Human Trafficking awareness highlights Lancaster County Crime Prevention Summit

LANCASTER, Pa. --- A meeting Friday morning aimed to bring a dark issue into the light.

A room filled with members of law enforcement agencies, school counselors, social workers and people from the general public came to learn more about the scope of human trafficking.

The morning was spearheaded by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Among the number of topics covered included misconceptions about the crime, how it can be spotted and who is affected and controlling the issue.

“Everyone has this notion in their mind when they think of human trafficking of an international victim being held in captivity and human trafficking is actually happening all around us," said Morgan.

Morgan said the average age of someone entering a human trafficking situation is between 14- and 15-years old.

She said it can be happening in any common place, including hotels and truck stops.

Calling human trafficking an "epidemic," she said she believes parents need to supervise and engage with their children about the subject, particularly when it comes to internet access.

“People are being lured by traffickers who pose as would-be boyfriends so when an older guy comes along and suddenly shows an interest in a ninth grader, parents need to be asking questions," said Morgan.

Sarah Fritz, community outreach coordinator with the Lancaster County District Attorney's Office, said one common misconception they face is a 'this can't happen here' mentality.

According to the Lancaster County District Attorney's Office, they're even faced with "hotspots," including the Route 30 corridor along Lincoln Highway East.

“Once people start having that realization, they can become part of the solution, being informed, and providing information to law enforcement," said Fritz.

The Lancaster County District Attorney has dealt with approximately five to ten sex trafficking cases since the creation of the statute in Pennsylvania in 2014.

Most recently, a New Jersey man was sentenced to up to 36 years in prison for a human trafficking ring he ran in Lancaster.

Brett Hambright with the Lancaster County District Attorney's Office said they are working on the creation of a county task force involving human trafficking to "give some municipal department investigators countywide jurisdiction, as many of these investigations cross municipal lines."

He also said they're working on a grant to create a protocol to specifically support victims of trafficking.

"A particularly difficult aspect of these investigations is keeping contact with the victims throughout the court process. For the victims not from this area, as many are not, or even this country, the process is foreign and can be somewhat intimidating. We do all we can now to accommodate, but an even stronger support system would be extremely beneficial in maintaining these prosecutions throughout the process," said Hambright in an email.

'She's Somebody's Daughter' is a non-profit organization that serves as a resource for women who have been sexually exploited in central PA.

Tanya Pearell, director of development, said just getting parents and school officials to talk about sex trafficking can go a long way.

“It makes the biggest difference in bringing…probably not an end but at least a lot less to this. It exposes it, which is one of the first step," said Pearell.

Morgan said changes have been made to Pennsylvania law to address the issue as of December 2018.

For example, Pennsylvania can no longer prosecute minors for prostitution in a move designed to prevent punishing victims of trafficking.

Also, there are increased penalties for people paying for sex in an effort to deter people from the market.

Previously, penalties amounted to citations.

Now, they can range on a misdemeanor to a felony scale.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.

Morgan recommended the Polaris Project as a resource to educate people on human trafficking.

She also recommended Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, or GEMS, as a resource for more information.

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