A high-profile case replete with boldfaced names, private planes and unashamed debauchery may be over – for now – but human trafficking persists. It’s far more prevalent than we imagine, even here on Long Island, and widely misunderstood.
Ghislaine Maxwell, the former companion of billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein, was convicted in Manhattan last month on sex-trafficking and conspiracy charges. A jury found the 60-year-old British socialite guilty of conspiring with Epstein for at least a decade to recruit, groom and sexually abuse underage girls.
Epstein hung himself in a New York City jail cell in August 2019 after being arrested on sex-trafficking charges. Maxwell could spend the rest of her life in prison.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines human trafficking as a “crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services or commercial sex,” including the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion.”
Not all human trafficking is sex trafficking, which is defined as a “commercial sex act induced by force, fraud or coercion.” Paying a minor for sex is also considered trafficking under federal law, with or without force, fraud or coercion.
New York State ranks fourth in the United Statesin human-trafficking cases behind California, Texas and Florida. While these states are all among the nation’s most populous, their large immigrant communities, big numbers of vulnerable runaway and homeless youth and heavy reliance on agriculture trades fuel a modern-day slavery system.
And COVID has made it worse.
The Washington-based Polaris Project found that reports of online sex trafficking – via social media, dating apps and websites promising quick money, green cards or a place to live – increased 45 percent during COVID, while traditional forms of commercial sex trafficking (street prostitution, for instance) fell by approximately 30 percent.
Between 2007 and 2019, New York agencies tallied 1,541 statewide trafficking victims. According to the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, there were 301 confirmed cases in 2020, during the height of the pandemic – more than in any single year since tracking started in 2007.
Of those cases, 205 involved sex trafficking, 79 involved labor trafficking and 16 involved both. New York City alone accounted for 115 of the cases; 60 occurred in the lower Hudson Valley and on Long Island.
How is this happening in our own backyard?
Social worker Molly England, who coordinates the Suffolk County Anti-Trafficking Initiative Task Force, calls it a “common misconception” that human trafficking occurs exclusively in big cities. Long Island’s diverse geography, myriad industries and proximity to NYC all lend themselves “to both labor and sex trafficking, unfortunately,” England said.
Since 2019, the task force – staffed by the Suffolk County Police Department, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation – has arrested more than 50 individuals on trafficking charges. Meanwhile, nonprofits like the Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island and the EAC Network have provided nearly 5,000 hours of services to 311 Long Island trafficking victims.
You can imagine the stories. Victims are sometimes kept behind locked doors, but they’re often hidden in plain sight: restaurants, nail salons, construction sites, agricultural fields, motels, massage parlors.
In a 2018 report on illicit massage businesses, the nonprofit Polaris Project named Flushing as a “main entry point” for undocumented Asian women who are then trafficked into neighboring suburban areas. The 100-page report features stories provided by the Bethpage-based Safe Center of LI and calls out a well-known website that touts the “best massage reviews from your area,” including “body to body massages, prostate massages (and) massages with happy endings.”
The site also contains hundreds of explicit reviews – posted as recently as this week – of dozens of massage parlors located in Hicksville, Massapequa, Huntington, Port Washington, Coram, Nesconset and elsewhere.
Local law enforcement is responding. While massage parlor raids often involve the arrest of workers who are likely victims, a November 2021 investigation busted the operators of a sophisticated money laundering and prostitution ring run out of two massage parlors in Centereach.
And last June, Long Island gang member Joshua Lampley-Reid was charged with sex trafficking and related charges after prosecutors said he forced girls as young as 15 into prostitution at motels in East Meadow, Freeport and Rockville Centre.
With more than 50,000 nationwide calls, texts and messages pouring into the National Human Trafficking Hotline annually, there’s more to be done. January is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month; use the hotline or call 911 to report suspected trafficking. Report missing children or child pornography to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Support local charities assisting victims.
Above all, please help bring trafficking out of the shadows.
This article first appeared on Innovate LI.