The state House of Representatives this week unanimously passed a resolution recognizing January as National Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Pennsylvania, with future plans to pass a package of bills to address the problem in the commonwealth.
House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Peach Bottom, along with advocates and fellow legislators, gathered Wednesday in Harrisburg with what the state’s victim advocate Jennifer Storm said was the “best turnouts” of lawmakers for a victim-oriented news conference she had seen.
“Human trafficking is a horrendous crime, and we need to raise public awareness as well as arm prosecutors and law enforcement with every tool possible to take down traffickers and protect victims,” Cutler said in a news release. “We must expand the criminal offense for patronizing a victim of trafficking and ensure that all human trafficking, regardless of the age of the victim, is a first-degree felony.”
Cutler discussed how Route 30 —which runs through his district in southern Lancaster County and beyond — is a major highway surveilled by law enforcement to find instances of human trafficking.
Dave Sunday, the district attorney in York County, discussed how his office initially arrested a woman dealing heroin from a home in the county. The arrest came after a young man overdosed and died in a nearby snowbank.
This woman would hand out the heroin, take the buyers’ money, and receive drugs for herself in return, Sunday said. But after more investigation, police and victim advocates found there was “a far more nefarious action that was going on here.” The woman wasn’t from York and had a daughter she hadn’t seen in years.
In the end, this woman was able to help law enforcement find the drug traffickers she worked for. She got into treatment, reunited with her daughter, and is now seeking an associate degree, Sunday said.
“It’s not like the movie ‘Taken,’ ” Sunday said. “She almost went to jail for a very long time. ... We were able to get to the true evil behind that plot.”
Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams said in a statement that the county is “not immune” to human trafficking and that these bills would enable the office to seek harsher penalties and protect victims.
“Education and awareness on this topic are crucial in combating this predatory criminal behavior that so often happens in the shadows,” Adams said.
Janelle Esbenshade, director of development for North Star Initiative, a Lititz-based organization that supports women who are survivors of domestic sex trafficking, said her organization recognizes January as a month of special emphasis, but they raise awareness year-round.
“We’re constantly educating,” she said, noting the organization works with survivors and helps to restore women who have been trafficked.
Earlier this month, LNP | LancasterOnline reported on a Lancaster poet and artist who also is educating the public about human trafficking. Terri Durden recently created human trafficking awareness cards.