Hidden in Plain Sight – Human Trafficking: The Hidden Crime

From Generations Magazine Fall/Winter 2019-2020

By Victoria Williams

Imagine: you are 15-years-old, walking down a dark alley alone with nowhere to go in the dead of winter. It’s cold and you can feel it’s only getting colder, making fear set in for the rest of the night. Suddenly, you see a silhouette approaching you; are they here to help, or are they here to harm you? As the unknown figure approaches, you hear a soft, calm voice, asking, “Are you okay? Where are you going? Do you need help?” You can start to see the face of the unknown person from the one and only street light in your vicinity: it’s a woman. “Here, let me help you. It’s cold out here, isn’t it?” she smiles and holds out her hand. You take it, thinking you can trust her, and follow her to your next destination …

This is the way the story begins for many human trafficking victims. Human trafficking occurs when a human is being sold, traded, transferred or otherwise exchanged in some way for money, sex, labor or other commodities.1 The two main kinds of human trafficking are sex and labor. Sex trafficking is when a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age. Labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion.1 Many victims are homeless, desperate for help. Others can be desperate for affection and attention, or those seeking work. Children raised in foster care have a greater chance of becoming victims. In 2013, 60% of child victims the FBI recovered were from foster care.2 In 2017, 14% of children reported missing were likely victims of sex trafficking, and 88% of those had been in child welfare.2 The biggest risk factors for human trafficking are recent migration/relocation; substance abuse; runaway or homeless youth; mental health concerns; and involvement in the child welfare system.2 Reports of women being the main perpetrators of human trafficking have increased in many years, due to the fact that they are more trustworthy in the eyes of the victims. Female perpetrators may also be past victims of human trafficking, that are now being forced to traffic other victims. Overall, human trafficking is ultimately driven by demand for cheap goods and commercialized sex, and the perpetrators are making millions of dollars off of their victims. Worldwide, human trafficking generates a profit of approximately $32 billion annually.3

You may be thinking, “Yes, human trafficking is a problem — but this doesn’t happen in the United States, and it certainly doesn’t happen in my small town.” The United States, along with Mexico and the Philippines, was ranked one of the world’s worst places for human trafficking in 2018.4 In 2012, there were 14,987 contacts made to the Human Trafficking Hotline, and 3,257 were reported, with 1,364 of those calls were made from victims and survivors. Compared to 2018, where there were 14,088 contacts made, 10,949 cases reported, with 7,838 calls made from victims or survivors. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in 2018, there were 275 human trafficking cases reported in Pennsylvania alone, with 213 of those cases being sex trafficking.2 This is happening throughout Pennsylvania, including rural Pennsylvania. Lisa Davis, Director of the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health (PORH) has been working tirelessly to bring awareness to this issue. “At first, I didn’t think human trafficking was something rural Pennsylvania communities needed to be concerned about,” Lisa explained. “Then I realized Pennsylvania is a state with several different interstate systems that flow through rural areas. With our two main cities and lots of ways in and out of Pennsylvania, it’s very easy to transport victims over state lines.”

Rural Pennsylvania also gives an abundance of benefits for traffickers. Things are farther apart, which makes it more difficult for victims to find shelter or assistance. Rural areas allow less intervention overall when homes and communities are spread apart due to the landscape. There are fewer jobs in rural areas, which makes people vulnerable, particularly women who may become economically dependent on their male partners and cannot support themselves.5 Victims and perpetrators are also hard to identify in rural areas since everyone knows each other and their personal business. Imagine how difficult it would be coming forward as a victim, knowing your perpetrator isn’t just your trafficker, but perhaps your neighbor. They may be a relative or have ties to law enforcement: this is the reality for rural human trafficking victims. The small population size in rural communities also can magnify a victim’s sense of being unsafe, even if the case is reported and underway. Trafficking can sometimes take a long time to reach prosecution, all while (given a town’s location and the trafficker’s relationships) the offender can still reside in the community even after the case has been reported.5 Overall, rural communities can serve as a hiding place for human traffickers and their victims.

