Leaders from across Anne Arundel County — and Maryland — gathered at Congregation Kneseth Israel for a discussion on how to combat human trafficking in the state. The forum was sponsored by the Maryland League of Women Voters and the Annapolis Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, among other organizations.
“This battle will not be won by the efforts of government alone, only by working with partnerships with the nonprofit community, the faith community and people like you,” Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh told attendees of the Jan. 13 forum.
Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes as the recruitment or abduction of people through coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation, prostitution, slavery or other practices. According to a 2014 State Department report, more than 200,000 people are estimated to be trafficking within the United States.
Schuh said he became much more aware of the issue when he was elected to the House of Delegates in 2006. He was quick to point out that Anne Arundel County is often a target for pimps looking to prostitute minors. This is due to its network of highways, truck stops and hotels near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where victims from other parts of the country often wind up.
“Our county is unfortunately uniquely conducive to human trafficking,” he said. “It’s sort of ironic and certainly sad that many of those very same assets that make Anne Arundel County such a wonderful place to live and work are also those very same factors that are a witch’s brew for the conjuring of human trafficking.”
Anne Arundel County, joined by Baltimore, Montgomery, Howard and Prince George’s counties, is one of the state’s few counties to have a police unit dedicated to human trafficking. The victims often are young women in their teens and early 20s. Dan Dickey, a detective with the Anne Arundel County Police Department who handles these cases, said a trend he sees is for pimps to stake out malls and casinos — locations where they can prey on girls who appear to have low self-esteem.
“A lot of the girls we deal with, we ask them where they are, and they’ll tell us Washington, D.C., some say Baltimore, some girls will be like, ‘I don’t know, I was just brought here,’” he said. “And basically, what we find in talking to these girls is that a lot of them come from broken homes, a lot of them have sexual assault history, a lot have been in and out of foster homes, a lot of them had drug problems or still currently have drug problems.”
Police work with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to help solve trafficking cases and cover more ground.
“We do have a human-trafficking problem, and we need to have the resources to combat this problem. The best way to do that is to have a federal network system,” he said.
Dickey’s partner, Detective Bernie Adkins, said that even with federal cooperation, it is difficult to catch pimps due to the subtle tactics they often use to manipulate their victims.
“We’ll talk to victims of human trafficking and they’ll say, ‘He’s my boyfriend, he’s not a pimp,’” Adkins said. “‘He holds my money for me. He’s here to protect me.’ In their mind they have a legitimate relationship with someone who I know is a pimp, who’s trapping her and being manipulative. It takes a lot for us to pick up on those cues for who may be involved in it, and even after doing it five or 10 years, it’s still difficult.”
Adkins said last year the department arrested 29 men for soliciting prostitution through undercover operations in which female officers posed as troubled youths. However, this was only a fraction of the number of men who contacted those undercover officers.
Federal laws passed in the last 15 years have increased the penalties for traffickers. The latest initiative is a push toward safe-harbor laws. Already in effect in some states, these laws ensure that victims of trafficking under 18 are not treated as criminals and are guaranteed access to medical care, clothing, food, safe housing and educational services.
“While we all know it is a logjam on the federal level and it’s hard to get legislation passed, we know things are happening in the states,” said Jody Rabhan, deputy director of Washington operations for the NCJW. Rabhan, a Montgomery County resident, said Maryland is designated by Polaris as a Tier 1 state, meaning it is among the states with the strongest anti-trafficking laws. But she emphasized that this topic still has many unknown pieces.
“We don’t have good data,” she said. “It is so hard to get the data. Without the data it is hard to truly understand the magnitude of the problem. Without fully understanding the magnitude of the problem you don’t know what you need to fund, you don’t know what you need to provide. Because you don’t know how many people out there need it, you don’t know what they need necessarily.”
Delegate Susan McComas (R-District 35B) told the crowd that while the women’s caucus in the House of Delegates has historically supported anti-trafficking bills, it can be difficult to get them through the House Judiciary Committee due to the number of committee members who are defense lawyers. In the meantime, she encouraged people to be on the lookout for suspicious activity.
“Folks have got to know the community they live in,” she said. “You’ve got to know your neighbors. You’ve got to have a feel for what goes on in that community because you are the eyes and ears of that community. Use your intuition if something doesn’t feel right. It’s not being nosy, it’s not being invasive, but it’s just having an awareness.”