Human trafficking of minors is a scourge not often recognized by the general public, according to a coalition of federal and local law enforcement, county officials and private partners dedicated to assisting victims and prosecuting perpetrators.
In commemoration of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, several joined Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Wednesday to announce multiple efforts toward those ends.
"Human trafficking is a criminal industry that often goes unnoticed," said Flynn, who added that his office is committed to investigating allegations of abuse in all forms and aggressively prosecuting traffickers.
Among the efforts has been an expansion of the Erie County Human Trafficking Unit housed within the District Attorney's Office, where Sheriff Timothy Howard said he has assigned a detective and deputy to conduct proactive investigations into human trafficking.
The Sheriff's Office works in collaboration with police departments in the Town of Tonawanda and Amherst, as well as the International Institute of Buffalo. The collaborations include training and resource-sharing to implement a victim-centered approach to addressing the problem.
"A victim-based approach is the only way to attack these nefarious criminals that prey on others," said Special Agent in Charge Kevin Kelly of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, during a news conference in the District Attorney's Office Wednesday.
Kelly said Homeland Security has a large global footprint and affiliations with law enforcement — which helps the agency generate human trafficking tips worldwide.
"Our strategy relies on prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership," Kelly said.
Local agencies operate with the same goal, said Flynn, who noted that one of the pivotal players is the International Institute of Buffalo.
Its executive director, Eva Hassett, said a major innovation has been to refer cases of human trafficking to more than one agency and to have them work cases together.
"We've also gotten smarter at working with trafficked youth and working with those who might be vulnerable to trafficking," Hassett said.
In 2018, she said, the International Institute trained 1,314 people who work directly with youth to identify a potential trafficking situation or youth at risk of being trafficked. Those who received training included 90 Erie County social services department employees, along with judges, foster care workers, youth probation officers, teachers and medical, substance and mental health care providers — even hotel staff.
"We hold public sessions about this, too," Hassett said.
She said the institute's Safe Harbor program served 115 trafficked and at-risk minors in Erie County, 99 percent of whom are U.S. citizens. When rescued, often they possess little more than the clothes on their backs, Hassett said.
As part of the program, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children donated 75 Hope Bags to the Erie County Human Trafficking Task Force that contain clothes, shoes, toiletries and snacks to meet basic needs.
Hassett added there is no one type of victim who can fall victim to traffickers. There are some high correlations between human trafficking and homeless youth and runaways, Hassett said.
"Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth can be up to five times more likely than heterosexual youth to be victims of trafficking," Hassett said.
She said some of the behaviors that portend a risk of being trafficked include truancy, mentioning travel to other cities, a lack of control over their personal schedule, responses to questions that appear to be coached or rehearsed, sudden changes in attire, acquiring expensive possessions a child otherwise could not afford and uncommon promiscuity.
"All of these things would be things that warrant attention or calling the hotline... or law enforcement," Hassett said.
Those who spoke Wednesday advised members of the public with information about suspected trafficking to call Buffalo Crime Stoppers at 867-6161.