On Friday, November 18, 2016, the Family Service Association of Northeastern Pennsylvania hosted an educational conference titled “Human Trafficking: From Denial to Engagement” that took place at the Genetti Hotel & Conference Center in Wilkes-Barre, PA. The conference drew about 275 people and included the CSE Institute’s Director, Shea M. Rhodes, as its keynote speaker. The goal of the conference was to bring awareness to the prevalent issue of human trafficking today and the impacts it has in our very area.
During her keynote speech, Ms. Rhodes addressed the legal perspective of human trafficking. She explained how human trafficking worldwide is an astonishing $32 billion industry, and the key driving force behind this lucrative criminal enterprise it is the demand for buying sex. She expressed concern to the audience that the criminal justice system focuses more on punishment than rehabilitation when it comes to crimes involving the victims of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Primarily girls and women are being arrested and convicted—sometimes dozens of times—for the crime of prostitution, but the men buying sex are not—the numbers tell it all. In 2014 and 2015 combined, there were 6,042 arrests for selling sex across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and 1,519 for buying sex. The numbers are clearly disproportionate. The criminal justice system, which is designed to rehabilitate prostituted persons and punish the true perpetrators of crimes, is broken and must be overhauled.
The CSE Institute is a strong proponent of a legal framework termed the Nordic Model, which decriminalizes the prostituted person and criminalizes the act of buying sex as an effective way to target the demand and decrease commercial sexual exploitation. Ms. Rhodes stated, “We need to target all the perpetrators, the traffickers, the buyers, and the third party facilitators like the hotels.” Essentially, hotels that turn a blind-eye to human-trafficking on their premises and internet forums such as Backpage.com that are utilized for such purposes must be held accountable for their role in facilitating trafficking. They are perpetuating and promoting an industry that leaves its victims damaged, both emotionally and physically, and voiceless. As Ms. Rhodes suggests, focusing on the demand and disaggregating statutes that conflate the crime of prostitution with the buying of sex may help achieve these goals.
After the keynote address, conference attendees had the opportunity to attend a select number of breakout sessions on various topics involving human trafficking, including— Indicators to look for: Screening & Assessment, Social Media, Human Trafficking for First Line Responders, The Role of Educators & School Social Workers, Criminal Street Gangs & Organized Sex Trafficking, A Walk in Her Shoes: Direct Service Care for Survivors, Closed Door & Open Spaces: Labor Trafficking in our Midst, What Parents Should Know, and Keys to Success for Trafficking Victims. The breakout sessions were led by various experts in their respective fields and emphasized that issues involving human trafficking are more prevalent and closer to home than we could have imagined.