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Bergen prosecutor, other experts show the true face of human trafficking

Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

ONLY ON CLIFFVIEW PILOT : Before she joined a human trafficking task force, Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Kristin DeMarco thought the crime mirrored the plot of the Liam Neeson movie, “Taken,” in which a girl is kidnapped in Paris by the Albanian mob and sold as a sex slave.

In reality, very few people of means are kidnapped, DeMarco ( photo above, left ) told 100 attendees gathered at the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River for an informational session on human trafficking.

Instead, she said, traffickers look for vulnerable people on the fringes of society — teen runaways, immigrants, the homeless – those who “no one is looking for.”

These become victims of labor trafficking, sex trafficking, commercial sex trafficking of children and debt bondage – in which a person is lured into debt for services, usually at an unreasonably high price, and forced to work it off for years.

Trafficking victims can be forced into both legitimate or illegal enterprises: waitressing, needle trades, hairdressing or landscaping or shoplifting, pickpocketing, stripping, prostitution, DeMarco told the crowd. Some are forced to work as housekeepers or nannies for little or no wages.

Nightclubs, strip clubs, live sex shows, brothels, massage parlors, cantinas and escort services often use trafficked labor,

Large public events attract traffickers, and it isn’t always the Super Bowl: Concerts, festivals — any event with a party atmosphere where there may be tourists paying for entertainment — all traffickers, DeMarco said.

Although children are extremely vulnerable, young people between 18 and 20 years old are most at risk, added Jayne Bigelsen, director of Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives for New York City-based Covenant House.

“They’ve aged out of the system, and they have no resources,” she said.

“People used to think women this age who were engaging in ‘survival sex’ were ‘just prostitutes’,” said Bigelsen  ( photo above, right ) . “We are now seeing them for what they are — trafficked women.”

Victims are beaten, raped, starved, isolated and made dependent on drugs, she said. They may be promised false employment, or wooed as a romantic partner, only to be turned over to a pimp. They’re coerced, threatened with deportation and fearful that their families will be harmed.

“People think trafficking victims are locked up in cages, but in reality the bonds are emotional,” Bigelsen said. “Victims are people who have never had love in their life.”

Often, legitimate employers don’t even know the worker is enslaved, Bigelsen said. She suggested people look for things that don’t seem right.

For instance, she said: “If you see a couple together, and one of them appears to be in control, it could be a trafficking situation. Typically if there are documents, the controller will keep all of them. The same with luggage.”

Suburban citizens can be vigilant, as well, said Upper Saddle River Police Sgt. Bill Lynch.

“If you see someone in a nice car, well-dressed, and there’s a disheveled child in the back, call the police,” Lynch ( above, middle ) told the audience. “We in Upper Saddle River and all other towns, are working to prevent trafficking, but we need your help, too.”

As a member of Bergen County’s human trafficking task force, DeMarco and other prosecutors meet with the state Attorney General’s staff monthly to plan for events that may need monitoring for trafficking activities, and to discuss arrests and prosecutions to discover common crime elements to help them in their home counties.

New Jersey has a web site with contact numbers for detectives and assistant prosecutors in every county: Njhumantrafficking.gov

On the right-hand side of the page there’s a toll-free number for the state task force, and right under that are phone numbers for task force members in every county.

STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

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