ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Online platforms have contributed to the rise of sex trafficking across New York, with many cases involving minors under the age of 18. While lawmakers push to decriminalize sex work and provide stronger protections for victims of sex trafficking, local government agencies and nonprofit organizations have been at the forefront of providing support services and aid to victims in need.

What is sex trafficking?

As defined by Nicole Consiglio, the Safe Harbour Coordinator for the Albany County Department for Children, Youth, and Families, sex trafficking is the term used for anyone under the age of 18 who is engaged in commercial sex or any adult who is involved in commercial sex in which the elements of force fraud and coercion are used.

“Younger people are more vulnerable to trafficking and are easily influenced as they do not have the awareness to protect themselves,” said Consiglio. “A lot of victims are considered at-risk or have run away from home. They don’t have their basic needs being met, and are offered anything of value in exchange for a sex act.” In these circumstances, anything of value could range from clothing to food, to a roof over their heads.

Data from 2020 provided by the Office of Children and Family Services shows that 1,765 reported youths were identified as trafficked or at risk at the time of referral. “Trafficking happens all the time,” said Consiglio. “People tend to think of trafficking as how it is portrayed in movies and media as if they are big, sophisticated operations. Instead, trafficking is on a much smaller level and happens everywhere right now. Some of the terminology surrounding trafficking may be newer, but trafficking has always been here.”

The rise of the internet

According to data from 2020, social media played a role in the victimization/grooming of almost a quarter of youth identified by the Safe Harbour Program. Renee Henck, the Anti-Trafficking Coordinator for Safe Inc. of Schenectady says traffickers are utilizing social media platforms for child exploitation.

“The upwards trend of sex trafficking can be connected to the growth of social media,” said Henck. “This creates more opportunities for traffickers to build relationships with victims and creates more ways to traffic. We have seen more work through the rise of cam sites.”

Consiglio echoed the sentiment. “The internet has given traffickers a much wider range of potential victims and helps them better disguise themselves and provides anonymity that wasn’t available before. There is a grooming process in which the trafficker will present themselves as a friend or a love interest to the victim to exploit them. They might also use sextortion to their advantage. Once the trafficker obtains images, they can use them to blackmail the victim.”

The internet also provides a challenge to government officials trying to crack down on traffickers. “One government official described trying to catch traffickers online as playing whack-a-mole,” said Consiglio. “They might catch a few suspects and a few more pop up. Sites are constantly changing, making it harder for the FBI. Traffickers also utilize encrypted websites and the dark web. The internet caters to predators to do things under anonymity.”

Providing support for trafficking victims

While it may prove difficult to catch traffickers, many government agencies and nonprofit organizations have set up programs to provide all types of assistance to victims. One such program funded by the State of New York is the Safe Harbour Program.

“There is a Safe Harbour coordinator in every county around the state,” said Consiglio. “The program is designed for victims ages 21 and under. In this program, the coordinator tracks a screening process. There is a checklist of potential red flags provided to child detective services and children’s mental health workers and providers. When they identify an individual at risk, the Safe Harbour coordinator will reach out to the youth and their family to offer client-based services. I get multiple referrals weekly.”

The goal for Consiglio is to make the individual feel safe and get them what they need at that moment. “We will provide things like clothing, hygiene products, and food. We communicate so the victim knows that they can come back or reach out at any time. The Safe Harbour program does not turn anyone away.”

“It is important for victims to know they can come back,” adds Consiglio. “We see a lot of victims go back to trafficking. It might take a few attempts for them to fully leave the trafficking lifestyle since they are usually getting something that they need. In many cases, the trafficker also has a strong connection with the victim.”

Further steps to address sex trafficking

Consiglio says that the State of New York has come a long way in recognizing the need to address trafficking. In 2019, New York State signed Erin’s Law into legislation, requiring public schools to teach child sexual abuse and exploitation prevention classes to students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The State has also created an Interagency Task Force Against Human Trafficking that provides anti-trafficking providers and law enforcement with protocols and best practices for training and outreach. The ITF also gathers data on the number of victims and evaluates approaches to increase public awareness about trafficking and makes recommendations on those approaches.

Consiglio says one area in particular that needs improvement is the need for shelters. “We need to find more places for the victims where they can go to be safe and feel comfortable.”

Lastly, Consiglio says that anyone has the ability to help. “If you see something, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The FBI investigates all tips that come in. You can also contact Homeland Security or your local law enforcement. You could save someone’s life.”