Slavery in Suburbia: Sex trafficking of children flourishing in the Hudson Valley
Sex trafficking of children is a vile form of modern-day slavery, and officials say it is flourishing in the Hudson Valley.
In a Turn to Tara special series, investigative reporter Tara Rosenblum spent the last eight months finding out that trafficking is happening every day, in every community, in our region.
In Part One of the four–part series, Rosenblum shows that sex trafficking has infiltrated suburbia and its bustling hospitality industry.
Human trafficking is an exploding $150 billion global industry with an estimated 40 million victims. Melanie, whose last name can't be shared for safety reasons, was kidnapped, raped, and locked up in a closet in Queens at age 12. She says her pimp brought her to Westchester County the next day, and kept her enslaved for weeks, in pursuit of wealthy Johns. “I was brought to Westchester to make more money than average . It’s so much quieter in Westchester. The pace is so much more quiet. You can get away with murder because not as many eyes on you,” says Melanie.
Melanie estimates about 95 percent of her trafficking ordeal played out at local hotels and motels across the county. It’s a story all too familiar to law enforcement. “There are definitely hotels and motels in Westchester and Hudson Valley on our radar right now,” says Michael Osborne, assistant special agent in charge for the New York FBI office.
Osbourne says the FBI works closely with local law enforcement to crack down on the places where the sex trade is flourishing.
Click locations to find out what’s happening at the hotels/motels in your neighborhood:
Out of every state, New York has the second highest number of calls to the Human Trafficking Hotline. The calls indicate Westchester hotels and motels are hotspots for trafficking. "Sex trafficking of children in Westchester is certainly one of my biggest concerns because I know it exists up here," reports Osbourne.
In an eight-month data project, Rosenblum found a growing local crisis at some unexpected places. Wealthy Westchester County, home to some of the nation's most elegant zip codes, country clubs and high-end hotels, has a dark a dark secret, hiding in plain sight. “They threatened to kill me because they were afraid of me going out in the public,” says one victim. “There's a continental breakfast so you get raped and wake up and get a muffin,” says another victim.
Freedom of information requests were sent to each of the 217 police department in the Hudson Valley asking for a log of every time they responded to a hotel or motel for these types of crimes.
The results show 1222 incidents in just three years.
Heat index of hotel incidents. Areas in red indicate higher activity.
Data maps show that the problem is most concentrated in Clarkstown in Rockland County, New Windsor in Orange County, and Greenburgh in Westchester County.
According to the data collected, the Nyack Motor Lodge far and away leads the pack with 151 responses in three years. Westchester's most chronic offender is the La Quinta Inn, where police responded 37 times in 24 months, and where one hotel worker has just given up. “There’s some weird stuff that goes on, but it goes on in all hotels. I avoid all that. It’s just not worth it. If you get involved, everyone looks at you like you’re crazy,” says one anonymous worker.
Lawmakers in Albany are fighting to change state laws to crack down on hotels and motels that turn a blind eye to the problem. "We know it happens in hotels. We've met the girls. So we know it’s happening," says NY State Assembly member Amy Paulin (D-88). Paulin, of Scarsdale, knows all too well the horrors of sexual assault. "I was sexually assaulted when I was 14. The first sexual experience I ever had was being sexually assaulted and it was once. I still think about it. I can't imagine what it feels like if it happened two, 20 times or a series of days or months."
This is just one of the reasons Paulin leading the fight in Albany to overhaul the state's trafficking laws. There are three bills in consideration right now, with one that would require hotel and motel owners to better train their staff. “Human trafficking is the equivalent of where we were with domestic violence 25 years ago,” says Paulin. And like domestic violence, she says real change will only happen when more people start talking. “We have to do something so there is more support…people don't realize it’s bad as it is and don't think we need to spend taxpayer money to fix the problem. Stories like this educate people, outrage people that it’s going on and help us help the girls.”