Sex trafficking is here, largely fueled by social media

Rachel Lloyd, left, listens to Ebony in the exposé “Very Young Girls.” Lloyd, who was once a victim of sex trafficking herself, tries to help Ebony and other girls escape from the life.

“As much as we think sex trafficking is a New York City problem, it’s here,” said Melissa Breger, a professor at Albany Law School, addressing two score people who gathered there last Thursday for a forum on the topic. “We hear that girls are being trafficked out of Crossgates,” she said of the mall in suburban Guilderland.

Breger also said, “Whether you choose to see it is up to you.” She urged, “Be vigilant about how we can affect this epidemic,” which she said is “in every single town and village across the country.”

Asked about trafficking out of Crossgates, Guilderland’s police chief, Carol Lawlor, said she didn’t have specifics to share. “I don’t want to say that’s not happening ...

“When we get a chance, we go through social media,” said Lawlor, seeking leads on local solicitations. But she noted the department has limited resources and doesn’t have an officer dedicated to that task.

Lawlor also told The Enterprise, “People selling themselves are the victims. We would be sensitive to that kind of thing. Nothing is black and white anymore,” she said. “It’s a very, very sad situation.”

The centerpiece of the Feb. 22 forum, which was hosted by the Sex Trafficking Committee of the Capital District Women’s Bar Association, was a documentary co-produced by Rachel Lloyd, a sex trafficking survivor herself, who founded GEMS, the only option in New York State specifically for girls who have been commercially sexually exploited. The acronym stands for Girls Educational & Mentoring Services.

“Very Young Girls”

The film, “Very Young Girls,” features interviews with girls who at 12, or 13, or 14 were drawn into sex trafficking. The heartbreaking interviews are interspersed with gritty video made by two brothers, New York City pimps, Anthony and Chris Griffith, who wanted to launch a reality TV show. Their videos were later used to convict them of trafficking minors over state lines; the brother are serving 10 years in federal prison.

The scenes shot by the pimps mirror what the girls being interviewed say happened to them. Shaneiqua, for example, says she was 12 when when a pimp solicited her. He was 29 or 30. “I felt it was cool … for an old dude to be interested in me.” She describes having sex with him and being in a “honeymoon period” where he treated her to movies and meals.

“Would you do anything for me?” Shaneiqua recalls him asking. “I would love you more if you brought in money.”

This cuts to a scene from the pimps’ film where a girl in the back seat of their car is crying and told she has to have sex for money. She says, “I just never did nothing like that before.”

Then the documentary returns to Shaneiqua who recalls how she felt after having sex for money as her pimp had insisted: “My whole body felt dead.”

She also recalls her pimp telling her, “You don’t ... run away from here,” and he started raping her anally. “I felt it was my fault,” she says. “I shouldn’t have disobeyed him.”

She says, “I felt like this was his body. If he wanted to cut my foot off, he could cut my foot off.”

The stories of these girls unfold in bits and pieces, told in their own words, usually as they look straight at the camera.

The documentary first portrays Shaquanna in a hospital bed with a face so badly beaten that she has to be given liquids through a plunger inserted between her broken teeth. At 15, she was found unconscious by a road after running away from her pimp.

“He sent me out to make $500 in one night, which is impossible,” she says. “I thank God I don’t remember what happened.”

Dominique, who wanted to be an archeologist, fled domestic violence, leaving her home at 13. She recalls taking about four steps when “a man pull up” and said, “I can be like your father.” She got in his car. At first, she felt like his daughter. In bed, she said, he’d “hold me like a kid.”

Later, she shows the block at Hunt’s Point in the Bronx where she was made to work. “You circle around so you get noticed,” Dominique says, describing 15 or 20 girls working the block and “20 cars line up, trying to get in.”

She recalls one night where “a lot of guys” were having sex with her. “I’m throwing up; they’re still trying to have sex with me … I ran home.” She is told her father will beat her and her mother, on camera, calls her “despicable.”

“I’m homeless,” says Dominique. “Where do I go from there?” She said she didn’t have any options because she’d have to be 18 to go to a shelter. She thought about ending her life.

