Getting Answers: human traffickers targeting the most vulnerable

Getting Answers: human traffickers targeting the most vulnerable
Updated: Nov. 10, 2022 at 5:55 PM EST
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - Human trafficking may be something you’ve heard about or seen in movies, but law enforcement officials said it’s happening right under our noses and behind your child’s cell phone.

Ripping away at a child’s innocence and exploiting them for their own gain, authorities said human traffickers are targeting the most vulnerable people, including our children.

“Human trafficking, as a whole, is more commonplace than people probably realize and it does exist here in western Massachusetts,” said Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni.

Tyrena Lester is the victim services supervisor at the Baystate Health Family Advocacy Center. Every report of child exploitation or trafficking comes through the center.

“On average, we see about 100 to 120 cases a year and I will say that number is underreported,” Lester said.

According to the Human Trafficking Institute, 60 percent of all human trafficking cases involve minors. The same report said the internet is used 85 percent of the time in these crimes. Lester said sex trafficking can be as simple as someone luring a child online to send photos of themselves, all while they are giving them gifts.

“Really for our children, it’s really simple as an exchange of pictures, our kids are spending a lot of time online recently,” Lester added.

Lester said some apps are more dangerous than others when it comes to traffickers targeting victims. She said dating apps, apps like Tiktok and Snapchat, and many others can all be used to communicate with children. She also warned against gaming or streaming chatroom apps.

“There’s adults on that platform and you can exchange videos. We know that kids have had contact with adults, inappropriate contact with adults, through Discord,” Lester explained.

She said there are some warning signs to look out for, like if your child starts owning expensive items you didn’t buy them, they start spending a concerning amount of time on their computers or phones, or if they are distancing themselves from their family friends and their favorite activities. Gulluni agreed these are all red flags that parents should address.

“Be in communication with your child, make sure you know how your child is using the internet,” Gulluni noted.

He also explained how sex trafficking can take other, more serious forms, specifically with vulnerable teenagers. Traffickers lure them in and then force them to have sex in exchange for other things.

“We’ve had many cases with teenage aged young people who are ensnared in some kind of trafficking situation. Very often, they themselves are suffering from mental health issues, substance use issues, as well as in situations where they are disenfranchised from family,” Gulluni added.

He explained that more often than not, these children have run away from their homes, DCF, or foster care and get picked up by traffickers.

“Then it turns into a situation where that person begins to exploit that person with physical violence, with emotional violence,” Gulluni explained.

Gulluni’s office is part of a task force, the Western Massachusetts Human Trafficking Working Group. He said they are dedicated to finding criminals that are exploiting those most vulnerable.

“No person, no woman wakes up and says ‘I want to prostitute myself today. I want to sell my body,’” Gulluni said.

Although his office is working hard to fight these crimes, Massachusetts, as a whole, scored an ‘F’ in the 2022 Shared Hope International report cards. These report cards provide an in-depth analysis of current state laws and include recommendations to strengthen them. In their report, they said Massachusetts lacks policies in multiple areas including accountability for trafficking criminals, identifying and responding to victims, and prevention and training for law enforcement agencies.