The effects of human trafficking are also haunting, particularly on children. Child victims of human trafficking may suffer from: sleeping and eating disorders; sexually transmitted diseases; drug addiction; fear and anxiety; guilt and shame; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; and more.6 With the human trafficking crisis growing in size, there is a growing need for people to be aware of where victims may be hiding in plain sight and to recognize the potential red flags and indicators. The top five types of human trafficking are escort services; illicit massage, health and beauty (i.e., massage parlors); outdoor solicitation; residential; and domestic work.7 Victims of these types of trafficking can be recruited in several different ways, often playing on their vulnerability in wanting and finding a job, love, or a chance at a better life in America.8 Many of these victims who are being used for commercial sex or forced labor will show signs of malnourishment; shame or guilt; poor physical or dental health; and will try to avoid eye contact and social interaction, most likely due to their trafficker watching them.9

Although human trafficking has become a huge issue in our country, there have been countless organizations, non-profits, and government agencies made to combat the crisis. Lisa Davis and PORH have increased awareness in Central Pennsylvania, but ensuring that rural healthcare facilities are prepared to identify victims and be able to refer them for the services they would need moving forward. “PORH staff knew that we could be a great resource for rural hospitals and other providers,” Lisa said. “So we made it a point to develop training for rural healthcare providers on the dangers of human trafficking and how to recognize and assist potential victims.” Then, in November 2018, PORH launched the Rural Human Trafficking Initiative to continue to assist rural healthcare providers and others interested in serving potential victims. The Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health and Lisa always try to raise awareness for people to be aware of their surroundings: are you watching those around you, as you pump your gas at a busy gas station? Do you know that human trafficking victims can look malnourished, will avoid eye contact, and will seem as if they are scripted with their responses and actions? “Each case can be heartbreaking, but if we can help just one victim, make a difference in just one person’s life, our efforts will all be worth it,” Lisa shared. If you notice any warning signs, don’t wait. Contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 right away to report what you are seeing.

There are many ways that we, in everyday life, can help these victims by staying educated, alert and aware of what is going on in our community. It is truly up to us, the free, to pull these victims out from the shadows of their captors and to advocate for their safety and freedom.


  1. “What is Human Trafficking?” Erase Child Trafficking, https://www.erasechildtrafficking.org/. Accessed 27 Sept 2019.
  2. “Growing Awareness. Growing Impact. 2017 Statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline and BeFree Textline.” Polaris Project, http://polarisproject.org/sites/default/files/2017NHTHStats%20%281%29.pdf. Accessed 26 Sept 2019.
  3. “Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics.” Polaris Project, https://humantraffickinghotline.org/state/pennsylvania. Accessed 26 Sept 2019.
  4. Ochab, Ewelina U. “Human Trafficking Is A Pandemic Of The 21st Century.” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2018/07/26/human-trafficking-is-a-pandemic-of-the-21st-century/#661b66176195. Accessed 26 Sept 2019.
  5. Pasley, James. “20 Staggering Facts About Human Trafficking In The US.” Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/human-trafficking-in-the-us-facts-statistics-2019-7. Accessed 26 Sept 2019.
  6. “Child Trafficking Statistics.” Arc of Hope For Children, https://arkofhopeforchildren.org/child-trafficking/child-trafficking-statistics. Accessed 27 Sept 2019.
  7. Occhiboi, Alyssa. “Trafficking in Rural America.” Love 146, https://love146.org/trafficking-in-rural-america/. Accessed 27 Sept 2019.
  8. “The Typology of Modern Slavery: Defining Sex and Labor Trafficking in the United States.” Polaris Project, https://polarisproject.org/sites/default/files/Polaris-Typology-of-Modern-Slavery.pdf. Accessed 27 Sept 2019.
  9. “Indicators of Human Trafficking.” Department of Homeland Security, https://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign/indicators-human-trafficking. Accessed 27 Sept 2019.

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