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“Ann” was a prostitute for about 15 years. She has been out of the business since 1993, but the emotional scars remain. It isn’t just what she went through personally, but what she witnessed others go through or the things she heard about.

“There was this one young woman from Worcester I met, a [Latina]” says Ann, whose real name is being withheld to protect her identity. “She was beautiful, just beautiful. I was with one pimp and she was with another pimp. I came out here to Worcester. I wasn’t recruiting her, really, but she came back to Boston with me.”

Once there, Ann continues, the girl became involved with a particularly rough group of pimps and prostitutes from Ohio. The ringleaders would eventually be brought up on white slavery charges, according to Ann, but not before the damage was done. “Back then, she and some other girls had some unbelievable acts of violence done to them,” Ann says. “I was told they beat her, they would pee on her. The other girls would be forced to pee on her. I never saw her again. People would tell me she was not mentally stable anymore. I felt so bad.”

Ann still suffers from being involved in the sex-for-sale business. “I’ve been unsuccessful in relationships,” she says. “The aftermath affects everything you do. You’ll get in a relationship and the first thing you’re thinking is, ‘How can I play this guy?’”

The way Ann sees it, the best way for a woman to escape prostitution or any form of sexual slavery is to deal with “somebody that’s been there, done that.”

Everyday Miracles Peer Recovery CenterThat’s where a program such as Everyday Miracles Peer Recovery Center (EMPRC) on Pleasant Street comes in. Many of the folks there come from the streets, having in some way been involved in what is a widespread problem not just in the United States, but right here in Worcester. Human Trafficking, under which prostitution falls, affects hundreds of thousands of people every year – mostly women. EMPRC, which is run under Spectrum Health Systems of Worcester, is charged with trying to help those affected by it locally. The organization is not alone. There are myriad services and people in the city intent on shining a light on a problem they believe is commonly misunderstood or often written off as something less than what it is.

“Sexual trafficking takes a variety of forms,” says Julie Dahlstrom, managing attorney for the Immigration Legal Assistance Program (ILAP) of Lutheran Social Services (LSS). “It may be a traditional pimp relationship, what we’ve thought of as prostitution. We often think of someone brought into this country and chained to a bed. That is trafficking, but sexual exploitation does not have to be like that. It is happening all over Worcester and in affluent communities. Awareness of that is important.”

EMPRC and LSS were just a couple of the agencies that took part in Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Worcester recently. Others included the city’s Department of Public Health and Human Rights Commission as well as AmeriCorps. The event was accompanied by a mayoral proclamation and saw more than 50 people, mostly women, take part in several hours of training and information sharing about trafficking and sexual exploitation.

It was but one day of an entire month dedicated to raising awareness of Human Trafficking, a $32-billion-a-year industry worldwide, according to the Polaris Project. The event was Worcester’s third annual and came a little more than two years after Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law the state’s first sexual trafficking legislation in November 2011. “An Act Relative to the Commercial Exploitation of People” was designed to strengthen the protections in place for victims of human trafficking and prostitution and increased the punishment for offenders. The law made the trafficking of people for sexual servitude a crime, and attached a mandatory-minimum prison term of five years and a fine of up to $25,000. Traffickers of children were targeted with threat of a possible life sentence in prison if convicted.

“Human trafficking is a real issue, impacting innocent children, women and men across the Commonwealth,” Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, chair of the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual and Domestic Violence, said when the law was signed.

Jayna Turchek, Worcester’s human rights and disabilities director with the Office of Human Rights, used to work at LSS. She says the goal of Human Trafficking Awareness Day and the month in general, is just that: To raise the public conscious of what is going on, in many cases, right in their back yard. “Worcester has recognized each year the last three years that [human trafficking] is not just a global issue,” says Turchek. “It is very much a local issue. When people hear the term ‘human trafficking’ there’s a view of faraway countries where people are sold into sexual slavery. When we talk about it here in US, it comes as a surprise to many people.”

When it comes to the legal system, the attention is typically placed on the wrong people, according to EMPRC Program Director Athena Hadden. “Most of these women are being trafficked through pimps or abusive boyfriends,” she says. “It’s their job to keep working for money for him or, in many cases, for their [drug] habit. The city just now is starting to talk about this.”

Hadden cites the arrest last summer of two Asian women, whose photos appeared in a local newspaper. The two worked at a massage parlor in Oxford and were charged with offering sexual services for pay. “I just recently saw the picture in the paper of two Asian women in handcuffs in front of a judge, charged with running illegal sex operation out of a massage parlor. They don’t even have the right people. They’ve got the victims. Law enforcement people need to understand who the traffickers are and who the victims are.”

City Councilor Sarai Rivera, a minister who is actively involved in many of the issues in and around the Main South area of Worcester, recalls working with a young male victim of human trafficking. “In his country he was forced by gangs to join,” Rivera says. “They killed his brother and stabbed him. He went into a coma. When he came out, his mother sent him here. But sometimes, when you’re being brought here, along the way you’ll get kidnapped and brought into the country and held for ransom. That’s what happened to him. He watched a man beat to death as an example of what would happen if you didn’t pay ransom.”

The boy was only 14 or 15, according to Rivera. He escaped being murdered only when the FBI raided the area where he was being held. “He lives in Worcester,” Rivera says of where the boy is now. He is just the most amazing young man.”

Despite the success stories and efforts such as Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Hadden, who interacts with many of Worcester’s prostitutes through the court-ordered program D.A.W.N. (Developing Alternatives for Women Now), is not convinced the issue is afforded the attention it deserves. “There has been some pressure from the Main South corridor, where there is some of this happening,” says Hadden, estimating there are roughly 50 prostitutes working the city’s streets at any one time. “They’ll go to jail, get out that night or go into the system for six months. Human trafficking is going on right here in Worcester. I am fearful Worcester has no idea and is not prepared to deal with how big a problem this is.”

Reprinted with permission.

Worcester Magazine
January 17, 2013
By Walter Bird Jr., Senior Writer
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