Human Trafficking Becoming the ‘Dirty Little Secret’ in America’s Suburbs

By Carolyn Davis on August 4, 2014—
“While other 7-year-olds were playing with dolls and going to summer camp, Amy was being prostituted on the streets of Texas, Virginia, and Oregon.

By her grandfather.

Now deceased, he pushed her into the commercial sex trade as a prostitute and recruiter of other girls.

Ten years later, a man in the Doylestown area bought the remaining days of her adolescence and became her pimp. She lived in a pricey Doylestown apartment for a couple of years, working in the adult-movie and sex industries.

Amy, who asked to be identified by only a fictitious first name, says she was so inured at that point to her life as a sex worker she didn’t see the wrong that had been done to her.

“I knew what human trafficking and sex trafficking were,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday from another part of the country where she now lives. “I didn’t know I was being trafficked.”

Human trafficking, called a modern-day form of slavery, has been gaining a higher profile recently, with more cases emerging in suburbs and towns outside Philadelphia and more groups forming to battle it.

“It’s happening right under everyone’s nose,” said John Kelleghan, special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Investigations in Philadelphia.

There are two types of human trafficking – sex trafficking and labor trafficking, when people are forced to work without pay in places like nail salons, restaurants, on farms, or as nannies and housekeepers.

But it’s the sex trafficking that has gotten more attention lately.

Last week, the FBI announced that a three-day operation in 76 cities had led to the rescue of 105 children who had been trafficked into the commercial sex trade. Two of the children were in Philadelphia suburbs.

Authorities also arrested 152 pimps on state and federal charges, including five in New Jersey.

Local law enforcement agencies that participated included those in Bensalem Township, Tinicum Township, and Upper Merion, and, in New Jersey, Atlantic City, Galloway Township, and Egg Harbor City.

The scale of the problem is huge – and it’s not just a big-city problem.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline received 20,652 calls nationwide in 2012, many of them tips or crisis calls from victims or those who suspect trafficking is occurring, including 461 from Pennsylvania and 330 from New Jersey.

Unlike cities, where trafficked girls often are visibly on the streets working as prostitutes, in the suburbs, the problem is more discreet, said Kate Keisel, director of the national nonprofit Polaris Project’s program in New Jersey.

Trafficked women in suburbia are offered up for sex in ads on Internet sites. They often work in brothels advertised as “massage parlors.”

Those parlors are everywhere, Keisel said. “They are in every suburb. I would say they cater to more of the suburban communities.”

A survey her program conducted three years ago found about 525 massage businesses operated in New Jersey as fronts for brothels. The businesses were, Keisel said, “very discreet, operating in extremely affluent suburbs.””

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