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Sex Trafficking a Growing Problem in the Pittsburgh Region

Human trafficking is one of the largest criminal enterprises in the world, affecting every country and cities large and small. Here in Pittsburgh, efforts are underway to combat the growing problem, but lawmakers have been slow to react and police are not always properly trained.

There are no hard and fast statistics when it comes to human trafficking in the U.S. It's a hard crime to track and prosecute, and many of those affected are either not aware they are victims, or are uncooperative with authorities.

Plus, there are many forms of human trafficking. There is what many think of: young girls brought to the U.S. from other countries for servitude or prostitution. But that wasn't the case with Theresa Flores. She was 15 years old when a boy from her high school drugged and raped her, all while others were taking pictures that were later used as blackmail to keep her doing what they wanted.

"For two years I proceeded to be their sex slave. They would pick me up at night and take me to peoples' homes and I'd have to service man after man until they were ready to take me back home again," said Flores.

Her family was living an upper-middle class life in suburban Detroit when she was trafficked. Even though she continued to live at home, her parents and friends never knew what was going on. She understands why it's hard to get women to open up; she never did.

"Because they threatened to kill my family. I was the oldest child and my dad traveled all the time. They said they'd kill my brothers, they'd kill my mom, and the threat of the pictures was huge," said Flores.

The trafficking stopped when her father got another job and her family moved. It wasn't until many years later that Flores realized what had happened to her. That's when she started sharing her story and reaching out to other victims.

Trafficking Looks Different with Each Case

Sex trafficking is the most common form of human trafficking. There's what Flores experienced, there's street and web-based prostitution, and there are operations that have seemingly legitimate businesses as fronts for brothels. The FBI estimates there are at least 15 of these in Pittsburgh, set up as Asian massage parlors. There are at least 7 other brothels in the remainder of Allegheny County. Not all Asian massage parlors are fronts; some are legitimate businesses, some may simply be fronts for prostitution, with women working voluntarily, and some are suspected to be part of larger human trafficking operations.

Those are the operations that most concern human services agencies and law enforcement officials.

"Human trafficking throughout the world is the second-largest criminal enterprise, second only to drug trafficking, so the economic impact is felt throughout the world," said Brad Orsini, an FBI Supervisory Special Agent.

Orsini is also a member of the Southwest Pennsylvania Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition. It's a group of law enforcement officials, religious groups, non-profits and citizens who work to combat sex trafficking. For law enforcement, it's not an easy job. Often, when a so-called illicit massage parlor is taken down, or prostitution arrests are made, it's not recognized for what it really is.

"Local police might work it as a sting operation, not realizing or being aware that on the back end some of these women may be trafficked from other areas of the country," said Orsini.

Law Enforcement Faces Challenges

But finding the time to dig deeper is not easy. The resources of local law enforcement agencies are limited. The Pittsburgh Police vice unit is responsible for enforcing anti-prostitution laws, but only has a handful of officers. But there is an ongoing campaign to help the community and law enforcement better understand sex trafficking.

"It's an awareness of past cases, trends of what we've seen, and also to educate them on what the law is, what our parameters are to actually work an investigation, and indicators, human trafficking indicators to get out to the patrol officer on the street," said Orsini.

The Southwest Pennsylvania Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition distributes little laminated cards to police and service agencies that list possible indicators of sex trafficking. They list signs to look for when scoping out a business they suspect is a front for prostitution, such as whether or not the women are free to come and go as they please, visible bruises on their bodies, and if they are threatened or coerced into performing sex acts.

Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, which is part of the Coalition, is even working on a training video which will go to law enforcement agencies around the region. Requests to see that video before its release were denied.

Coalition Work Praised

Since local law enforcement can't also be service providers and counselors, Pittsburgh Police Vice Detective Joe Ryczaj said the work of the coalition is a step in the right direction.

"When you've got multiple agencies working together instead of as individuals, it just strengthens the common goal, and that is to hopefully try and … it would be naïve to say we're going to eliminate this problem, but at least put a dent in it," he said.

Still, Ryczaj says even with an awareness of what to look for, it is almost always difficult to determine if there is something larger brewing.

"We will interview the girls to try and get a good understanding. 'How did you get to this point? What's going on? Are you on your own? Is someone else here with you? Are you working for an agency?' We'll ask them, 'Why are you doing this? Are you being forced to do this?' and typically the answer is they're doing it of their own free will," he said.

Without cooperation from the women, it's nearly impossible to get to a larger human-trafficking ring. And if police want to get to the ringleaders they have to be careful about treating the women as criminals.

"The victims are the ones who are penalized, they're the ones who are prosecuted, they're the ones who are put into jail or prison, they're the ones who are fined. Not the international crime ring, not the people who are doing the trafficking, not the brothel owners, but the women," said Jamie Turek, assistant director of the Project to End Human Trafficking and coalition member.

Law enforcement officials say regardless of whether or not they're being trafficked, a law has been broken, adding they treat women in custody with respect. They also say sometimes the women are better off in jail than on the streets. In jail, they wouldn't be subject to abuse by their captors or, in some cases, an arrest can alert parents or loved ones of a larger problem.

Laws Not Being Enacted

A Pittsburgh city ordinance that would have cracked down on illicit massage parlors died last year when it was never voted on in committee. The main sponsor of the bill has left office. Recent efforts to get state laws passed to crack down or strengthen penalties have not fared much better. They have all been tabled or killed. But it's an issue that everyone should be aware of.

"It transcends all divides of society. It can affect men, women, children — it can affect anybody," said Turek.

But even if police bust up all of the brothels and free all of the victims, there are still many more being trafficked on street corners or through web sites. In fact, the internet is one of the fastest-growing ways that women are being offered to a seemingly endless string of johns.