Sex trafficking happens in Maine. Some of the victims are children. In fact, calls to a national human-trafficking hotline originating in Maine have increased more than 50 percent in recent years. Providers from every area of the state report serving victims of sexual exploitation.
Now that Maine residents know sex trafficking exists, what can communities do about it?
Only a few years ago, it was largely a foreign concept to the public that adults and children were being held here against their will and forced to have sex with others for money or drugs. The issue has risen to the forefront, though, especially after a three-day, nationwide sweep this weekend in which the Federal Bureau of Investigation charged 159 men with various sex crimes and human trafficking and rescued more than 105 child victims from motels, casinos and truck stops.
The suspected pimps were found in 76 U.S. cities as part of what officials called the largest-ever operation against child sex-trafficking. Three of the victims are from Maine.
Sting operation aside, awareness has been building about the crime. A 2005 legislative resolve established Maine’s first Human Trafficking Task Force, which spawned legislation and additional study groups. The second annual Not Here Conference on human trafficking and exploitation took place last October in Auburn. In addition, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault developed a central website, mainesten.org, devoted to the issue and available resources in the state.
A logical next step is to expand awareness-building into reaching more victims so they can get the help they need. The Greater Portland Coalition Against Sex Trafficking and Exploitation has started this endeavor and is building a network of professionals to prevent and respond to commercial sexual exploitation in southern Maine.
Similar efforts are being developed in Bangor, Lewiston and Auburn.
How can shelter workers, mental health and medical professionals, domestic and sexual violence advocates, and police work together to provide victims the help they need? Even if they can’t get adult victims out of exploitative situations, they can help increase their safety, provide medical care or simply be a supportive presence.
To do this, they must figure out how to streamline their response. Do shelter workers and police, first of all, know what to look for to identify a trafficking victim? When they meet someone they believe to be a trafficking victim, what do they say and do? Are resources for mental health counseling, transitional or permanent housing, and education or job training programs readily available to victims no matter which professional they encounter first?
Each provider can only meet a couple needs. Assistance is more effective if all pertinent human service agencies work together in a formalized, integrated way. It may seem like an obvious approach, but any change to a system takes diligence and time. Police and staff working with victims will need more training. They’ll need funding. And they’ll need legislative and public support.
Maine residents may be more aware of sex trafficking now, but they might not realize the extent to which it is deeply connected to other societal problems, such as drug abuse, assault or property crimes like theft and burglary. “If you pull back the covers on drug trafficking, I guarantee you there is sex trafficking as well,” said Destie Hohman Sprague, one of Maine’s leading victim advocates on the issue.
Sex trafficking may contribute to other crimes, or, in some cases, it is the root of them. A successful state response to help victims find safety and recovery will help improve communities as a whole.