Workshop brings awareness to sex trafficking ‘in your backyard’

Amber Hatfield of Altoona, with PeerStar, asks a question of Heather Shnyder who was leading a discussion on “Understanding and Recognizing Sex Trafficking in Our Community” on Friday at the Hollidaysburg Church of the Brethren. Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Central Pennsyl­vania residents should make themselves more aware of activities associated with sex trafficking, a prevention education specialist recommends.

“I know it’s happening in your backyard,” Heather Shnyder told a group of local social workers, counselors and law enforcement officers attending a Friday workshop hosted by Family Services Inc. of Altoona in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. “This is a call to action.”

Shnyder works for Transitions of Pennsylvania, a center that helps domestic violence victims in Union, Snyder and Northumberland counties located to the northeast of Blair County.

Through serving those victims, Shnyder said her agency has learned more about and has become more aware of sex trafficking.

“Everybody has a Hollywood or TV program-based idea of what sex trafficking is,” Shnyder said as she took a break from her workshop lecture.

But unlike the teenage girl in the movie, “Taken,” who is kidnapped by sex traffickers and rescued by her father played by Liam Neeson, Shnyder said most young girls are recruited into sex trafficking by someone that they know.

Sex traffickers, she said, are very quick to identify and befriend minors, especially runaways who appear to be vulnerable because of trouble at home or a history of abuse.

“To a girl coming from an at-risk environment, here’s a guy offering his love and the promise of a better life,” Shnyder said. “He might pay for her to get her hair done, get her nails done, then buy her clothes. And she won’t pick up on why he’s doing this.”

Parents and guardians are also on top of the list of potential sex traffickers, she said, because that group includes stepparents, foster parents and relatives.

In 2017, Pennsylvania ranked ninth highest in the nation for sex and labor trafficking cases, based on the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s website showing the state with 199 cases — the same number as Nevada — but far below California, which ranked first with 1,305 cases and Texas with 792.

But sex trafficking, Shnyder said, is a very underreported crime in what’s recognized as a $150 billion industry.

“When I started these presentations four years ago,” she said, “it was a $32 billion industry.”

And it’s not confined, she added, to metropolitan areas.

“We’ve been told that these sex traffickers target the rural areas because they think local law enforcement officers are too stupid to catch on,” she said.

But when a so-called modeling agency set up a booth at a community fair in her region, Shnyder said it was the local deputies who were already suspicious when people started telling them about the well-dressed and well-groomed girls distributing the agency’s pamphlets.

The deputies approached the agency’s booth and reviewed their credentials, she said; shortly thereafter, those running the booth were gone.

Ashley Gay Vocco, victim services program director with Family Services Inc., said her agency is interested in making local residents more aware of sex trafficking. Part of the area’s vulnerability, she said, can be linked to I-99, which makes it easier to travel across the state.

While local arrest reports offer few examples of sex-trafficking crimes, Vocco and Cindy Estep, counselor advocate and prevention educator with Family Services, offered assurance that it exists. And it involves not only girls but also boys, Estep said.

Amber Hatfield and Pam Townsend, peer support specialists with PeerStar, a behavioral health care agency in Allegheny Township, said they appreciated Shnyder’s presentation.

“We work with people who have at-risk kids,” Townsend said. “So it’s good to learn about the kind of things that we should be looking for.”

“I think sex trafficking is more prevalent than we realize,” Hatfield added. “Her presentation was connecting a lot of dots for me.”

Shnyder advised those attending the workshop that they could report sex trafficking suspicions to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, answered round-the-clock, at 888-373-7888. She also encouraged attendees to report child-related sex trafficking concerns through the state’s ChildLine hotline at 800-932-0313.

“These are our kids we’re talking about,” Shnyder said. “If you’re not going to step up and protect a child, who will?”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.