Human Trafficking

Prince George’s County is ‘hub’ for human trafficking
Published by The Prince George’s Sentinel

Human trafficking in Prince George’s County “first came to light” for District 7 Councilmember Karen Toles in 2012. It was “mind boggling.” Now the county’s new task force is setting an agenda to take on the crime that exists in the shadows.

The Prince George’s County Human Trafficking Task Force – a group of organizations designed to combat human trafficking by educating the public, identifying and serving victims and increasing prosecution of traffickers – focused on law enforcement, training, victim services, public outreach, legislation, and awareness and communication when more than 45 met for its first planning meeting Wednesday morning in Upper Marlboro.

“The word is not out there. People don’t know,” said commissioner Walakewon Blegay of the Human Relations Commission.

As a crime against humanity, human trafficking involves the “recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring, or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them,” according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

“Prince George’s County is really the hub of human trafficking in this area, this region,” Deputy State’s Attorney Donnell Turner of the county state’s attorney office said.

Located along the I-95 corridor, casinos and large sports venues makes the county a central geographic zone for human trafficking, according to the task force’s organizational model.

“The majority of our cases are either Prince George’s County-based or come through Prince George’s County,” Victim Specialist Susan Ritter said of the Homeland Security Investigations’ human trafficking unit.

Pimp-controlled domestic sex trafficking was the most common form of trafficking in Maryland from July 2011 to May 2012, according to a presentation published by the Governor’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention.

Prostitution is a form of sex trafficking if the victim is a minor or “if the individual involved in the activity cannot leave without fear of harm,” said Jeanne Allert, the founder of Baltimore-based nonprofit Samaritan Women.

In August of 2012, county police arrested 81 persons connected with a prostitution sting in College Park hotels.

“Girls are coming and they’re coming in droves,” said a police detective, who has worked undercover for 17 years and asked to remain unnamed for his safety.

“We’re trying to really combat this problem before it gets even more out of control,” a Prince George’s County police intelligence commander said. “We truly have a problem in College Park that we’re working with a lot of hotels in that area, trying to educate them on what to recognize and identify with prostitution and human trafficking.”

For Barry Stanton, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer of Public Safety, the hotel manager awareness is not the issue.

“We’ve got all these hotels in College Park. Now don’t tell me they don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

The Drug, Firearm and Prostitution Nuisance-Related Abatement Act in the District allows prosecutors to shut down properties used for human trafficking and sue property managers for damages. Turner called for similar legislation to be passed in Maryland.

The District has closed more than 25 brothels in the last six years, according to estimates from Jeanette Manning, chief at the District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General. Its human trafficking task force was established in 2004.

Manning added that the District has been “fairly successful,” but traffickers may have simply relocated.

“We just, kind of, pushed them out into Maryland and into Virginia. And that’s what we’re seeing,” she said.

Teresa Tomassoni, a program director from District-based nonprofit FAIR Girls, said she hears about victims’ ties to Prince George’s County on a “daily basis.”

“We have girls (who are) placed in foster care in Prince George’s County, Maryland – Suitland, Forestville, Fort Washington,” Tomassoni said. “It’s so close, so girls are being trafficked in DC, Virginia and Prince George’s County maybe in a night, you know, they’re moving around.”

And it’s not just hotels. Ritter said human trafficking also occurs in other county locales, including apartments and houses.

“There is a tremendous amount of prostitution going on in Langley Park and in Hyattsville and it’s not hotel-based,” she said.

Turner said malls are a “hot spot” for solicitation.

“Minors tend to hang out in malls and lots of times they hang out in the malls unsupervised,” he said. “Whenever you see young people convene and where there’s not an adult or a presence around, there’s an opportunity for young people to be approached by pimps.”

Based on interview and interrogation trends, human trafficking is strongly correlated with truancy, Turner said.

“The more children that you have that are not going to school, the greater the opportunities for pimps to prey upon them and to force them into prostitution,” he said before pointing to how pimps and traffickers sometimes recruit in schools.

A “sugar daddy” was arrested for soliciting a young woman at Suitland High School after putting up flyers in schools, the 17-year undercover detective recounted.

FAIR Girls teaches trafficking prevention education to more than 1,000 students in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. public schools through “Tell Your Friends.” According to the organization’s website, the interactive, four-module multimedia curriculum includes a citywide resource guide and helps students define human trafficking, identify risk factors, talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships and understand the relationship between intimate partner violence and human trafficking.

