You might not realize it, but January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month. News 12 is shining the spotlight on the growing problem across the tri-state.
VIDEO - FULL SLAVERY IN SUBURBIA SPECIAL:
The Turn To Tara team spent several months combing through new data, and it reveals some of the reasons why cases of human trafficking spiraled out of control during the pandemic.
Our Senior Reporter Tara Rosenblum spoke with survivors, lawmakers and federal agents -- who showed us the horrors of "modern-day slavery" close-up.
Hilda Chabuka says she was lured from her native Africa to New York after a prominent ambassador offered her a high-paying job as a cook at his mansion in Westchester - and was soon forced into a life of "modern-day slavery" working up to 19-hour shifts, seven days a week.
Hilda says she is a diabetic and often skipped meals and was denied medication, and even basic toiletries. "When I was there, I didn't have any shampoo. I didn't have any soap. I didn't go even to the doctor," she says. "I felt the pain, I was feeling like I have to die...Abuse, it gets into your heart." During her most difficult moments, Hilda says she clung to one of the few items she had packed in her suitcase - a flyer she picked up from the embassy back home. It detailed her rights and highlighted help for trafficking victims.
"That flyer saved my life," she says. "Something came into my mind, and I was like, 'I have to say something to someone else who can help me.'"
She managed to escape six months later.
Chabuka wound up at a deli a mile away and called a toll-free number on the flyer for trafficking victims. It connected her to My Sisters' Place and then the LifeWay Network, an agency that provides survivors with safe housing and education for women who have been trafficked.
The Westchester-based agency has helped hundreds of victims across the tri-state and was prominently featured during a recent hearing on trafficking at the United Nations. Executive Marion Kendall testified before an international panel about the hidden world of trafficking and talked about solutions to the growing crisis.
Hilda is now working as a chef in the Bronx and says she has done a lot of healing since she first met Rosenblum five years ago in a previous investigation into trafficking.
She says she even received back pay from her traffickers through a Labor Department complaint.
While Chabuka refused to be silenced, new records analyzed by the Turn to Tara team reveal the surprising reason many other survivors are struggling to seek justice.
The team recently reviewed five years of trafficking data, which showed local calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline exploded during the pandemic.
Despite the dramatic increase in pleas for help, News 12 also obtained federal data that shows fewer cases are making their way through the legal system as victims like Chabuka fight for justice.
"I am stunned. It should be a lot higher than that," says Marion Kendall, executive director of the LifeWay Network. "And I think that it's quite devastating."
Kendall says she's worried it will lead to more silence.
"It re-traumatizes them. Essentially, they give up. They say the legal system does not support them, so the silence is becoming deafening for the women."
Kendall also weighed in on the few prosecuted trafficking cases throughout the pandemic.
"I think COVID did have an impact in how cases are being prosecuted and looked at," she says. "I know in New York, courts were shut down."
The FBI previously explained why outcomes like Chabuka's case are extremely rare.
"To the extent that sex trafficking is a hard case to investigate and prosecute, labor trafficking is even more difficult," says FBI agent Michael Osborn. "And domestic servitude matters are commonly associated with immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship, so with that hanging over their heads, those that facilitate labor trafficking cases will commonly threaten deportation," says FBI agent Michael Osborn.
Chabuka's family back in Africa even allegedly received death threats. "I had to move my children from another place to another place hiding there, so it wasn't easy," she says. But her story is already a catalyst for change.
Assembly Member Amy Paulin fought for and passed a new law that requires every hotel in New York state to post informational flyers - like the one Chabuka saved - in their public bathrooms
Paulin is also fighting for the MTA to follow suit.
"We need the flyers on trains because Grand Central is a gathering point regionally for Long Island girls, for Westchester girls - but all over the place," she says.
Chabuka says she has no intention to stop speaking out. "If you don't get help, you’ll die," she says.
A scathing state audit found that two of the primary agencies in charge of protecting vulnerable young girls were previously accused of not getting the job done properly.
News 12 traveled to the state Capitol in Albany to speak with Comptroller Tom DiNapoli about the audit, which paints the picture of a dangerous breakdown at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development.
Some of the key findings include:
ACS failed to complete nearly a third of its required screenings of at-risk youth between 2017 and 2020.
Both agencies missed the mark when it comes to supplying adequate services for victims, such as safe housing, mental health and legal assistance.
The audit also found the agencies failed to provide the proper training and oversight of their staff.
“The training is available, it's out there. But unless you have in effect your staff, with their eyes and ears open for these situations, kids are going to fall through the cracks, and they're not going to get the services and support they need. And the traffickers may continue to get away with doing these bad things,” says DiNapoli.
A spokesperson from the ACS released the following statement: “ACS is committed to identifying and supporting trafficked youth and those at-risk of being trafficked. We have a dedicated unit that offers trainings, guidance and other resources to help prevent child trafficking and meet the needs of at-risk youth and survivors. While there are significant inaccuracies in the Comptroller’s report, we have accepted all of the recommendations – many of which were already underway.”
