Human Trafficking Cases Rise in Montgomery County

Number has increased from three in 2014 to 29 in 2016, police tell County Council


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A flier distributed by Montgomery County's Human Trafficking Task Force, which works to stop trafficking

Montgomery County website

The number of human trafficking cases in Montgomery County has increased nearly tenfold since 2014.

On Monday, County Council members asked police how they could help address the growing problem after the number of cases grew from 3 in 2014 to 29 last year.

Montgomery County police leaders said they’re working diligently to make arrests. However, a county prosecutor said convicting people running trafficking operations can be difficult.

Lt. Kevin Sullivan, of the county police department’s Special Investigations Division, said human trafficking victims are mostly women. Most victims come from three states—Georgia, Nevada and California—and are trafficked by pimps who attract johns by posting ads on websites such as Backpage.com, according to Sullivan. He said these victims are often trafficked in hotels in the county, mostly near downtown Silver Spring, Gaithersburg and Rockville.

He said about a third of the trafficking victims are Asian women typically connected to Flushing, Queens, in New York City. They are trafficked in “spas” or “body works” businesses that purport to offer massages, but are fronts for illicit sexual activity.

Assistant Police Chief Russ Hamill said that in one instance, Montgomery County officers implicated an owner of a body works center in a human trafficking incident and shut the business down, but doing so is complicated.

Debbie Feinstein, who oversees human trafficking cases for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, said business owners often disassociate themselves with the activities to insulate themselves from prosecution. She said there is information online directed to owners of such businesses to help them avoid prosecution.

“We know that they know,” Feinstein said. “But the question is what evidence do we have to prove it.”

Sullivan said hotels have been cooperative and officers work with management to help them and their employees understand signs of human trafficking. He said many tips police receive about human trafficking come from hotel workers.

Police have verified 27 victims of human trafficking from 2014 to 2016 after investigating 50 reported cases—23 were women, three were girls and one was a boy.

Police charged 16 people in the 29 cases they worked in 2016, including some people linked to multiple human trafficking cases.

Andrea Powell, executive director of FAIR Girls, a nonprofit that helps survivors of human trafficking get community services and housing, said survivors need consistent support to overcome trauma from their experiences.

She cited federal statistics that women are typically involved in a trafficking situation for about four years and during that time, are forced to engage in sexual activities about 5 times per night. She estimated that, on average, a survivor is raped about 7,000 times.

Powell said traffickers or pimps typically recruit young women by addressing a need in their life, such as love, family, money or housing. Then, the trafficker might use the criminal justice system as a threat, by telling women they’ll get in trouble for prostitution if they report him to police.

“When victims get arrested, we kind of make what the trafficker says come true,” Powell said.

She said jurisdictions should be wary when arresting women on prostitution-related charges, but did not fully support a plan being considered in Washington, D.C., to decriminalize prostitution. She said it might not strike the right balance to protect victims and ensure traffickers are prosecuted.

County Council member Craig Rice said that by decriminalizing prostitution, prosecutors might lose leverage to encourage witnesses to testify against human traffickers. He said blanket decriminalization might lead to more women being victimized in the sex trade if they didn’t have to fear potential criminal penalties.

Feinstein said prosecutors typically only pursue criminal penalties against women who have prior convictions or who might be recruiting other women to enter the sex trade.

The State’s Attorney’s Office has prosecuted 48 johns, or sex buyers, since June. Most received community service, according to Feinstein.

Powell encouraged council members to aid victims by funding housing, educational and job-training programs to help survivors break the cycle of sex trafficking and get on a path to self-sufficiency.

“Survivors of trafficking need what we all need,” Powell said. “But they need it now and they need it long-term.”

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