Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Western Massachusetts takes action to combat local human trafficking

With new dialogues and approaches, there is hope for progress

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Western Massachusetts takes action to combat local human trafficking

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

By Bobby Morse, Collegian Correspondent

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Last summer, Massachusetts State Attorney General Maura Healey announced an initiative promoting awareness of forced labor trafficking in the state. Specifically, Healey’s office contacted municipal government leaders from all 351 towns and cities in Massachusetts, urging them to discuss signs of human trafficking and appropriate responses.

“This initiative will bring more local resources to our efforts to identify and stop labor trafficking in Massachusetts,” said Healey. “With more eyes and ears, we can shed light on this exploitation and hold perpetrators accountable.”

In western Mass., this initiative addresses a problem that continuously troubles the community. In 2016, for example, authorities uncovered five massage parlors in Massachusetts to be fronts for human sex trafficking rings in one incident alone according to Michael Majchrowicz of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Four of these businesses were stationed in western Mass.: Hadley Massage Therapy in Hadley, Feng Health Center in East Longmeadow, Pine Spa in Northampton and Agawam Massage Therapy in Agawam. The other was Massage Body Work in Framingham.

Majchrowicz reported earlier that the women who were being exploited either lived in apartments in Amherst or West Springfield or lived in the massage parlors. Authorities uncovered that the five businesses were part of two unrelated sex trafficking rings from Flushing in Queens, New York. “The women… provided sexual favors to male clients for cash tips.”

In 2009, Patrick Johnson reported for MassLive that state and federal authorities had shut down eight businesses in western Mass. that were also part of human trafficking rings from Flushing, New York. In the case of these businesses, many of the women whom the businesses exploited also lived in the massage parlors where they elicited sex for cash. The businesses involved were Hadley Massage and Jane’s Spa, both in Hadley, Fiona’s Spa in Chicopee, Chinese Massage in Longmeadow, Korean Massage Therapy in East Longmeadow, Chinese Massage and Jane’s Spa in Springfield and an unnamed massage parlor in West Springfield.

While different from human labor trafficking, human sex trafficking is another problem that remains prominent throughout the Pioneer Valley. Within the past two years, businesses have decided to act. Many recently formed a coalition known as Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking in order to raise awareness about the issue. BEST’s website defines human sex trafficking as “(1) the prostituting of a child or youth (under 18) or (2) the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel an adult into commercial sex work,” while labor trafficking is “the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel a person into work.”

One of these businesses is Square One, a non-profit nursery school in Springfield dedicated to meeting the needs of underprivileged children.

Dawn DiStefano, chief finance and grants officer, explained the importance of businesses playing such a role in their community.

“Businesses are people on the front-line observing things that are not right and do something about it,” she said.

DiStefano said MGM front lined the foundation of BEST to help deter their new casino in Springfield from becoming a source of human trafficking and address the issue where it is already prevalent. Other businesses in the coalition include Peter Pan Bus Lines, the Sheraton Springfield, Springfield/Worcester Hilton Garden Inns, Hampton Inn and Suites Springfield, Red Roof Inn in West Springfield, Square One, Springfield Regional Chamber, East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau and Springfield Redevelopment Authority.

DiStefano pointed out that hospitality and transportation industries are some of the most likely to see human trafficking occur. For example, bus and train stations are common sites where traffickers will recruit prostitutes while the sex acts occur in hotels.

She quickly dispelled the idea that human sex trafficking is a minor or nonexistent issue.

“The Federal Advisory Committee reported that there are currently over 200 active cases of human sex trafficking in Springfield alone.”

Furthermore, she added that businesses do not just have a humanitarian reason to address human sex trafficking; the issue is also one of productivity.

“Studies have found that the most popular time for men to buy sex online is 2 p.m., the middle of the work day. If workers are out buying sex and breaking the law, then they obviously are not doing work which also hurts the business.”

Nancy Connor, executive director of the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce in East Longmeadow, expanded on the impact of human trafficking on businesses and the community.

“When a business is found to be promoting or harboring human trafficking, it doesn’t just hurt that business,” Connor said. “It hurts that entire industry, it hurts the entire town and it hurts the entire community.”

Connor elaborated that this impact is exactly what prompted ERC5 to join BEST. “We are responsible for promoting the safety and welfare of our community in East Longmeadow, and this is an issue that poses a serious threat here and in the surrounding community.”

Connor also clarified that addressing human sex trafficking means addressing the stereotypes and misconceptions regarding it. It is not just something that threatens certain neighborhoods of certain cities or states.

“This is happening all around the area in Chicopee, Belchertown, Westfield, Ludlow, Northampton and Amherst as well. Not to mention, I moved here after working in California and New Jersey, and it was happening there as well,” she said.

