November 17, 2013

Data on Maine sex trafficking elusive as officials try to gauge its extent

It has been a little-understood crime. But that has started to change.

By Scott Dolan
Staff Writer

Before the body of Megan Waterman of Scarborough was found in Long Island, N.Y., along with the bodies of three other young women in December 2010, police in Maine were nearly as ignorant about sex trafficking as the public was.

“Sex trafficking? We’re in Maine,” Cumberland County Deputy District Attorney Megan Elam said, describing the sentiment among local law enforcement just a few years ago. “There’s a little shame going around among prosecutors and police officers about how naive we were.”

Police who knew Waterman before she was murdered at 22 were aware she worked as a stripper in Portland nightclubs, but they didn’t know that pimps, like the one she considered her boyfriend, Akeem Cruz, were targeting vulnerable women like her to recruit them for prostitution out of state.

Sex trafficking has been a little-understood crime in Maine, for a variety of reasons. Victims may be reluctant to talk to police for fear of prosecution, or may not recognize that they are victims, instead believing that the people who are exploiting them are boyfriends.

And because Maine’s population is small and relatively rural, trafficking has largely gone unnoticed by prosecutors, law enforcement and social service workers who pictured sex trafficking as large-scale operations involving many women who are brought from overseas and exploited in big cities. Until recently, they didn’t realize that sex trafficking often looks more like what happened to Waterman, a local woman tricked by a persuasive man who gave her drugs and brought her to an unfamiliar city.

That has started to change. Preble Street, the Portland social services agency, last month received $400,000 in federal funding to identify and help victims of sex trafficking in Maine. A bill introduced in the Legislature by Republican Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough sought to help victims of sex trafficking by suspending prostitution convictions. The bill, which has become something of a political football between legislative Republicans and Democrats, was rejected recently by the Legislative Council, one of nearly 300 bills that were not allowed, but Volk was encouraged to resubmit it for consideration.

The secretive nature of the crime means there are few reliable numbers to show exactly how prevalent sex trafficking is in Maine, and what it might look like.

“We have some numbers, but they’re not great,” said Jon Bradley, associate director of Preble Street, one of the key authors of the agency’s grant application to the Department of Justice.

There is no central database that tracks sex trafficking numbers in Maine. In his grant application, Bradley cited limited information from several sources:

Family Crisis Services, a domestic violence prevention agency in Portland, worked with 32 women involved in sex trafficking in 2012.

That same year, Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine had 10 clients who were sex trafficking victims.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Hotline, a phone line for everything from crises to general information, saw the number of calls from Maine double in recent years, from 22 in 2009 to 44 in 2012. During the same period, the hotline saw its call volume nationally go from 7,637 to 20,652. Human trafficking is an umbrella term that encompasses both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, usually of immigrants. Volk has said the hotline’s numbers are the ones she relied on to support her bill.

So far, social workers and police have relied more on the stories they hear on the street, mainly from women, a group that is targeted for exploitation, along with youths, the homeless and transgender people. Bradley said the reason so few reliable numbers exist is because few people were focused on the problem before 2011, and no central agency existed to compile numbers before Preble Street received the grant.

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