Women who survive human trafficking, prostitution and addiction deserve a second chance to thrive as do all survivors who once found themselves in a very rough spot and found the strength to get themselves out of it. The love of a caring community isn’t all it takes, but it sure goes a long way toward giving these victims that chance.
Human trafficking involves using force, lies or threats to make victims work against their will, often for little or no pay, or to make them have sex for money or something of value to them, such as food, shelter, clothes or drugs. Human trafficking for sex or labor often ends up in the victim also being an addict.
These sound like far-away problems, but they are also our problems here in Massachusetts.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Polaris, reports it received 346 calls in reference to Massachusetts during 2017, representing a 25 percent increase from 2016, and nearly 40 percent more than five years prior.
The largest number of calls, which experts say only represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human trafficking, was related to sex trafficking at illegal massage and spa businesses.
But the issue of sex trafficking goes far beyond massage parlors, and while people often associate victims with individuals depicted in major-motion pictures, including women experiencing homelessness, or people suffering from drug addictions, the stereotypes often fall short, according to Peter DiMarzio, victims’ assistance specialist for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security based in Boston.
"It can be anybody,” he said during a panel discussion at Regis College in Weston. “It could be your mother, your daughter or your niece.”
The ease of access to buy and sell sex has also proliferated in the digital age, due in part to adult classified websites and online message boards, which use thinly veiled words such as “bodyworks” massage services to sell sex.
Demand Abolition, an organization working to eradicate sex trafficking, estimated there have been up to 20,000 ads selling people for sex online each month in Boston.
Despite the prevalence of sex trafficking, however, prosecutors struggle to bring charges against suspected traffickers, even after getting more power to do so in 2011 when Massachusetts became the 48th state in the country to make human trafficking a crime.
A 2017 Wicked Local investigative series on sex trafficking showed the state then had 35 open prosecutions. In January, Beth Keeley, chief of the Human Trafficking Division at the attorney general's office, said the state had 39 open prosecutions, of which 37 were related to sex trafficking (the other two were related to labor trafficking).
“We’re working hard and we’re trying to get as many as we can,” Keeley said. “They’re difficult and complex cases.”
When cases are not rock solid, they can be dismissed. Other times, charges are downgraded, as was the case in 2013 when Lan Yu Ma pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of solicitation of prostitution and placed on probation. She was originally charged with human trafficking for running a salon in Oxford, which carries a mandatory minimum of five years in prison.
At some point after the 2013 guilty plea, Lan moved to Vero Beach, Florida, where she was arrested last winter in the same sting operation that swept up Patriots owner Robert Kraft. She’s now facing human trafficking, racketeering and prostitution charges.
Nonetheless, prosecutors have had some success bringing cases across the finish line.
In December, Xiu J. Chen, 38, of Medford, was found guilty and sentenced to five years in state prison for running a human trafficking operation. She ran a series of bodywork services out of businesses in Bedford, Billerica, Medford, Reading and Woburn.
In February 2018, Marvin Pompilus was convicted and sentenced up to six and a half years in prison for trafficking multiple women in Hyannis, Boston, Braintree, and Randolph.
Keeley explained sex trafficking cases are especially difficult to build because it takes time for victims to feel comfortable enough to talk with prosecutors, and building enough evidence without their input is a challenge.
But some victims and survivors are coming forward to help bring some justice against traffickers, including in Fall River on Feb. 26 when Peterson Raymond, 33, of Taunton, was convicted of sex trafficking and sentenced up to 10 years in prison.
The survivor read a statement, saying she felt humiliated and angry. “Please think about that when you’re sending him to prison,” she told the judge. “Why should he be free when I’m not free?”