A spokesman for the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) released the following statement:
“As the city agency responsible for funding high-quality programs to meet the needs of runaway and homeless youth, DYCD takes very seriously its obligation to support providers so that they can offer comprehensive services to young people, including youth experiencing—or at risk of—exploitation and trafficking. DYCD remains committed to constantly evaluating our policies, procedures, training, and reporting, to ensure that agency staff and community partners are in compliance with local law.”
During the interview, DiNapoli revealed plans for the first time to expand his audit to other agencies across New York state this year.
“Because folks sometimes think the suburbs are immune from this problem. But what we found in the data is that whether you're in the Hudson Valley or Long Island, you have instances of human trafficking, the sex crimes involving children all across our state. This is not purely in New York City or an urban issue,” says DiNapoli
Proof of that played out in Westchester just a few months ago after a woman was arrested in a sprawling human trafficking investigation believed to have involved hundreds of victims living in the suburbs, as well as the Bronx.
"Miss Gomez was trafficking a female victim against her will and forcing that victim to engage in sex acts with numerous individuals under the threat of deportation,” said Brenden Kenney, of SSRA, FBI.
According to a federal complaint News 12 obtained that was filed in the Southern District of New York, Ysenni Gomez lured in her victims with an online ad for waitressing jobs but when the women would show up for their day of work, they were reportedly forced to have sex with men.
"When she showed up for her first day of work instead of working as a waitress, she was forced into prostitution." said Kenney.
Westchester District Attorney Mimi Rocah spent 16 years as a federal prosecutor and says the problem is worse now.
"What happens is on the one hand you had more people and kids online because of the pandemic but also people retreating more, and just not having as much opportunity to have contact with a teacher who they might say something to or some, some kind you know they're unlikely to call up the police and say something right,” she says.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also recently spoke with News 12 to detail her plans to tackle the crisis on a federal level.
She said she is fighting to create two new laws - one that would improve data collection and victim's services nationwide, the other would expunge criminal records for trafficked victims.
“New York is ranked fourth in the number of reported cases of sexual exploitation and labor trafficking, and this represents a huge amount of human misery,” she says. “There are so many trafficked victims. Children who are trafficked. Minors who are trafficked, young adults who are trafficked, who have no ability to escape from their traffickers and are in these extremely abused positions, where they are going to be traumatized for a very long time.”
She was stunned to learn of the data News 12 uncovered regarding prosecutions across the tri-state.
“I think it’s outrageous, and we have to make this a priority,” she says.
Gillibrand hopes her legislation will go a far way to protect young girls like Melanie, a sex trafficking survivor who learned that trafficking is real at the age of 12.
News 12 is using her first name only to protect her identity from the violent pimp who still wants to harm her.
Melanie was kidnapped by a violent pimp in Queens who raped her, locked the seventh grader in a closet and then brought her to Westchester the next day in pursuit of well-heeled johns.
She says 90% of her trafficking experiences were at hotels.
News 12 revisited those hotels with her, where she says she was sold for sex.
“Devastating. It’s hard, it's traumatic, I walk past each one of these doors and can remember a time I was in each of these rooms. On the outside, they all look the same but inside, there are so many different atrocities happening,” she says.
Melanie also recalled many dates going horribly wrong, including a man who tried to run her over with a station wagon.
But she says her most terrifying experience was with her pimp.
"One of the girls that was under my pimp, he shot in front of me as a threat to me. She died,” said Melanie.
In Melanie’s case, her trafficker was caught, brought to justice and imprisoned six years ago, enabling her to speak out now about the booming sex trade in the suburbs across the tri-state.
"I think people in Westchester, not to scold them, need to open their eyes. It's more than just me, there is many other people in Westchester, and I know a lot of the boys and girls in the life don't have access to News 12, but if they did, I would love for them to know they aren't by themselves,” she says. “There is someone on the other side that understands you 100%. And you can turn your life around."
Activists are trying to fight back as the sex trade is flourishing in unexpected places, but what can you do as a parent to keep your children safe?
Advocates at the Safe Center LI in Bethpage said human trafficking on Long Island is happening at alarming rates. The subtle warning signs are easily missed, even under your own roof.
“For a lot of the cases that we get, most parents don’t know,” said Regina Roundtree, human trafficking case manager supervisor at the Safe Center LI. “I believe it’s because parents don’t know what to look for.”
The Safe Center currently has 24 open cases of human trafficking involving minors in Nassau County. Case workers tell Team 12 Investigates that number is lower than what they normally see in a month.
Roundtree helps victims and communities recognize the red flags of child trafficking, such as unexplained amounts of cash and extreme changes in behavior.
