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Safe Voices helps victims escape domestic violence, sexual trafficking

200 to 300 youths and adults are exploited each year in Maine

By Nathan Tsukroff

“Human Trafficking”

When someone is forced to work, or to perform sexual acts, in exchange for the basic necessities of life, they are being trafficked.

This labor or abuse is often accompanied by physical violence, and similar tactics are used in personal relationships, leading to what we know as sexual or domestic violence.

“Often what we’re seeing is people who have been living in Maine – perhaps lived here their whole lives – are being trafficked, right here in our state,” said Elise Johansen from Safe Voices, a non-profit group whose mission is to support and empower those affected by domestic violence in Androscoggin, Franklin, and Oxford counties. The group also works to engage communities in creating social change.

Maine’s first human trafficking needs assessment was conducted in 2015 by Hornby Zeller Associates, Inc., using known statistics, surveys with members of law enforcement, and interviews with service providers, stakeholders and survivors.

The majority of information for the assessment related to sex trafficking, which occurs when someone benefits from the sale of another person for sex acts through force, fraud, coercion, threats, or manipulation, or when the person is a minor.

Johansen said there are about 200-300 victims of sex trafficking in Maine per year. The vast majority of these crimes in Maine go unreported, and researchers estimate that only 14 percent of trafficking victims report the crimes committed against them, according to a February 2017 report by a Maine Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Sexual exploitation is the exchange of sex acts for anything of value where the individual is manipulated into the agreement as a result of addiction or desperation. This exploitation may then lead the victim into being trafficked.

The 2015 assessment did not have enough information to determine the level of labor trafficking in Maine at that time. Labor trafficking occurs when a person is forced to work or provide services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Most of the focus on labor trafficking in Maine concentrates on agriculture, according to the assessment.

A message of hope from Sexual Assault Prevent and Response Services, which works to prevent and eliminate sexual violence and to promote healing and empowerment for people of all genders and ages affected by rape, sexual assault and sexual exploitation in Androscoggin, Franklin, and Oxford counties. (Photo courtesy of SAPARS)

 Victims of sex trafficking in Maine are typically girls and women 14 to 30 years old, from both rural and urban communities, with a history of sexual or physical abuse, and lacking basic needs and an emotional support system, according to the assessment.

Survival sex and trafficking are often interchangeable. Victims and survivors said they would rather do things they didn’t want to do in exchange for meeting basic needs. For many, they were led into sex trafficking with the belief they were in a personal, intimate relationship with the trafficker.

One of the ways traffickers control their victims is through drug addiction. And some victims turn to drugs as a way to escape the pain and self-loathing from being trafficked.

“There is a federal definition of (sex) trafficking, and we do see that in Maine,” Johansen said. “And we also see a lot of sexual exploitation, where someone might say, ‘Hey, you can come sleep on my couch and live with me because I know you have nowhere to go, but in order for you to do that, you need to have sex with me.’”

 Or a victim may be told, “’I’ll give you some drugs, but you need to do this with my friend over there’,” Johansen said. “Or, ‘If you want to live here, then you need to go and start doing this with a bunch of other people, and all the cash needs to come home to me’.”

Recognizing they are being exploited or traffic is a first step for a victim to start their escape from their situation, and Safe Voices provides resources for victims of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Safe Voices provides the only safe house in the area for these victims, Johansen said. “So we do allow and have people live there, but most of what we do is provide advocacy, legal support in the criminal and civil courtrooms, and we provide support groups.”

The group also assists people in safety planning and learning about community resources. “So all of the same scope of services that we provide to victims of sexual abuse and violence, we also provide to victims of sexual trafficking and exploitation,” Johansen said.

Escaping from the trafficker can be difficult for the victim. “A lot of times, victims will interact with law enforcement, and law enforcement is really committed to ending human trafficking in Maine and seeing people being affected by it as victims and not as perpetrators of crime,” Johansen said. Instead of charging sex trafficking victims with the crime of prostitution, police officers are now connecting the people they are finding on the streets with Safe Voices and other community resources.

“And so we get referrals that way. We get referrals from other community service organizations, human service organizations, case managers, churches, and sometimes people just call our help line,” Johansen said.

Hospitals will provide the help line number to patients that may be victims of exploitation or trafficking. A nurse in an emergency room may ask a patient, “Hey, something’s going on. What’s going on? Do you want to talk to me a little bit about it?” And then the victim will be able to call the Safe Voices help line where the advocate will ask questions to help determine the victim’s specific situation.

Asking someone if they are being trafficked doesn’t provide real answers, Johansen said. “They’ll say, “Hey, I don’t even have a car. I can’t speed!’” But asking a possible victim if they ever had to trade sex for food, or trade sex just for a place to take a shower, or if they have been told their immigration documentation will be withheld if they don’t have sex, clearly identifies them as a victim.

Often, victims are afraid to reach out for help because of the real possibility of beatings and other abuse if their call for help is discovered by the trafficker. Contacting Safe Voices or other community groups from a phone away from the trafficker, or using a computer at a public place such as a library, are safe options for the victim to use in calling for help.

Johansen said she thinks that youth at risk that are specifically coming out of foster systems, and a lot of  LGBTQ youth that are homeless, are at greater risk of being trafficked. However, traffickers will create situations where none existed before in order to lure in victims of any age.

Safe Voices was created in 1977 to help battered women and children who did not have refuge, and opened it’s first emergency shelter in 1979 with funding help from the federal Comprehensive Education and Training Act. The organization changed it’s name to Safe Voices in 2010 to recognize that men are victims, too, and to have a name reflecting hope and empowerment, according to its website.

The 24/7 Helpline for Safe Voices is  1-800-559-2927. Online chat services area available during business hours Monday through Friday by going to the Safe Voices website:  safevoices.org  and selecting the Get Help tab at the top.

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