By Sheila J. Poole
Human trafficking is an insidious underground industry that profits from the exploitation of vulnerable individuals whom traffickers enslave.
Human traffickers force people to work against their will in terrible conditions for little or no pay. They may also coerce victims into the sex trade, luring them with false promises, only to imprison and abuse them. While human trafficking may sound like something that happens in faraway places, the truth is that it happens right here where we live.
January is national Human Trafficking Awareness Month and it provides us with an opportunity to educate all New Yorkers about recognizing the signs of human trafficking and reporting it. New York’s many ports of entry, state highway system and large population make it attractive to would-be criminals who would exploit children and vulnerable adults. In fact, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center ranks New York State fifth in the incidence of human trafficking in the United States.
People of all genders, sexual orientations and ages are victims of trafficking, but children are especially at risk. Youth with histories of physical, sexual or emotional abuse; substance abuse or mental health issues; in foster care; involved with the juvenile justice system; who are runaways or homeless; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning youth who are not accepted and supported in their homes and communities are especially attractive targets to traffickers.
Vulnerable youth who run away from home or are in foster care and have already been victimized are at greater risk of predators luring them into the commercial sex trade. The New York State Office of Children and Family Services invests significant resources in serving these populations.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the Safe Harbour for Exploited Children Act into law in 2015, making New York the first state in the nation to recognize youth who have been trafficked as victims of crimes, not perpetrators. Through Safe Harbour, New York’s child welfare system responds to young trafficking survivors and guides child welfare and other professionals to intercede with youth who are at risk of becoming victims. This program currently serves 52 counties statewide.
During this month, I urge parents to talk to their children about healthy romantic relationships, ask questions about and monitor their children’s online activity, and I ask all New Yorkers to be vigilant and report any suspicious activity.
Trafficking does not discriminate; it targets every community, every race, all socioeconomic strata, education levels, and ages. Only by working together can we stop human trafficking in New York State.
Sheila J. Poole is acting commissioner of the state Office of Children and Family Services.