Human Trafficking: A Hidden Crime in the Rivertowns

by Andrea Kott

teen trafficking night alone street teenager streetYou’ve seen them. Young people hawking candy bars outside CVS in Tarrytown. Teens or adults going door-to-door peddling magazine subscriptions. Some may claim to be fundraising for schools that, when pressed, they cannot name. Others may say they’re earning points for youth leadership programs that do not exist.

Such schemes could be signs of human trafficking and the youngsters, its victims, according to Alison Boak, co-founder and executive director of the International Organization for Adolescents (IOFA), at a breakfast sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Rivertowns held recently at the DoubleTree Hotel in Tarrytown. The trafficking of adults and children occurs throughout New York State, including Westchester County, and is difficult to spot, which underscores the importance of knowing how to recognize it, Boak said.

“Often you see human trafficking when other crimes are being committed: a kid stealing a car under duress or someone carrying drugs,” Boak said. Westchester, including its river towns, is a prime place for trafficking because of its proximity to New York City, large immigrant population, and businesses that rely on physical labor, she noted. “Theft, larceny, domestic violence. All of these crimes could have a human trafficking angle.”

It is important for communities and especially law enforcement to recognize possible signs of trafficking, Boak said. The Westchester County Anti-Trafficking Task Force provides such training to police departments once or twice a year at no cost.

“Local police are our first line of defense against trafficking,” Boak said. “They’re the eyes and ears of our communities. It’s critical that they get training on this issue.”

Sleepy Hollow Police Chief Anthony Bueti said he is working on scheduling a training for the department. Tarrytown Police Chief Scott Brown, who retired in June, did not respond to requests for comment.

Boak cited numerous examples of trafficking, including teenagers from Mexico who were made to work long hours without pay at New York State sleep away camps, and youngsters who were forced to work as maids or nannies. She described one watchful Westchester resident who reported seeing a young girl emerge from a nearby house only late at night to take out the trash. The girl was a trafficking victim.

Although not all youngsters selling candy bars or magazines are trafficked, their inability to name the school or other purpose for which they are fundraising could be a cluethat they are, Boak said. Other signs of trafficking include frequent school absences; perpetual exhaustion or sleeplessness; fear of employers or family members; or prohibitions against socializing or leaving home.

Trafficking is difficult to quantify because it often occurs inside private homes, and because its victims, who are commonly undocumented immigrants, do not report it, said Rebecca de Simone, director of the Human Trafficking Program for My Sisters’ Place, a White Plains–based organization that helps people who have experienced domestic violence or human trafficking.

In 2016, the Westchester County Department of Social Services received 193 referrals of young people under 18 who were at risk for exploitation and/or trafficking, de Simone said. In that same year, My Sisters’ Place had a combined total of 59 trafficking cases, 35 of which entailed labor—landscaping, massage parlors and domestic servitude, and 13 of which entailed sex trafficking, she added. In Westchester, human trafficking most frequently involves landscaping, construction, hospitality (catering, restaurants, golf courses) and domestic labor.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, traffickers target people who appear psychologically or emotionally vulnerable, which makes those fleeing economic hardship, family or political instability susceptible to promises of work, friendship or love. Minors who travel alone outside late at night or are regularly on social media are particularly at risk, as are:

  • children who have experienced sexual or physical abuse, or neglect;
  • children with a history of substance abuse;
  • children with disabilities;
  • LGBTQ youth;
  • refugees, immigrants, and non-English speaking youth;
  • children in foster care or who are involved with the justice system;
  • youth who are homeless or have left home.

Because traffickers often surveil their victims and may penalize them for attracting attention, good Samaritans must be cautious about offering help. Boak urges people to report non-urgent trafficking tips to the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888 or text BEFREE (233733).

“If you see someone next door who’s suspicious it’s best to call the hotline. If you see a kid being dragged down street it’s best to call 911,” she stressed.

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