Lifting the Veil on Local Human Trafficking

Jeri Moomaw spoke at the human trafficking forum at Stony Brook Southampton
Jeri Moomaw spoke at the human trafficking forum at Stony Brook Southampton

Public perception of the idea of human trafficking is often distant from the reality of the world of the trafficked, which is as near as our neighborhoods here on the East End.

People don’t need to be moved long distances in order to be trafficked, and the victims of human trafficking aren’t necessarily from a far-away place, says Jeri Moomaw, the founder and executive director of Innovations HTC, which educates the public about human trafficking. By law, anyone who is forced, coerced or defrauded into performing work or prostitution is a trafficked individual.

In May of 2017, Suffolk County instituted its first human trafficking investigation unit, which had made nine indictments of sex traffickers here by the time its work was made public in July of this year, and had helped 37 victims of human trafficking find support services they needed.

In late September, representatives from the Shinnecock Nation organized a conference on human trafficking, which disproportionately affects native communities, at Stony Brook Southampton.

Ms. Moomaw, a Washington State resident who had herself escaped from prostitution before starting Innovations HTC, a native and survivor-led nonprofit, was one of the keynote speakers.

“We’re building systems and spreading education and awareness of response protocols. What do you do once someone is identified as being trafficked?” she said.

Ms. Moomaw said there are three major myths about human trafficking — that it’s a foreign problem, with only foreign-born victims; that if victims really felt victimized they would do everything they could to seek help; and that movement is required in order for trafficking to occur.

“There are victims born right here in the United States who are forced into labor trafficking and sex trafficking,” she said. “Often victims do not self-identify as victims until much later. They’re convinced they’re willing participants. I’m a survivor of trafficking. I did not identify as a survivor for 20-plus years afterward.”

“Victims do not have to be moved one inch,” she added. “There’s a difference between human smuggling and human trafficking.”

According to the 2000 federal Trafficking Victim Protection Act, the elements of force, fraud or coercion are necessary for adults to be considered trafficked, though age alone is enough to determine if a minor is being trafficked.

Force is the most easily identifiable form of control exerted by traffickers — when people are physically restrained or physically or sexually assaulted.

But fraud is a more common form of control — either by bait-and-switch promises of wonderful jobs, or promise of a loving relationship.

Coercion is a very common tactic that involves psychological manipulation.

Sometimes the victims’ families or their lives are threatened in order to force them into working.

Victims of trafficking are often compelled to work by traffickers who withhold or destroy their government documents, or who force people to work in order to pay back a real or purported debt.

Ms. Moomaw said other threats may range from the threat of deportation, or calling Child Protective Services or even calling the police and telling them the victim is a prostitute.

Restrictive access to addictive drugs, known as “chemical bondage,” is one of the biggest problems lately, she said.

“Gaslighting is another one — a systematic way of convincing people they cannot handle their own affairs and they’re crazy,” she said.

Ms. Moomaw said that many different types of laborers are trafficked, from nannies and housekeepers to agricultural workers, landscaping and door-to-door magazine salespeople, who are often forced into sex work at night if they don’t sell enough magazines during the day.

Trafficked workers are often transported in vans, she said, and she urged attendees to get the license plate numbers of suspicious vans.

“If you see something, you need to say something” to authorities, said Ms. Moomaw. “If something does not feel right, it’s probably wrong.”

One of the first cases prosecuted under the 2000 law was the case of 55 deaf Mexican nationals who were forced to beg and sell trinkets on the New York City subway.

Sex trafficking isn’t only about prostitution, she said. It also includes pornography.

“Your area is famous for filming pornography,” said Ms. Moomaw. “New York laws are different. In California, they make them wear condoms when filming. Over the last five years, people have been talking about ‘oh yeah I was out in the Hamptons doing films.’”

Ms. Moomaw said that Asian massage parlors aren’t always a front for prostitution, contrary to popular perception, but added that “what’s going on in strip clubs is a lot more than dancing.”

She said many young women, often single mothers with a lot of bills, respond to ads saying they will make $1,000 per night as a waitress.

Once they take the job, they find out they’re not making anywhere near the money they’d been promised. That’s when, in a coordinated effort, dancers make a point of counting out their nightly earnings in front of the waitresses.

“They say ‘you’re beautiful. You should try for amateur night,” she said. “But then they find out that the stripper has to pay the bartender, the bouncer, the DJ and all kinds of things. And then the other dancers say ‘If you really want to make money, you have to do the VIP rooms. What that is is really nice guys, and you just have to do a little more.’”

“When you offer that to somebody who’s coming from a vulnerable background, and doesn’t see she has other choices, sometimes she’s really easy to manipulate,” said Ms. Moomaw.

In New York, unlike in Washington State, said Ms. Moomaw, getting victims hooked on drugs is also considered by the courts to be grounds for a trafficking case.

Traffickers are often no strangers to their victims.

Ms. Moomaw said that studies have shown that 36 percent of people are trafficked by members of their immediate family. Twenty-seven percent are trafficked by their boyfriends, and 14 percent are trafficked by friends of their families.

“Sometimes it’s generational,” said Ms. Moomaw. “I’ve worked with individuals that their grandmother and their mother was an exploited person, and from the time they could comprehend, they were told that was what their destiny was.”

“One girl told me her mother told her ‘you’ll never go broke if you have a vagina,’” she said.

“People are a reusable commodity,” said Ms. Moomaw. “With guns or drugs, if you sell it, it’s gone.”

Ms. Moomaw said that all kinds of people are traffickers — old and young, men and women, rich and poor and of every ethnic background.

“They target individuals who don’t have a stable support system, and may have a lack of self esteem and are easier to manipulate,” she said.

She said some of the signs that someone you know might be a trafficking victim include drug use; absences from school; a sudden change in friends; unexplained money, clothes or gifts; wearing clothing that is inappropriate for the weather; a new relationship with someone much older or younger with them; or talk of “The Life” or “The Game” and talk glamorizing prostitution.

Above all, said Ms. Moomaw, human trafficking exists because there are so many consumers of illegal labor and sex.

“It’s a $152 billion per year industry globally,” she said. “That’s bigger than Nike, Amazon and eBay combined. It exists because there is such a market.”

“Historically, trafficking was seen as criminal justice issue, with the victim criminalized and arrested,” said Ms. Moomaw. “Now we’re looking at it through a public health lens. Victims are victims and they shouldn’t be criminalized.”

If you feel you might be a victim of trafficking, or you might know of someone who is being trafficked, help is available through the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888.373.7888 or online at humantraffickinghotline.org.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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