PORTLAND, Maine — Young women and girls are being lured from their lives in Maine and disappearing into a dark world, where they are regularly beaten, raped and sold all over the country.
According to service providers and law enforcement experts, the modern-day slave trade is not only alive in Maine, but relies on this outlying state as a key source of new slaves to keep the illegal, violent and largely unseen $32 billion industry running.
“Some of the disturbing information that we’re getting consistently from the girls we’re talking to is that the greater Portland area is a destination for people looking for girls to traffic,” said Portland Police Sgt. Tim Ferris. “Traffickers will come up from Atlantic City, Boston and New York and essentially trick these girls into working for them.
“The victims are not all on the lower socioeconomic levels, either,” he said. “Some of these girls are from middle-class backgrounds and some are even from high-end families. You would be shocked at who some of these girls are. They’re not who you might think.”
Investigators are still in the early stages of peeling back the layers of the underground sex trafficking problem in Maine, Ferris said, with higher-level traffickers hiding behind lower-level proxies and many victims reluctant to come forward for fear of retaliation.
Firm statistics are difficult to pin down, said Auburn Police Chief Phillip Crowell, because those involved in the slave trade most likely to be arrested are the victims, and they’re almost always recorded as facing prostitution or drug charges.
“You’re going to look at the police blotter and see charges that could really be tied to human trafficking, but we don’t have a standalone [criminal] statute for human trafficking,” Crowell said. “So we enter crimes in under statutes we have or that we’re traditionally familiar with. Until [a new statute is developed], we’re going to have a hard time looking at that data.”
The few early ways to quantify the growth of human trafficking in Maine are imperfect but alarming.
Megan Fowler, communications director for the international anti-slavery organization Polaris Project, told the Bangor Daily News that the group’s National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline received an average of fewer than 24 calls per year from Maine over its first four years in operation, from 2007 through 2010. In 2011, the line received 46 calls from Maine. In the first six months of 2012, the hotline had 19 calls from Maine.
Jon Bradley, associate director of the Portland homeless and hunger prevention group Preble Street, said his organization worked with University of New England associate professor of social work Thomas McLaughlin to develop a statistical snapshot of how many of Preble Street’s clients are being targeted by traffickers.
Of 80 women and girls from Preble Street’s Florence House and Teen Center facilities who agreed to answer the researcher’s questions, more than a quarter had reported being offered money, drugs or food in exchange for sex with a stranger. And given the survey sample, Bradley noted, those numbers could be low.
“It’s enough people out of that group — and that’s just a one-time group, because that 80 doesn’t represent a lot of our folks and we have a lot of turnover — being approached or being recruited to cause concern,” he said. “Most of them said they’d been approached a number of times. It’s something that’s been happening.”
Drug debt bondage
Ferris said a trafficker or a trafficker’s agent starts by approaching a targeted woman or girl in any number of places — on the street or in bars, for instance — and offering something of value in exchange for steady or even glamorous work. Sometimes it starts with an offer of money, sometimes drugs. Often the recruited women are initially unclear on what the “work” consists of.
“They use a lot of drug debt bondage,” he said. “They’ll get the girls hooked on drugs or take advantage of drug addictions already there.”
Ferris said women and girls can still quietly go missing even in an age of ever-present cellphones and social networking sites. Sometimes family members and friends of the victims don’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late, and sometimes the victims cover up their circumstances in fear for their safety.
“People disappear,” said Laurel Coleman, a Manchester-based physician and local volunteer for the human rights group International Justice Mission. “They drop out of school, they go off to New York ‘to find a job’ and you never hear of them again.
“You thought after the Civil War that slavery had gone away,” she continued, “and to see that there are more slaves in the world today — 27 million — than ever before in history is really eye opening.”
Once the woman or girl is dependent on the trafficker for drugs or sustenance, or she reaches a point where she believes she’ll be killed if she doesn’t obey, she lives a day-to-day life Fowler described as “inhumane.” The victim is advertised in suggestive posts on websites such as Backpage.com, Crowell said, and can be bought and sold by traffickers on the modern slave market.
“They’re being repeatedly beaten, repeatedly raped. If they try to get out, they’re forcefully given more drugs because when they’re on drugs they’re much easier to control,” Ferris said. “We’ve debriefed a couple of dozen victims, and we’re getting reports of Portland women getting brought out as far as Las Vegas. But the main route we’re seeing is down the East Coast between Maine and Miami and all points in between.”
