A new report representing perhaps the most thorough study of Maine’s shadowy human trafficking scene to date estimates that hundreds of people are victims of sex trafficking here every year.
The report, produced by South Portland consultants Hornby Zeller Associates for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is the culmination of months researching the extent to which sex trafficking takes place in Maine and what steps can be taken to curb it.
The presence of commercial sexual exploitation in the state has been reported previously, but most efforts to quantify it have been anecdotal and imperfect — like tracking the numbers of calls from Maine to a national human trafficking hotline.
The Hornby Zeller report goes several steps further and includes information gathered from six months of interviews with advocates, clinicians, police, service providers, current sex workers, survivors of sex trafficking and others.
The firm also compiled numbers from a range of sources, including local and national advocacy groups, as well as law enforcement agencies, to arrive at an educated — if broad — estimate for how prevalent sex trafficking is here.
“The prevalence estimates included in this report are not meant to provide a precise number of human trafficking victims in Maine but rather to show the potential scope of the problem,” the study authors caution, in part. “Using all the data sources available in Maine, the estimated number of sex trafficking cases in Maine ranges from a low of 79 to a high of 893.”
Here are five key things the new research tells us about sexual exploitation in Maine:
There is a narrower range of estimates
Hornby Zeller didn’t just look at police reports and phone calls and take them at face value. The group applied what industry experts know about crime statistics, for instance, to the issue of human trafficking to get closer to what it calls a “conservative estimate” that between 200 and 300 people in Maine are victims of sex trafficking annually.
Data from the annual and oft-cited Maine Crime Victimization Survey suggest that only about 14 percent of sexual assault victims report those crimes to police, for instance. So in order to gauge how often sexual assault occurs in Maine, researchers take the number of sexual assault complaints filed and assume it represents only about 14 percent of the actual occurrences — multiplying that number by about seven would provide the real figure.
Hornby Zeller researchers similarly assumed that only about 14 percent of sex trafficking cases were reported to police, and multiplied those numbers accordingly.
The firm also considered the crime survey’s determination that about 2.81 percent of sexual assault victims were also victims of human trafficking, and applied that percentage to the estimated number of sexual assault cases in the state.
Hornby Zeller overlaid those data points and added context from the aforementioned interviews and other sources to arrive at the narrower conservative estimates.
Police see victims, but aren’t aware of all the resources available
The report finds that there’s a stubborn blindspot among many of the first people to come across victims of sex trafficking.
When surveyed, nearly 40 percent of Maine law enforcement officers said they’d seen a trafficking case within the previous year. But 71 percent of all the officers surveyed were “not familiar with any organizations in Maine addressing human trafficking,” according to the Maine Sex Trafficking & Exploitation Network, an arm of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault raising awareness of the recent study.
Less than half of those officers (44 percent) said their departments are not prepared to handle cases of trafficking involving minors, while about half (51 percent) said their departments are trained to handle cases of sex trafficking.
The report’s authors note the importance of continuing to raise awareness of the activity and organizations working to help survivors, as well as the fact that, starting next year, “the Maine Criminal Justice Academy will require human trafficking training for all full-time personnel.”
Here’s the profile of a typical sexual exploitation and trafficking victim in Maine
Victims of sex trafficking in Maine are most often white females as young as 14 years old and as old as 30, according to the report. Other frequent characteristics include histories of sexual abuse or domestic violence, the absences of supportive caregivers and some experience with drug use.
Although Hornby Zeller found that the state’s most populous counties of Cumberland and York have the most resources available for victims, those pulled into sex slavery come from a range of both urban and rural backgrounds.
Traffickers use a number of methods to snare victims: They take advantage of drug dependencies; promise lucrative careers without disclosing the true nature of the jobs; or build trust through romantic relationships before turning abusive and exploitative.
In a 2014 interview with Seacoast Media Group, former York County woman and sex trafficking survivor Jasmine Marino-Fiandaca tells a tale that researchers suggest is heartbreakingly common among victims:
“When I was around the age of 19, I was in a relationship with a man who was my boyfriend, he wasn’t much older than me. He began to groom me, which means he told me how much he loved me, how special I was. He had me loving and trusting him, so I had no reason not to believe him. We were in a relationship. But shortly after that was when he began to brainwash me and manipulate me and basically coerce me into a life of prostitution, by promising me lots of things like money, a family, a business — and I believed him. Before I knew it, I was being trafficked or sold down at a brothel — which was a massage parlor — in Hartford, Connecticut. …
“Then I was sold on Craigslist. He had put ads for me on Craigslist, doing in-calls and out-calls. I was with him for five years. I tried to escape many times, but it was very difficult because of the manipulation, the brainwashing, the abuse, the beatings and just the lack of resources and places for me to go.”
There’s an underground network for trafficking Maine men for sex as well
From the report:
“While women and children are more likely than men to be trafficked, male victims of trafficking are known, and their situations are complicated by gender stereotypes and stigma surrounding masculine identity and feelings of shame that accompany the physical and emotional trauma. In focus groups conducted for this needs assessment, participants described an ‘underground’ online network promoting and enabling the trafficking of men. Participants believed it was harder to see sex trafficking of men because men cover it up even more than women, and when confronted, men are less open about their victimization.”
Maine has made progress combating sex trafficking, but there’s still work to do
The report noted that, since 2010, Maine has instituted mandatory human trafficking training for law enforcement officers, launched six coalitions and task forces to address the issue, and — through Portland service provider Preble Street — has put $400,000 in federal grant money to work identifying and helping victims.
Lawmakers in 2014 also passed a bill by then-Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, aiming to provide victims a possible legal defense against criminal prostitution charges and giving them access to the state’s Victim’s Compensation Fund, among other measures.
But Hornby Zeller researchers recommend additional steps to take, including educating communities about red flags; connecting with schools to focus on preventing young adults from becoming victims; picking one state agency to be in charge of collecting, analyzing and sharing data about sex trafficking; and improving services available to victims 24 hours a day.
Destie Sprague, a program coordinator for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said that while much of the infrastructure is in place to help victims of commercial sexual exploitation, more resources are needed, as well as a wider understanding about the more common conditions that lead people into what’s often called “the life.”
“Many people think of it as a silo issue, and it’s not,” said Sprague, who said gaps in health insurance, shelter space, drug treatment and stable housing make already at-risk people increasingly vulnerable to traffickers.
“Even if we had county-by-county case workers specially trained to respond to victims of sex trafficking, that wouldn’t fix the health insurance or shelter problems,” she said.