Look twice, save a life: Identifying Signs of Sex Trafficking in your Community.


Recently, the news of 14 missing young black women in D.C. caused outcry as many were suspected of being trafficked.  The outcry even spawned a social media hashtag and grassroots efforts by social media users to share images and information about the missing youth in hopes of bringing them home.

But it’s not just an issue for larger cities like Washington, D.C. or New York City, this is is a reality in Rochester as well, and advocates have been hard at work with law enforcement to protect local youth. However, this work requires all community members to get involved.

“Rochester currently has 10 pending sex trafficking and human trafficking investigations. We had five others that were opened and closed in 2016 and 2017,” said Maureen Dempsey, local FBI spokeswoman for the Rochester satellite office as well as the headquarters in Buffalo, NY. “Buffalo currently has 23 pending cases. In 2015, we opened 9. In 2016, we opened 14.”

Nationwide and according to CNN, the Metropolitan Police Department recorded 501 cases of missing children so far in 2017, and said 22 cases were open as of Wednesday.

And the FBI recognizes human trafficking as one of the largest growing threats, stating on it’s website: “Not only is human sex trafficking slavery but it is big business. It is the fastest-growing business of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.” Normally, sex trafficking targets Asian or Eastern European nations, however, the FBI acknowledged that “sex trafficking also occurs domestically. The United States not only faces an influx of international victims but also has its own homegrown problem of interstate sex trafficking of minors.” 

 While the prevalence of trafficking is not debated, law enforcement and community members are struggling to find common ground regarding a possible increase in activity, specifically targeting youth of color. Minority communities in both NYC and Washington D.C. allege that teens are being abducted to be trafficked, sold into sex work and that law enforcement is doing little to help.

According to CNN, these numbers have relatively constant over the past couple of years, offering little indication of an increase. Law enforcement contests that many of the reports show no evidence that they have been targeted for trafficking and investigates these cases as runaways. Chanel Dickerson  the Washington Metropolitan Police Department’s new commander, told CNN:

“We have received a lot of media attention and a lot of concern from the public because of the number of releases..There have been concerns that young girls in the District of Columbia are victims of human trafficking or have been kidnapped, or that there’s an increase in the number…And I say this without minimizing the number of missing persons in DC — because one missing person is one person too many — but there’s actually been a decrease. There is always a concern of human trafficking, but we have no evidence for this.”

“I don’t know that we believe there is an increase in sex trafficking; rather, we feel that law enforcement has become more adept at how we apply federal laws to these crimes. All crimes should be reported, and any tips of suspicious behavior should also.” Said Dempsey.

But, even if a teen isn’t abducted and leaves home voluntarily, it might not be an open-and-shut case.

“They often run away from domestic abuse, sexual abuse looking for a better life and are often at higher risk.” said Dr. Celia Mcintosh, Chair of the Rochester Regional Coalition Against Human Trafficking (RRCAT). “The statistic is these kids are lured into trafficking about 48 hours after running away.”

She said pimps use finessing or extreme violence to gain control and runaways can be vulnerable and need protection, making them perfect targets for sex trafficking. However, writing them off as runaways often dilutes the urgency to find them, because runaways are characterized as choosing to leave, though as Mcintosh points out it may be to escape something in the home.



RRCAT works with the Rochester Police Department and other organizations to investigate reported incidents, provide services to victims and educate the community. Their “Yes. Here.” campaign uses RTS buses to provide information to vulnerable groups that may use public transportation. The campaign raises awareness that yes, human trafficking happens in Rochester and there are resources to report these cases. They also hope to go into local schools and teach kids what to look out for, a more preventative approach to trafficking.

“They (victims) have new clothing or jewelry, expensive clothing that they or their parents did not buy. That could be a sign that someone is grooming them,” said Dr. Mcintosh who points out that many victims do not know or understand they are being conditioned into sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is such a complex, isolated and shadowy part of society that without enough knowledge or awareness, youth may not even realize they’re being trafficked.

“They are being targeted by these men, and 50% of traffickers are women saying ‘I will put you up for a night, I will get you what you need.’ There’s drugs and that’s another vulnerability the trafficker will see and lure them in,” explained Mcintosh who also said that some victims think they are in a relationship with their abusers and are often asked to “do favors” for a boyfriend that involves having sex with other partners for money. They rarely get to keep the money, or if they do, certainly not all.

Social media also plays a major role in trafficking with law enforcement focusing on ads placed through Backpage.com, craigslist.com and sometimes Facebook. These ads often use vague language, offering victims a lot of money for little work or lack of experience. Youth should be warned to stay away from these advertisements and to scrutinize financial offers from older people.

“Rochester currently has 10 pending sex trafficking and human trafficking investigations. We had five others that were opened and closed in 2016 and 2017,” -Dempsey

Since victims are often brought to hotels to meet people answering their ads, staff and other hotel visitors are encouraged to look for specific signs that abuse could be taking place.

“For hotels…(staff) should be aware of adults frequenting their hotel and asking for a specific room location near a back or side door… or seeing or hearing of reports of multiple different people coming to and from the room, and seeing young looking girls or boys somehow possibly associated with that room or the person/people renting the room,” said Dempsey. Hotel visitors can report sketchy youth/adult relationships- while

Even with reports of an alleged human trafficking epidemic close to home, it can be hard to see the signs in your own backyard but being extra observant can save a life. For more information on human trafficking and how you can help, visit the Rochester Regional Coalition against Human Trafficking at www.rrcaht.org or call 585-483-0084.

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