State official seeks change in human-trafficking investigations

Andra Ackerman wants to change the way law enforcement investigates human trafficking.

Human trafficking is the modern equivalent of. Yet many victims of this crime have traditionally been viewed as “co-defendants ,” she says.

In 2007, New York state enacted its first human trafficking law, making it a crime punishable by up to 25 years in prison to sexually exploit a person, and up to seven years for labor exploitation. The law also makes social services available for most victims of human trafficking.

Since then, there’s been only one conviction under New York’s sex-trafficking statute — a Queens man, David Brown, 32, was convicted this month of making a young woman have sex with “dozens of men” after he purchased her for $2,000 from an old girlfriend, said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

Ackerman, 38, a former prosecutor, is director of the state Office of Human Trafficking and Prevention, with the Division of Criminal Justice Services in Albany. Her office was created when the trafficking law was enacted.

She compares the need for additional training and a change in attitude toward victims of sex trafficking to the shift in how people have perceived domestic violence cases since the 1970s.

“Now we have a situation where domestic violence presents a challenge to law enforcement,” but it is surmountable, she said.

Another challenge is convincing local law enforcement that human trafficking is not only a big-city problem.

Ackerman tries to combat this notion by showing local examples of possible sex-trafficking cases when she holds training sessions.

For a recent conference in Kingston, she pulled Hudson Valley Craigslist postings showing very young-looking girls advertising adult services.

“Some of these girls have bodies that are not even fully developed,” she said.

Ackerman contends she’s not defending all prostitutes.

“Someone who is engaging in ‘classic prostitution’ and is the sole proprietor should be held accountable because they are committing a crime in the state,” she said.

“But if you have someone who appears to have committed prostitution and their ‘boyfriend’ took their ID away, that’s an indication that there’s something else going on,” she said.

“If the perpetrator provided them drugs to get them to engage in the activity, or if he’s threatened them in any way, or made false promises , those are also indications,” she said.

Building these cases takes a lot of time and resources and many police agencies are short-staffed or facing cutbacks.

“Traffickers know these cases are time-consuming, that the girls have credibility issues. They choose them for a reason,” she said.

Also, many of these women have children and may live with the perpetrator , she said.

If someone is found to be a victim of human trafficking, they become eligible for immediate crisis services, including shelter, health care, mental-health care, legal services and safety planning, regardless of immigration status, said Christa Stewart, coordinator of the state’s Anti-Trafficking Program with the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

Minor dependents are also included under this provision, she said.

While only one human trafficking conviction has resulted so far, Stewart said her office has referred almost 100 victims for services as a result of this law.

Of those, 38 were labor trafficking victims and 61 were sex trafficking victims.

None was from Dutchess or Ulster counties, said Anthony Farmer, acting director of public information for the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

Stewart also paralleled human trafficking to domestic violence.

“Domestic violence used to be thought of as a family matter,” she said. “It’s a very hidden problem.”

Federal laws also protect victims of human trafficking.

But cases of one or two local victims can fall through the cracks or don’t fall under federal jurisdiction, Ackerman said.

“These girls are some of the most vulnerable people,” she said. “Many are kids.”


Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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