The documentary also shows a girl named Kim who tried to leave her pimp and was told the next time she tried to leave, “He’d put me in a suitcase.”

“They try to isolate you from your everyday life,” says Staci,” another victim of sex trafficking.

“I’m his investment, his way of making money” says yet another victim, named Martha. She says, through tears, she forgave her parents for not coming to save her.

This cuts to a scene of a woman named LaSharon who is desperately trying to find her missing daughter, handing out flyers. She gets a tip from a girl and goes to a New York Police Department precinct, telling the officer there about girls being locked in an apartment.

“What do you want me to do?” the officer answers. “We need a court order.”

A scene follows of the “Brooklyn John School,” held by the district attorney’s office. The room is packed with men of different ages and ethnicities. They are told their cases will be dismissed in six months with clean records. A woman at a lectern tells them that, even if the girls they are paying to have sex with look or act older, their average age is 13 to 14. “I’m not here to make moral judgements against you,” she says.

A man raises his hands with a question and she calls on him. “How long before the break?” he asks as the room of men laugh and laugh.

The next scene is in court where Nicole is tried for prostitution. She had stepped off a train and, she says, “Some dude said, ‘I’ll give you a ride,’ He wouldn’t let me out … He said, if I tell anyone, he’d get someone to kill me.”

Nicole’s lawyer said she was forced, at 13, to have sex with 30 men in four or five days. Nicole’s mother, crying, says, “She was treated like a criminal — taken to jail instead of to a hospital.”

The judge, noting Nicole’s drug test is negative, grants her parole, to be released in her mother’s custody; she must go to GEMS twice a week.

At GEMS, Lloyd, the organization’s founder who is identified in the film like the other women, only by her first name, Rachel, tells a group of girls there, “We’re about your future.”

She also says her goal is to make each girl feel loved and special. “Our primary competition is pimps,” says Lloyd.

Among the scenes shot at the GEMS headquarters is one of a girl signing in for the first time. She doesn’t know who she is — whether she should sign with her given name, Carolina, or her street name, Vanessa.

A foster child, she was in a group home when, at 16, she took a bus to New York City. “This Cadillac pulls up,” she recalls. The 30-year-old man driving motioned her over. She got in.

Finally, she signs on as Carolina.

But later Carolina returns to her pimp. “The only way it will end for me is if I die,” she says

The film proceeds to follow the girls as they try to regain a sense of their own worth, looking for work or resuming schooling. Some relapse and go back to their pimps. Carolina lands in jail for prostitution but, when she comes out, decides to live with her mother and make a new life for herself.

She was upset she was in jail for someone else’s crime, she says. “I wanted to be me.”

“There’s no magic cure,” says Lloyd. “There’s no detox; there’s no methadone.”

Lloyd, on vacation in Florida, looks up one the former GEMS girls, Ebony, back on the streets, in Miami, and coaxes her home.

“Everybody misses you,” Lloyd tells Ebony. “They love you.”

As Lloyd and Ebony drive in a car to the airport, Ebony gets a call from her pimp. “He know everybody everywhere,” says Ebony.

“You ever thought about pressing charges?” asks Rachel. “It will not get better. You deserve to have better … I can’t make those choices for you.”

After two weeks back at GEMS, Ebony returned to Miami. She didn’t like people looking at her sideways.

The documentary has a few upbeat scenes. In one, the GEMS girls applaud Lloyd as she accepts the Humanitarian Rights Award from Reebok. She tells the crowd that it’s a human-rights issue that girls are bought and sold by adult men, and, “We look the other way.”

Dominique, who came to GEMS when she was 16, at 20 becomes an activist, “fighting for a cause.” She says, “I’m still struggling with what he did to me.” But she now works as a counselor at GEMS. She is shown getting her first apartment and marrying “a good man.”

The end of the documentary says that LaSharon found her daughter, and that Martha, Shaneiqua, Staci, and Kim are still out of the life.

Lloyd says of her work, “You hope for the best and you prepare for the worst.”

The local scene

Two  women who work with sexual trafficking survivors, Jen Abrams and Melanie Puorto-Conte, spoke at the Feb. 22 forum about their observations locally.

