testify in court.

“Until we help the victims become healthy functional people, they can’t assist us to prosecute the people who exploited them,” said Assistant Attorney General Meg Elam who previously prosecuted sex trafficking cases at the Cumberland County district attorney’s office.

To supplement the ongoing work of local service providers, the state receives $50,000 each year from the U.S. Department of Justice, to help victims in the short term. Maine police departments and nonprofits can tap into the fund on a per-request basis to pay for everything from putting victims up in hotels, clothing, medical treatment, opioid treatment, the first month’s rent for an apartment, and even car parts so victims can drive to their job, Keller said.

The state received the funding for the first time last fall, but the money ran nearly dry just months after it was first released. Until the state receives the next round of grant funding on Oct. 1, the remaining $3,000 is being awarded on an emergency basis, said Keller, who is responsible for administering the funds along with another Portland police officer.

Advocates for sex trafficking victims say they are stretched when it comes to finding resources such as housing, health care and drug treatment for victims. As the issue gains more prominence and more victims come forward, services for them need to keep up, they say.

“We need to be thinking bigger. We have people who are victims of trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault and many other kinds of crime who are not being adequately covered by the system,” said Destie Hohman Sprague, associate director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

And while an outsider might think it should be easy for a victim to leave “the Life,” circumstances are rarely straightforward, and victims may continue to be in danger if they flee.

“This is a hearts and minds campaign,” Elam said. “We have now evolved to the point where we would not say to the victim of domestic violence, ‘Why don’t you just leave?’ Because we understand the dynamic. But we say that to the victim of human trafficking all the time.”

‘There is a constant need’

The Two Cent Bridge is pictured in downtown Waterville on Aug. 30, 2016.

The Two Cent Bridge is pictured in downtown Waterville on Aug. 30, 2016. (Danielle McLean | BDN)

Getting through a trial is one matter. Getting a criminal case at all is another — even when advertisements for sex services are prominent.

Each week pimps and others post hundreds of ads on Backpage.com selling women to men for sex. Between Monday, Aug. 29, and Friday, Sept. 2, for example, there were 175 postings under the website’s escort section in Maine. Ads offered up sex services in cities and towns throughout the state, including Portland, Bangor, Waterville, Augusta, Sebago, Biddeford, Lewiston, Falmouth, Auburn, Gardiner, Saco, Newport, Canton, Ellsworth and Bar Harbor.

With just three stings last year in Waterville and Augusta, police were able to arrest 21 men on charges of engaging a prostitute — the people creating the demand in the underground market.

Yet police say it’s not feasible for law enforcement agencies to set up a sting operation for every ad. First, many of the postings are not necessarily cases of trafficking, since some women are conducting sex work of their own accord.

Second, law enforcement agencies don’t have the money or manpower, said Dave Rogers, the former agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s human trafficking program in the bureau’s Civil Rights Unit. Rogers retired from the FBI last year and now serves as the U.S. program director for the global anti-human trafficking organization Hope for Justice.

With sting operations, police need to pay for the following: overtime for officers, buying and setting up surveillance equipment, reserving hotel rooms to set up the operation, giving money to undercover officers to pay for services, and placing advertisements to set up stings against the johns, among others.

That can costs thousands, he said.

At a minimum, law enforcement agencies must spend $1,300 to $1,400 to conduct a sting operation targeting johns, said Waterville Police Deputy Chief William Bonney. That would cover the cost of paying the nine officers needed to run an eight-hour sting operation — at a patrolman’s rate. The estimate does not include the cost of having supervisors oversee the operation or account for the likely overtime costs, he said.

“There is a constant need for more funding to keep this going,” Rogers said.

Even if police catch traffickers, they may encounter the power of manipulation that has driven the trafficking ring. Many victims have been forced into protecting their traffickers and may not divulge information. Or they might not view themselves as victims, said Todd Zerfoss, the resident agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigation’s Bangor office.

The federal agency will try to help victims stabilize; it employs trained social workers responsible for identifying the needs of each victim who then work with local groups to get them the help they need. But if a victim isn’t ready, there’s little police can do.

“We can give them all the tools needed in order to try and stay clean; we can give them caseworkers to talk to; we can give them a bed to sleep in,” Zerfoss said. “If they are not willing and able to make that commitment to staying clean or following the right path, there is nothing as law enforcement officers we can do to make a victim and a witness follow the path we’d like them to.”

‘Increasing awareness really is the key’

Downtown Bangor at night.

Downtown Bangor at night. (Micky Bedell | BDN)

What’s more, it’s still difficult for many local officers throughout the state to identify a sex trafficking case when they see one, Bushey, with Bangor police, said.

It’s possible only 14 percent of sex trafficking cases are reported to police, according to a needs assessment released last year by Hornby Zeller Associates for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Most often, police first encounter trafficking when responding to reports of other crimes such as domestic violence or sexual assault. Or someone who may appear to be a sex worker might actually be a trafficking victim.

“They have to look further to uncover this,” Bushey said. “From a law enforcement perspective, I think increasing awareness really is the key because if you are aware of the situation when you encounter it, you are going to report it or give her at least the available resources.”

All officers throughout the state have been required to take mandatory training in dealing with human trafficking cases since 2010. And they will all be required to take another mandatory two-hour online training course in 2017, according to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

Also, service providers have created their own structured law enforcement training, which many police agencies have taken advantage of, according to the needs assessment.

And in June 2014, the federal agency Homeland Security Investigations created a human trafficking task force to provide training to 80 law enforcement officers from 30 federal, state and local agencies in Maine and Canada. Agencies include 16 local police departments, four county sheriff’s offices, the Maine State Police, the Maine Attorney General’s Office, Canadian and U.S. border patrol agencies, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and various U.S. agencies.

Members of the task force collaborate on cases and assist each other in identifying and prosecuting traffickers, and protecting and aiding victims.

But despite the trainings and task force, a survey of 182 officers throughout the state by Hornby Zeller Associates showed more awareness is needed. In addition to only half saying their agency was adequately trained to handle any cases involving sex trafficking, 71 percent said they were not familiar with any nonprofit or faith-based organizations working to address human trafficking.  

The researchers recommended increased efforts to educate not just police but communities and certain industries about the red flags of exploitation.

Men purchasing sex could benefit from more information, too, especially about how their actions may fuel trafficking, Elam said.

Lawmakers upped the penalties for people purchasing sex in 2013, so johns may now go to jail for up to six months for committing such offenses. Harsher penalties for johns are intended to deter them from purchasing sex, she said. But she thinks many men would opt not purchase sex if they knew a girl may have been exploited.

If you or someone you know might be a victim of sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

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