Jen Falcone, director of Businesses Against Human Trafficking, agrees that acknowledging the issue and the misunderstandings surrounding it is essential. She explained human sex trafficking and youth sex trafficking exist in Springfield, however, it is not a problem particular to the city.

“This is a problem that exists in Springfield, but we need to understand that it is not greater or lesser than any other city. It is happening all over the state and the country.”

Falcone credits Healey’s initiatives with bringing the issue of human trafficking to light and starting conversations to dispel the myths and counterproductive approaches.

One of the most important changes which Falcone cited is that the Springfield Police Department is not arresting the prostitutes but instead targets the traffickers and the buyers. “This way the police are no longer targeting the victims of the crime.”

Nonetheless, Falcone believes that there is still much that people need to learn to effectively combat the issue.

“Most people would prefer not to even think about it, and those who do assume that the victims are just making bad choices,” she said.

Falcone explained there are many reasons that someone might find themselves in the human trafficking industry however, and often they are society’s most vulnerable people. In many cases, these victims are children of color, runaways, homeless women and people living in poverty who feel like they have no other option, and traffickers realize that they are more susceptible.

Many also had interactions with Child Services and/or experiences of sexual abuse in the home as children. As a result, the treatment that they receive is more normalized for them, and they do not feel that they deserve better.

It is also an issue that correlates with the current opioid epidemic which Massachusetts is seeing.

“Some of these victims are also drug addicts who are willing to do anything to have more money for drugs,” Falcone said. “Drug addicts will put up with more from their pimps and use drugs to deal with the trauma that they experience every day.”

On top of the cycle that this factor creates, there are many other obstacles preventing people from leaving the industry. For example, traffickers will often threaten a victim’s family, physically attack victims who dissent or create a Stockholm Syndrome, claiming that no one else will love the victim like they do. These challenges are so prevalent, that shelters for these victims understand that the victims will likely go back into the human trafficking industry and come back into the shelter’s services several times.

Not only is there a problem of misunderstanding the victims but also the buyers. Falcone cites that human trafficking is prevalent because people see no harm in buying these types of services from people. She gave the example of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who recently charged with soliciting sex from a prostitute and said that he likely did not think that he did anything wrong.

“This issue is about educating the community that it is not okay to buy people,” she said.

Communities need to remove demand for these services in the first place, and Falcone demonstrated that men are less likely to buy services if they fear arrest or exposure.

DiStefano conceded that this same fear of exposure prevents certain businesses from publicly demonstrating some of their efforts in curbing the issue.

“If a hotel helps police stop an instance of human trafficking from happening there, it still looks bad for the hotel that people associate it as being an environment for trafficking,” DiStefano explained.

While this consequence will not likely stop them from taking efforts, it could stop them from letting the public know regardless.

With regards to whether buyers typically represented a certain group of people, Falcone declared that there is no limit to whom they might be.

“Men often start buying women at age 14, and you see their demographics represented all across the board,” she said. “You see men of every race, every class, every religion and every culture represented here.”

Falcone said that understanding the dimensions to this issue is one of the first steps to addressing and preventing it. The other is establishing dialogue about it. She has hope considering the new dialogue that the state is seeing regarding the issue and changes in strategies such as those of the Springfield Police Department.

“There is still a lack of resources to adequately help everyone, and we have a long way to go,” she said.

Bobby Morse can be reached at [email protected]

2 Comments

2 Responses to “Western Massachusetts takes action to combat local human trafficking”

  1. amy on March 21st, 2019 12:39 pm

    That’s funny.. aren’t liberals and democrats the biggest enablers of human trafficking?

    One of the reasons Trump and tens of millions of americans want border security is to stop human trafficking by mexican cartels into the united states and also trafficking of women to be prostitutes.

    But… trump proposed it so of course it is wrong and ‘evil’.

    Let’s not forget democrats and liberal’s embrace of Radical Islam, studies show that Islamic terrorist groups are one of the biggest human traffickers and let’s not forget that child marriage is legal.

    In terms of message parlors, those workers are usually illegal immigrants… notice a pattern? When someone engages in criminal behavior it makes them easier to be exploited by other criminals because they enter that culture and underworld. But democrats and liberals don’t want to address this problem.

    And finally ” The other is establishing dialogue about it. ” okay lol, talking about is really going to solve things. Anytime I hear a liberal policy, I try to keep an open mind, but their positions and ways to solve problems are invariably idiotic and detached from reality.

  2. Jan on March 21st, 2019 4:45 pm

    Awesome article Bobby Morse, and so pertinent to what is happening in Massachusetts, the rest of our country, and globally. The human sex trafficing and slave labor of women and children has existed for centuries, and we must all enlighten ourselves to this truth and not turn away from it because it upsets us.

    The majority of US citizens live in comfort and without a high level of fear in our everyday lives. We cannot begin to understand the toll that such activity takes on the human adult or child soul. If we know or see something, we must speak up for these victims.

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