Abrams, a veteran of the United States Army, survived sexual harassment and assault during her enlistment, which inspired her to become a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor. She worked with recovering addicts, many of whom were sexual assault survivors and human trafficking victims, connecting them with the Victim Advocacy Services offered by Planned Parenthood.

She is now the program manager for Victim and Advocacy Services for Mohawk Hudson Planned Parenthood, which covers eight counties, and also co-chairs the Northeast Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Abrams spoke of the first time she was “freaked out” by a client’s story.

A woman at a halfway house said her mother started trafficking her at age 7, giving her to the landlord to cover the rent. She became an addict and was in and out of jail. She was raped so many times that she the last time she planted evidence.

Abrams went over the woman’s testimony with her — how she urinated in an ally, knowing the rapist’s sperm would be deposited there, how she planted a barrette in the backseat of his car.

“They busted this guy, who had raped several prostitutes,” said Abrams.

Only a tiny fraction of the cases of human trafficking are documented, Abrams said.

The state’s Office of Children and Family Services, she said, has a sex-trafficking indicator tool that asks direct questions. “We have a softer approach as an advocate. We’re trying not to scare them.”

She also said of the victims, “They don’t tell you the truth.” There is often brainwashing going on, she said, and they are fearful, with no place to go.

Puorto-Conte is the resource director at Safe Inc., a not-for-profit group that helps at-risk youth in Schenectady. She had formerly been the director of suicide prevention for the state’s Office of Mental Health. She said she got involved with her current work after 11 young girls committed suicide in Schenectady. “Gangs were trafficking them,” she said. “Killing themselves was the only way out … That started my journey.”

While the film “Very Young Girls” portrays girls soliciting on the street, Puorto-Conte said, “What we see locally is all the marketing on social media.” Generally, the currency used is bitcoin because it can’t be traced, making prosecution very difficult, she said.

Ads are posted on social media to find johns, and naive teens also expose themselves to exploitation on social media.

“Social media is anathem,” she said. “Kids put everything out there: I’m lonely, I’m sad, no one loves me.” This makes them vulnerable to predators.

Puorto-Conte urged, “Turn off your GPS.” She said there is software that finds victims and tracks them. YouTube even has videos on how to become a pimp, she said.

And, while the documentary portrayed girls being trafficked by male pimps, the traffickers can be siblings, gang members, or parents. Puorto-Conte said she is currently working with a girl from Niskayuna whose “mom got into heroin” and began selling her daughter to pay for her habit.

“Sextortion,” she said, also leads to trafficking.

Abrams said a lot of kids don’t know it’s a felony to send nude photos. “They’re all doing it,” she said. This leaves a teen open to extortion as he or she can be threatened with, “I have a picture of you. If you don’t do x, y, and z, I’ll share it on social media or with your parents,” said Abrams.

“A common denominator” among those vulnerable to sex trafficking, said, Puorto-Conte, is they have been sexually abused by a relative or familiar person at a very young age.

Often, too, there is parental absence or neglect, frequently with one or more parent incarcerated.

She also said that drugs are often involved and cited a case from last June at a Days Inn in Albany where she said the victims were “literally fed cocaine to keep them compliant.” Both of those victims are now in treatment, she said, one pregnant by her trafficker.

“A lot of the kids are runaways or in foster care,” said Puorto-Conte. “Kids will run from foster care. When they leave without consent, who are they running to?”

Young boys are also being trafficked locally, she said. She cited a confirmed case of a family placed by social services in a Schenectady County motel where two young boys were trafficked by a predator also in the motel.

“They work 365 days a year,” said Puerto-cone of victims of sex trafficking, often with 20 buyers a night, meeting a $1,000-a-night quota. “Each is earning 365,000 tax-free dollars for that pimp,” she said, over the course of a year, but is getting little or nothing in return.

She called the victims of sexual trafficking an “ostracized group,” noting they aren’t entitled to Social Security benefits. “Who takes care of them?” she asked.

She also said a frequent refrain among victims is, “I just want a normal life.”

The 2017 Trafficking Survivors Relief Act, if it passes, should help with that, allowing non-violent criminal charges to be expunged for victims of sex trafficking, which Puorto-Conte said would make it easier for them to get jobs and housing.

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