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Sen. Andrew Lanza, a sponsor of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in the New York State Senate. Photo: <a href="http://www.nysenate.gov/senator/andrew-j-lanza">Sen. Lanza website</a><br />
Sen. Andrew Lanza, a sponsor of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in the New York State Senate. Photo: Sen. Lanza website

Fighting sex trafficking in New York state

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Forcing young women and men into a life of prostitution is a very lucrative business.

It may sound like the stuff of Hollywood, but the sex trafficking trade is alive and well in Central New York, but a movement to end it in New York State is gathering momentum, with a bill in the legislature to protect those who are trafficked, and bring traffickers to justice.

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Reported by

Ellen Abbott
Reporter, WRVO

Elisa Morales is the Syracuse Spanish Action League staffer who works with many of the victims of human trafficking who find themselves in Central New York. She meets with them in local malls, college campuses, and parks.

"You know I have to tell you, the invisible people, they walk amongst us."

Sean Wrench is Executive Director of Forsaken Generation, a national group that wants to end human trafficking says this forced prostitution happens all over America. He says traffickers buy and sell young women, using threats and other forms of coercion for force them into lives as sex slaves. And, he says, the average American is unaware this goes on under their nose.

"Every hour 34 women are forced into prostitution in the United States. That's what should shock people. Every hour, 34 kids. And most people don't realize this is happening in our country. They think it is happening in other countries."

The Spanish Action League, on Syracuse's Near West Side, has become a touchpoint on this issue. The group focuses on counseling, advocacy and education for the city's growing Latino Commmunity.  They started noticing, about three years ago, an influx of women controlled by traffickers, looking for help. Executive Director Rita Panaigua says in many cases it's because they know people at the League will speak Spanish.

Panaiagua says some victims of human trafficking often don't know what city they are in, much less what country, as they are ferried across the world in the dark of night….being sold outright, or being used to satisfy family debts. These women need a broad range of services, from legal help to mental health counseling. She remembers the case of a woman from Brazil, who found herself as a sex slave, living in Syracuse with her trafficker. She says the trafficker said he would take away her child, "that she would never see her child grow up. So now we have a domestic violence issue beyond the sex slavery."

That's why the Spanish Action League has signed on to support the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act. Emily Amick is the legislative coordinator of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition. She says there's optimism on this front in Albany.

"The TVPJA, which is being sponsored by Assemblywoman Paulin and Senator Lanza, is currently in the Codes Committee and we are excited we are building more support in the legislature and more people are coming on as co-sponsors."

She also notes three of the coalition's goals are included in Governor Cuomo's proposed Ten Point Women's Policy Agenda. The big one, says Wrench, would stiffen charges against traffickers. Right now if they're caught, traffickers face misdemeanor charges. Wrench says that has to change.

 "Trafficking needs to be a violent felony in NYS. It's not a violent felony, so we need to have better protections for the kids. We need to put these traffickers away. And right now that's not happening in New York State."

In the meantime, Morales continues meeting with local and federal agencies, trying to help these victims unshackle themselves. And she says sometimes there are happy endings. She was able to successfully help one woman who found the strength to break away from her trafficker. Morales says it started simply, as the woman was walking through the Destiny USA Mall with her trafficker at her side.

 "She's not giving an indication that she needed help. You can't see the chains, but they're definitely there. And she says as she was walking she made eye contact with a stranger. And the stranger smiled at her. And for that brief moment she says she felt human, and that changed her life."

 Ellen Abbott reports for WRVO News in Oswego.

 

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