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New York State’s Safe Harbour Project is working to combat human trafficking

Human trafficking is modern-day slavery. It is a human rights violation in which people are bought and sold like commodities so their traffickers can profit from exploiting them for labor or sex. While it may sound like a Third World problem, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center says New York State is among the top four states where human trafficking occurs.

Human trafficking victims are among us, yet they are often unseen. They may be accused of committing crimes or of being traffickers themselves, when the reality is that they are being coerced or preyed upon by others. Victims are often girls and women, but a significant number of boys are victimized, too.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo established a state Interagency Task Force to help New Yorkers recognize and report human trafficking and to train law enforcement and social and human services personnel to spot it. Efforts also include educational outreach and an awareness campaign along the New York State Thruway.

Education and awareness initiatives are paying off. Recently, law enforcement officers arrested 30 people related to a Syracuse-area sex trafficking ring with 18 young female victims; a Rochester sting netted seven arrests and spared a group of nine girls from sexual servitude; and two men were arrested in Watertown, accused of drugging and prostituting two victims.

The New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) works to combat human trafficking through efforts that include the Safe Harbour Project, which assists local social services and volunteer agencies in developing and providing services such as safe housing or emergency housing, mental health counseling, medical care, substance abuse counseling and education and employment skills for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation.

The OCFS also trains people working in child welfare, law enforcement and other fields to look for signs that a young person may be a victim of human trafficking. The agency now requires that child welfare workers screen children in their care and those they encounter through child protective services to determine if they have been victims of sex trafficking or are at risk of being victimized. Those children can then be referred for services to address their victimization or to prevent future victimization. This is an important step in combatting sex trafficking of children in foster care and children who have experienced abuse and/or neglect.

Many of the populations the OCFS serves are particularly at risk of trafficking, including children who have histories of physical, sexual or emotional abuse; young people who have substance abuse or mental health issues; youth in foster care or the juvenile justice system; runaways or homeless youth; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning youth.

Traffickers may exploit a teen who has run away from physical or sexual abuse at home, or one who has been rejected by family because of his or her sexuality or gender identity. Traffickers also exploit immigrants, requiring people to work at extremely low wages to satisfy a “debt.”

How can you tell if a child is a victim of trafficking? Look for the signs. The child frequently runs away from home; spends a lot of time with a controlling older person; is being stalked; has a violent intimate partner; won’t discuss where he/she got money or why he/she has things beyond his/her means; is “working” and not in school; has gaps in his/her story; is fearful, anxious or showing signs of being traumatized; is disconnected socially; or has unexplained or untreated injuries.

Together, we must all fight labor and sex trafficking. Be aware of the signs where you work or do business. Talk to your children about healthy romantic relationships so they can protect themselves and recognize vulnerability in their friends. Mentor a young person who lacks a stable home environment.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Let us observe it by becoming ever more vigilant in stopping this modern-day slavery and compassionately supporting survivors as they work to restore their lives.

If you suspect an adult or child is being victimized, report it to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888 or by texting 233733. If you suspect criminal activity, notify law enforcement. For more information, visit ocfs.ny.gov/main/humantraffic/.

Sheila J. Poole is acting commissioner of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.