“This is going to sound silly, but extreme internet usage. Parents need to know what their children are doing on the internet,” Roundtree added. “If they have items of value that the parent did not buy, money, cellphones, they’re getting their nails and their hair done but the parents aren’t providing the finances for that, these are things they need to look into.”
Education is a critical piece in how the Safe Center combats human trafficking, but this one agency on Long Island is part of an even bigger mission that signals a change.
Local calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline exploded during the pandemic and calls from victims spiked nearly 200% since 2019. According to New York trafficking data, there were 671 victim calls in 2021 compared to 635 victim calls in 2020 and 249 victim calls in 2019.
“The numbers are rising and I would guess this is not because it is happening more now, but more so because we’re identifying it better,” said Debra Lyons, associate executive director at TSCLI.
Team 12 Investigates looked at the tri-state’s response to human trafficking.
In New York, a network of human services providers and police make up the Interagency Task Force on Human Trafficking. It is spearheaded by the Division of Criminal Justice Services and the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. The task force, which involves eight other state agencies, uses tough state laws and undercover operations to target supply and demand. It also collects data on the number of victims and prioritizes training and public awareness.
Next door, Connecticut has six Human Anti-trafficking Response Teams (HART) that focus specifically on child trafficking and the signs to look for. These interdisciplinary teams are led by the state Department of Children and Families and include a child’s treatment team, specialized providers and attorneys.
The New Jersey Commission on Human Trafficking is composed of 15 members from various backgrounds, including a survivor of human trafficking. They evaluate the enforcement of existing laws, make recommendations about the availability of services and promote public awareness. The task force also has targeted training for anyone who may be in contact with a victim, such as airline workers, public transportation drivers and hotel employees.
Roundtree believes that shining a light on this dark problem can help clear a path to freedom for many unsuspecting, young victims. News 12's Rachel Yonkunas asked Roundtree if the children know that they’re being trafficked.
"Some do and some don’t," said Roundtree. "It depends on how long they’ve been in this lifestyle. Kids don’t necessarily know about agencies like this, but adults have access, so let the kids know that there are people that care."
And in Connecticut, Frank Recchia brings us the story of another local survivor who opened up about her painful ordeal and explained how a Bridgeport nonprofit is helping her rebuild her life.
Iris Jones, 27, is a sex trafficking survivor who says her path to recovery began with one single bold step in the city of Bridgeport.
The decision led her to a nonprofit called Partnership to End Human Trafficking, or PEHT, that sells handcrafted survivor-made products at Arcade Mall.
It opened the door to a new life for Jones. She was now free from the cycle of sexual servitude, a cycle she says began with grooming at the age of 6.
"I've definitely been through a lot," said Jones.
Executive Director Jamie Manirakiza and Clinical Program Manager Lera Homer say the PEHT SHOP helps to support the organization's safe house.
"The things that folks endure might be physical violence, beating, rape, forms of torture, forms of torture that lead to coercive control," said Manirakiza.
"My idea of own self-worth was really awful," said Jones.
Manirakiza says PEHT, by providing housing, job training and life skills, is giving survivors like Iris a step up, and a path forward free from exploitation.
"I'm definitely grateful and it definitely -- it really has been life-changing," Jones said.
For more information on Partnership to End Human Trafficking, click here.
WHAT: Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to make someone provide a service.
WHERE: In 2020, 62% of confirmed trafficking cases occurred outside of New York City, with the largest percentages in Westchester and Western New York.
WHO: Men, women and children of all ages, races, genders and sexualities are at risk of human trafficking. Traffickers take advantage of people who are vulnerable. Some groups that are at higher risk include:
people in unstable living situations.
people who have experienced interpersonal violence and/or sexual abuse;
people with mental health and/or substance use conditions; and
people who are undocumented immigrants or have limited access to safe social supports in their community.
Learn the signs of human trafficking through trustworthy websites.
The NYS Interagency Task Force on Human Trafficking Polaris operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) is a toll-free and confidential hotline, available to answer calls from anywhere in the country, 24/7. Call 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree to 233733. If you believe a person’s life is in immediate danger, call 911.
Help increase awareness about trafficking. Share #TruthAboutTrafficking awareness campaign on social media
Scott Cohen: Photographer, News 12 Westchester/Hudson Valley
Lee Danuff: Senior Producer, News 12 Digital
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Lori Golias: Photographer/Editor, News 12 Connecticut
Audrey Gruber: Vice President of News, Altice USA
Brian Heyman: Managing Editor, News 12 Digital
Stan Kowalski: News Director, News 12 Westchester/Hudson Valley
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Frank Recchia: Reporter, News 12 Connecticut
Tara Rosenblum: Senior Investigative Reporter, News 12 Westchester/Hudson Valley
Jean Salzarulo: Investigative Producer
Brent Singleton: Photographer/Editor, News 12 Long Island
Annette Stellato: Assistant News Director, News 12 Westchester/Hudson Valley
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Rachel Yonkunas: Investigative Reporter, News 12 Long Island
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