As of June, Washington County had the fourth-highest number of suspected juvenile sex-trafficking victims in Maryland, behind only Baltimore city and Prince George’s and Baltimore counties.
That’s according to data released by the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
To help combat the issue, local entities, including the Washington County Maryland Department of Human Resources, have teamed up to create the Washington County Human Trafficking Task Force.
Other task force partners include Safe Place (a Washington County child advocacy center), the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, the Maryland Judiciary, Maryland State Police, Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Hagerstown Police Department.
The county is a “hot bed” for sex trafficking, according to Steven Youngblood, program manager of child welfare for the Washington County Maryland Department of Human Resources, formerly the Washington County Department of Social Services.
Youngblood is a member of the task force.
“It’s fair to say that it’s increasing because of the information super highway — the internet — and all the social media sites,” Youngblood said of sex trafficking. “It’s a lot easier for (the perpetrators) to stay out of sight.”
He said the new way to go undetected is to lay business cards in hotels and casinos.
“It just has a website on there,” he said of the cards, “so they are really savvy about going undetected. …”
‘Turn even worse’
Trafficking is defined as the illegal trading of human beings, nationally and internationally, for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. It’s a modern day form of slavery.
Sex trafficking is defined as commercial acts induced by force, fraud or coercion, which includes prostitution, stripping and/or pornography.
Payments do not have to be in the form of money, Youngblood said sexual acts can be in exchange for drugs, food, shelter, car rides, cigarettes, clothes, etc.
Experts say the juvenile might not even know they are being trafficked.
“It could be an older boy who might pose as their boyfriend, and while the child believes they are in a relationship, they are really being trafficked by being given things in exchange for sex,” said Tammie Campher, child welfare supervisor for the county’s state Department of Human Resources. “After that, it could turn even worse.”
There are a lot of reasons Washington County has such a high number of sex-trafficking cases, Youngblood said.
Interstates 70 and 81 criss-cross the county. There are five major truck stops and multiple hotels, plus the county borders two other states. It’s within an hour of three international airports. There is a high population of runaways and the county has a growing heroin epidemic.
All these make for “big problems” and prime locations for offenders to recruit sex-trafficking victims, Youngblood said.
From June 2013 to August 2017, there were 44 individuals under the age of 18 found to be sex-trafficking victims in the county, Youngblood said. The victims were almost always female, he added.
Of those 44 juveniles, 37 were from Washington County, six were from out of state and one was from another jurisdiction in Maryland.
From 2012 to 2016 in the state, there were 601 reported sex-trafficking victims; 201 were under the age of 18.
Youngblood said he believes the county is ranked fourth in the state because it “aggressively goes after the problem.”
The rankings go by reported offenses, but actual incidents are hard to track. He believes the numbers that are reported are low and do not accurately reflect the seriousness of the problem.
Campher said the children trafficked are usually from vulnerable situations.
“Children who are runaways are especially vulnerable,” she said. “It is safe to say, but not always, most of them have usually had a trauma of some sorts. The whole process is a mental game. She may even by physically threatened and they could threaten her family as well. It’s all about control.”
While it is the county’s state Department of Human Resources job to help minors, Laurie Culkin, human trafficking prevention project coordinator for Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, said her organization focuses on helping adults affected by sex trafficking.
MVLS is the largest pro bono legal services provider in the state and operates a Self-Help Clinic in the Circuit Court of Washington County at 24 Summit Ave.
While nearly half of the offices cases are family law, it has widened its services to include sex trafficking.
“This was not our own radar until the last year or so,” said Susan Francis, deputy director of MVLS. “We dramatically expanded our expungement work, since we would see some of the charges, prostitution related charges.”
MVLS provides outreach in Western Maryland and across the state.
According to Culkin, “trafficking” is misleading, since movement of a person is not required in sex trafficking. Someone can be trafficked out of a home or any stationary place. She said the most commonly used term is “sex work” — prostitution.
Even though sex workers are technically committing a crime, by definition they are victim of crime themselves, Culkin said. MLVS helps victims of sex trafficking to expunge prostitution charges and convictions from their records. The goal is to help them heal and move on with their lives.
“It’s a misnomer that the people who are sex workers are willingly doing it,” Culkin said. “There are plenty of folks who engage in sex work who are chemically addicted, they feel they have to in order to feed their families, or there is a puppet master in the background promising something if they do it, when in return, it ends up being something completely different than what they thought.”
Culkin said she believes the “mental chain” keeping someone in the situation is more common than anything else. She also agreed that people who are more vulnerable, such as women who were sexually abused, victims of sexual assault, minorities, immigrants and others, are at higher risk.
“The general theme is they have a vulnerability that someone can exploit,” she said.
“It’s torture. It’s hell,” he said of those trapped as sex workers. “And they don’t feel that they have any other way to provide.”
‘Don’t think it’s far away’
Youngblood said the only thing that separates child sex trafficking and prostitution is age.
“At 18, you are no longer a child. But to us, they are still a victim,” Youngblood said. “Nobody ever really wants to become a drug addict, just like nobody ever really wanted to become a prostitute.”
In an effort to raise awareness of sex trafficking in the area, the task force has put up flyers at local truck stops and billboards around town, has made informational business cards to pass out and hosted training sessions.
“This is a hot topic in the county right now and we want people in our communities to understand what it is,” said Tamara Puffenberger, child welfare supervisor for the county’s Maryland Department of Human Resources, “that yes, this could be in your backyard. Don’t think its far away.”