LORETTO – A vulnerable drug-addicted teenage girl is kept for hours in a dingy hotel room being forced to have sex with a series of strangers who learned about her services by searching on the internet.
Her compensation at the end of the ordeal might be some heroin and a little bit of money.
It is a scene many local residents would associate with far-off foreign countries where corrupt law enforcement systems turn a blind eye toward women being kidnapped, smuggled across borders, and held hostage. But that type of exploitation is actually taking place in communities all throughout Pennsylvania, including the Johnstown region.
In an attempt to draw attention to the issue, the Cambria County Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) held the Modern Day Slavery: Human Trafficking in Our Neighborhoods conference for social workers, law enforcement officers and others on Monday at Saint Francis University.
“I think that's one of the hardest things that we face, the uphill battle of people thinking trafficking is international, and it's people being kidnapped, and put into servitude,” SART coordinator Erika Brosig said. “When, in reality, these are people that might be our next-door neighbors or kids down the street who are being exploited.”
Brosig said the local sex trafficking business is linked to the ongoing opioid epidemic.
“We know that we have a huge opioid epidemic here,” Brosig said. “That really comes essentially with an increase in human trafficking. Whenever you think about the drug trade, dealers can make so much money on heroin, but when they sell that heroin that heroin is gone. The difference with humans is that they don't go away. You can use that person over, and over, and over, and over again. And they're continuously making money. The amount of money that people can make is gigantic, and they realize that.”
The conference included keynote addresses and workshops.
Marlene Carson shared her own story of surviving domestic minor sex trafficking. She was taken at age 15 and forced into prostitution before eventually getting free. “It was because of people like this that are in your county that were compassionate enough, that cared enough, that were able to ask the right questions because of education awareness that I am here today and able to talk to other people about it,” said Carson, founder of The Switch, a national anti-trafficking network.
She continued: “The challenge is that people can't wrap their minds around it. They can't wrap their minds around the fact that their neighbor's kid, who they watched grow up since she was a little kid, is now 15 and potentially vulnerable to human trafficking.”
Shea Rhodes, director of the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, discussed the need to go after sex purchasers, instead of only concentrating on the exploited woman.
“The purchase of sex is what drives the trafficking industry,” Rhodes said. “If there weren't people purchasing sex, traffickers would ultimately go out of business. That's what fuels it. It's absolutely happening in all 67 counties in the commonwealth to the best of my knowledge.”
Rhodes said there is no typical sex purchaser, but pointed out statistics show many tend to be educated and employed white males between ages 30 and 41. “If you have that type of a demographic in your community, a portion of that is likely purchasing sex which is fueling the sex trafficking industry,” Rhodes said.