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December 13, 2013 President’s Message
Human Trafficking

by Nancy L. Heilman

How could it be happening right here in Western Pennsylvania? Few of us know that human trafficking is occurring in our community. Until we are aware that sex trafficking and labor trafficking exist here, there is little we can do about it.

It is happening on farms, in restaurants, hotels, factories, massage parlors, on the streets, at casinos and sports venues. Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel a victim to provide labor or services. Victims are controlled through isolation, debt bondage, psychological manipulation, and confiscation of passports, visas, or other personal information necessary for freedom of movement.

Commonly referred to as slavery, it is the third largest and fastest growing criminal industry in the world and it occurs all over the United States, particularly in cities like Houston where international airports, seaports, and intersections of interstate highways facilitate the transport of its victims.

Pittsburgh also offers such transport to traffickers, who utilize Interstate 70, Interstate 79 and the parkways to shuttle victims from place to place. These victims typically do not have contact with family or friends or, if they do, the family is under threat of harm if the victim tries to escape. In the case of sex trafficking, the victims generally are teenage girls ranging in age from 13 to 17, although recent statistics show that boys and men also are victims, particularly of labor trafficking.

On Oct. 14, ACBA Executive Director David Blaner and I met with the Honorable David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Mr. Hickton has established a Civil Rights Section, led by Section Chief Shaun E. Sweeney, which prioritizes human trafficking prosecutions. In cooperation with Supervisory Special Agent Bradley Orsini and Special Agent Denise Holtz of the FBI, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Lieber Smolar recently obtained the section’s first guilty plea from a trafficker who marketed and transported a 15 year-old runaway as a prostitute. This sentence of 12 years in prison and five years of supervised release is an excellent result, considering the teenager avoided testifying at trial.

On Nov. 12, David Blaner and I attended a meeting of the Western Pennsylvania Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition. This community-based organization is dedicated to educating the western Pennsylvania region about modern slavery and providing support to survivors. Dr. Mary Burke, a Carlow University psychology professor, directs the work of the coalition, which provides food, housing, immigration status help, health care and mental health counseling for victims engaged in prostitution or illegal labor.

Identifying victims presents a tremendous challenge because traffickers prey on excluded populations, who come from backgrounds that make them reluctant to seek help from authorities or are otherwise particularly vulnerable—marginalized ethnic minorities, undocumented immigrants, the indigent, and persons with disabilities. The coalition seeks to educate the public about recognizing potential victims and reporting suspicious activity.

What can ACBA members do? We can educate ourselves to the enormity of the problem right here in our hometown. We can participate in the Coalition’s Open House in January. We can attend the coalition’s quarterly meetings and join the Coalition’s Services Committee, through which we can identify survivors who require legal services. We can engage our attorneys who have taken the Allegheny County Bar Foundation’s Pro Bono Pledge to offer much-needed services to victims who have been converted to survivors. We can take to heart the words of William Wilberforce, one of only a handful of people who thought anything could be done about the slave trade in the late 1700s: “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”