Leaders and advocates discuss 'pervasive' human trafficking problem as Lititz-based restoration house prepares to open
When Lititz-based North Star Initiative opens its doors in a few weeks, it will become the first program in Lancaster County — and perhaps all of central Pennsylvania — to house and “restore” the lives of women abused in sex-trafficking.
The problem, while perhaps underestimated by the general public, is prevalent in the community, advocates and law enforcement officials say.
“You could probably, almost on a daily basis, find something somewhere in Lancaster County advertised on the ‘backpage’ website for some kind of service,” said East Lampeter Township Police Chief John Bowman, referring to a classifieds website often criticized for featuring cryptic ads for prostitution and sex trafficking.
Bowman joined a discussion about the issue Friday at the new “restoration house” created by North Star Initiative, a faith-based nonprofit. Called The Harbor, the house will eventually be home to 10 women over the age of 18 who are victims of sex trafficking and abuse.
Around-the-clock trained staff will help the women with daily life skills while counselors provide clinical therapy and other volunteers offer programming and classes.
Friday’s talk was organized by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, who brought House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a 25-year veteran of Capitol Hill whose committee deals with most of the human trafficking-related bills in Congress.
“Human trafficking is something that is a pervasive problem in our society,” said Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican. “I think most Americans know about human trafficking, but they allow them to have it in their minds as a kind of international thing … It is in every community and it takes many, many different forms.”
The House of Representatives has multiple legislative efforts underway to combat trafficking, Goodlatte said.
The Targeting Child Predators Act, for one, would require internet service providers to wait 180 days before notifying a suspected child predator that law enforcement officials have requested information from their IP address.
Another, the Empowering Law Enforcement to Fight Sex Trafficking Demand Act, would expand federal grants for law enforcement agencies to combat trafficking.
Others would attempt to improve the federal government’s data collection about the issue or increase prosecutions.
Friday’s discussion, which included a handful of nonprofit leaders in Lancaster and Berks counties, often turned to freedom of speech.
Carol Hart Metzker, a consultant, said she had recently seen a “pimp training manual” posted on Facebook that contained graphic language in line with abuse and trafficking.
“What kinds of conversations are going on (in Washington) to … protect freedom of speech when it is not freedom of speech to beat a woman to death or to teach someone how to do that?” she asked Goodlatte. “That’s not freedom of speech. That’s violence.”
Goodlatte said his committee has held hearings on that issue, including the liability of certain internet or other service providers that are not engaged in the illegal activity but are allowing others to go through their services to offer that illegal activity.
Pam Poutz, North Star Initiative executive director, said the group has been getting referrals weekly. They’re coming from social service agencies, law enforcement, parents and other family members. The Harbor has also received a referral from Lancaster General Hospital after a woman “showed up in the psych ward in a drug overdose and they realized she was being trafficked.”
A common “disconnect” in the public understanding of the issue is that most prostitution is trafficking, Poutz said.
“It’s going to present (itself) as prostitution because that’s kind of the M.O. We all know that,” she said. “If you can actually get below that surface, that is not what is going on.”
Bowman said his jurisdiction in East Lampeter Township, along Route 30, is a prime location for traffickers because of the “transient” strip of hotels.
He said his department monitors the “backpage” website and other advertisements, trying to decipher messages and then setting up sting operations to catch the predators.
The downside to those operations, however, is that it can push the illegal operations elsewhere.
“It spreads to different areas around the county and I think just folks realize this isn’t something that’s just in one area, one place, that it can be fluid and move around. That’s important to know too,” Bowman said.
Smucker encouraged local law enforcement and other groups fighting the issue to tell him if they are applying for federal grant money so he can write letters in support of their efforts.