Lack of resources
Ferris said law enforcement officers began hearing more and more about forced prostitution on the streets over the past few years. At the same time, social workers most likely to encounter some of the women targeted began seeing troubling signs as well.
“We have seen an increase in the number of victims we’re coming across at the Teen Center over the past two years,” said Daniella Cameron, clinical supervisor for the Preble Street Teen Center. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of youths, of girls, presenting at the shelter.
“We know girls here who have been trafficked all up and down [Interstate] 95, and disappear for days, then show back up with expensive phones and their nails done and hair done, and signs that make us think, ‘OK, what’s really going on here?’,” she continued. “It’s a particularly sensitive and different issue. These girls are exposed to incredible violence, and most of them have been victimized from a very young age. … The bottom line is we see this is a huge issue, and we’re trying to work as a community to address it.”
Those concurrent realizations among service providers and police forces led to the formation about a year ago of the Greater Portland Coalition Against Sex Trafficking and Exploitation. Ferris and Katie Kondrat of Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine serve as co-chairmen of the coalition, which has grown to include representatives of more than 50 nonprofits and area law enforcement agencies.
Crowell has begun organizing annual conferences to raise awareness of the issue in Auburn, with the second such Not Here Conference scheduled for Oct. 25-26, and slated to include talks by national experts such as Detroit sex slavery survivor and author Theresa Flores.
Crowell said these efforts are helping police look at prostitution and drug crimes in a new way, that the people being arrested on the streets in many of those cases are victims, not criminals.
“We need to look at prostitution differently,” he said. “For many of these young girls, it’s not a life that they’ve chosen, but rather it’s something they’ve been coerced into doing.”
Added Cameron: “The majority of girls who are being prostituted have a pimp, and when a pimp is involved, [the girls] are not the ones who are making the money from the transaction. And that’s an incredibly violent, coercive relationship.”
As local authorities begin to realize what they’re up against in Maine, they’re finding themselves overmatched, Ferris said.
“[Victims] are coming forward more and more every week, and we need to have a way to receive them,” he said.
Regular overnight homeless shelters aren’t equipped to protect the women from being found by their traffickers, and aside from putting the women in jail cells, law enforcement officers can do little to officially protect them unless they’re witnesses in a prosecution.
“There have been some cases where the community has really struggled to keep them safe,” Bradley of Preble Street said. “[State prosecutors] will help put somebody up if they’ll testify — there are a lot of things they can do when there’s a big case they’re making — but that’s not often the case.”
It ends up becoming a vicious cycle, he said. The women won’t help build a case against a trafficker without guarantee of safety, and prosecutors can’t guarantee safety without a case in place.
“Without a victim — without a competent, complete victim to bring before a jury — we don’t have a case,” Ferris said. “And it takes months for some of these girls to reach a point where they’re emotionally strong enough and healthy enough to go before jury.”
Fowler of the Polaris Project said that while Maine in 2009 adopted a law providing victims of human trafficking a way of suing traffickers for damages and compensation, more must be done to highlight the crime in criminal statutes and to provide victims with protection. Her group recommends Maine adopt a so-called “safe harbor” law that recognizes children found in the sex trade as victims of crimes and makes available counseling or other programs, as well as one that provides many adults convicted of prostitution with pathways to vacate those convictions and wipe their records clean.
Crowell said more specialized safe houses, counseling and rehabilitation programs are needed before police and social workers can make a significant dent in the growing problem.
“It’s not an easy crime to prosecute, and it’s not an easy crime to detect,” Crowell said. “We’re dealing with a case right now where we have a female who panhandles and she also is engaged in prostitution. She has a drug addiction. She’s had her children taken away by DHHS, and we keep talking with her about reuniting her with her children and looking for programs that will help her turn her life around.
“But until we can provide wraparound services, and come alongside someone like this and say, ‘We have opportunities for you to get away from this lifestyle that are safe,’ it’s tough,” he continued. “[Without those assurances], if we say, ‘Come testify or give a statement against this person who’s been pimping you,’ she won’t step away from that. If you look at comprehensive services for victims of human trafficking around New England, we just don’t have that.”