Falmouth panel: Human trafficking, prostitution, aren't victimless

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FALMOUTH — Human trafficking is a problem most would think has very little if anything to do with Maine. But a panel discussion held by the National Council of Jewish Women Southern Maine Section set its sights on changing that perception.

Hosted on Jan. 29 at the Portland Country Club on 11 Foreside Road, a panel including some high profile names told a crowded house what their experiences with the topic were and what they saw day to day in Maine. The panelists included the state Attorney General Janet Mills, state Sen. Amy Volk (R-Buxton, Gorham, Scarborough), Detective Sgt. Steve Webster of the South Portland Police Department and Julia Davidson, co-chair of the Greater Portland Coalition Against Sex Trafficking and Exploitation and who works as the Sexual Assault Response Team program manager at Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine.

The moderator for the event was Shelley Grant, a volunteer at SARSSM and a new recruit at NCJW. Grant said there are 18,500 cases of human trafficking annually in the United States — the practice proliferated “because it’s low risk and highly profitable.” She said human trafficking has been defined as “modern day slavery” which controls the victim for commercial sexual acts or labor services.

Mills said it has taken awhile for people to get their heads around the topic, and explained a number of stereotypes around prostitution, including that it is a voluntary act and victimless crime. She said these “traditional views” were wrong and are gradually “being righted.”

Mills said in 2005 a task force focused on human trafficking legislation for the first time in Maine. She continued saying by 2010, many in law enforcement were unaware of human trafficking. She said they are “reinventing what we did on domestic violence” in terms of educating those who might not see the signs.

“We’ve made progress, but there’s a still a long way to go,” Mills said. She continued saying the medical community needs to be involved more, and said there needs to be more “safe homes” where those running away from trafficking can escape to.

“Prostitution is not a victimless crime,” Mills said. She said it robs a human of will and dignity. “Not here, not now, not ever again.”

Sen .Volk sponsored L.D. 1730, “An Act To Assist Victims of Human Trafficking,” which Gov. LePage signed into law last year. This legislation allows the courts to vacate prostitution convictions against those who were forced or coerced into it. The law also established a compensation fund for victims made up of fines from those convicted of promoting prostitution. 

Volk said she came up with the idea after reading an article in the Bangor Daily News, and thought as an elected official she could do something. She said when she first put the bill forward, she “didn’t think much of it,” and it was rejected. But then it sparked a statewide discussion, and the bill as then later accepted with an emergency clause attached, meaning it went into law as soon as the governor signed it.

“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Volk said.

Webster, has been working on human trafficking cases for over a year and a half, and said he was there to give a non-political perspective on the issue.

“We have great social workers, but find one who answers their phone,” Webster said, continuing that those forced into prostitution or affected by it “don’t have problems at three in the afternoon,” but usually after midnight.

He said to combat this, the police department has developed a good report with hotels to let those in need stay there and stay safe. He said the biggest thing is “people need to give a crap” and then help educate others that the problem exists and it’s a serious problem.

“We’re never going to eliminate it, but at least we can fix it,” Webster said. He added as long as the supply is up, the risk will be down for the johns in charge of the prostitution, and that the victims are scared to death.

“If we can’t protect our most vulnerable, nothing else matters,” he said.

Webster was asked whether he thought the problem was homegrown or coming from out of state, he said he saw a mixture of both. He said there was a direct correlation between human trafficking and drug trafficking, and that pimps and victims don’t necessarily stay in one area.

Davidson said there is a clear path between childhood sexual assault and human trafficking, because the victims are conditioned to learn to have their boundaries violated or that they don’t deserve boundaries.

“People who go through this are easy recruits for sexual exploitation,” Davidson said. Davidson also echoed Mills’s stance on misconceptions people have about prostitution being voluntary and victimless.

She said the media often shows serious physical abuse, like being shipped in containers or held in chains, but Davidson said the mental abuse is just as strong, likening it to the mental manipulation seen in domestic violence.

“We need to apply the same set of understandings to domestic violence,” she said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Panelists at a human trafficking discussion hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women Southern Maine Section at the Portland Country Club in Falmouth on Jan. 29: Attorney General Janet Mills, left, Julia Davidson of Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, moderator Shelley Grant, state Sen. Amy Volk of Scarborough, and Detective Sgt. Steve Webster of the South Portland Police Department.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.