Tomassoni “absolutely” foresees that “Tell Your Friends” will be extended to Prince George’s County Public Schools.

FBI Victim Specialist Renee G. Murrell emphasized the need for a systematic network to share information, training curriculums for teachers, social workers and administrators and a minor residential emergency center “exclusive” for victims of trafficking.

“We have got to offer them an alternative that’s different than what the pimp is offering them, that’s better than what the pimp is offering them,” she said.

The candid Toles asked how she could make the sell the idea for such a place.

“If I go out and, you know, try to have a safe place for victims, you know, somewhere in District 7, I’m probably not going to get support from the community to do that,” Toles said. “If it’s domestic violence, it’s all good. But when you’re talking about shelters and you’re talking (about people who) have been locked up, coming into your community or victims of prostitution, how do I convince the residents and quite frankly my colleagues that this is a good thing?”

Murrell suggested Toles use a financial appeal that factors the cost of juvenile justice. Or morality.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Murrell said.

Fighting human trafficking with yoga
Published by The Public Asian (March 2012)

To combat human trafficking in India and support rescue survivors, a group of 12 advocates joined thousands across the world by rolling out yoga mats, and counting breaths and sun salutations on March 10 in a Washington, D.C.

Odanadi Seva Trust, a global anti-trafficking organization based in Mysore, South India that has cited rescuing more than 1,850 children and carrying out 57 brothel raids, launched its third annual one-day worldwide event called Yoga Stops Traffick.

Hosted by BloomBars, the event was created to raise awareness and financial support for Odanadi, which uses yoga and art therapy sessions in its rehabilitation centers that empower survivors to “reclaim their bodies” and reintegrate into society.

struct“Yoga practice is a tool to wake up to the reality that injustice anywhere in the world is actually injustice to ourselves,” said Odanadi U.S. Vice President Eric Romano, 30, who led the yoga instruction. “Its ultimate aim is to expand our awareness and, in that, realizing the interconnectedness of all humanity.”

As a crime against humanity, human trafficking involves the “recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring, or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them,” according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

“We still have the modern form of slavery in our world,” said Christina Lagdameo, Odanadi U.S. President and deputy director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Lagdameo, an alumnus who created her own major in multicultural studies when the university did not offer Asian American studies, started Odanadi U.S. in 2011 with a group of friends after volunteering in Mysore.

Working with Odanadi for more than five years, Lagdameo noted that the organization has come a long way in combating corruption and networking since it was founded 20 years ago by South Asian journalists Stanly K.V. and Parashurama M.L. who felt threatened by police when attacking powerful traffickers.

“In India, with the police, there used to be a lot of corruption that they were basically getting bribes from criminals who let them go, and that’s what was happening in the trafficking rings,” Lagdameo said. “It took years of their courage and persistence to work with the police department and to demand transparency and accountability.”

According to its site, Odanadi has “brought 137 traffickers to justice,” but what they have given individuals through a groundbreaking psycho-social approach to therapy extends beyond numbers of criminal convictions.

Three million children are currently involved in India’s sex trade and more than 150 girls and women are forced into prostitution every day as victims of trafficking, according to Yoga Stops Traffick estimates.

With more than 15 million adults practicing yoga in the U.S., Odanadi is looking to channel that energy with yoga as an outlet to give back. “It’s really taking root in this culture. If we look back at the origin, it was a gift from India,” said Romano, a decade-long yoga practitioner. “A way of giving back, to the culture from which we got it, is to support this particular cause.”

ystAlthough many are initially drawn to yoga for the physical exercise, combined with a meditative component, yoga represents a holistic approach. “It helps to bring us together, to send good energy, like healing energy for ourselves and for the survivors, really feel in solidarity with all your brothers and sisters throughout the world,” Lagdameo said. “You can do anything to raise awareness about human trafficking. We need to create this uprising throughout every venue, through every type of art.”

Following this vision, the Saturday event also featured performances from the band Rooftop Pursuit and spoken word poets Jenny Lares and Michelle Myers, who support Odanadi through their art.

guitarFilmmaker Eddie Lee from the Jubilee Project also showed a preview of his film “Back to Innocence,” which will be released on YouTube within the next two weeks to raise awareness of human trafficking.

“Yoga fosters a sense of peace,” said Danielle Wipperfurth, a lead organizer at DC Stop Modern Slavery who participated in the yoga session. “It helps you connect back to yourself and once you go through trauma, you get really used to disassociating with yourself and your needs and your health and yoga is very much about coming back to that.”

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