More than 200 women — sex slaves — are for sale on the Internet on a typical day in Philadelphia, according to testimony heard by members of City Council this week during hearings on human trafficking.
“While it may be easy to believe that this does not happen in our city, the truth is, every day in Philadelphia people, mostly women, are being sold on street corners and on the Internet,” said Hugh Organ, associate executive director of Covenant House Pennsylvania.
He cited an informal survey by Covenant House, which, on a recent Thursday night, found 230 women for sale in local Internet ads.
By most estimates, including Organ’s, 200 is a wildly low number and victims are not just women and young girls. Boys, and less frequently, men are also being traded on street corners and on the Internet across Philadelphia.
Public testimony, at which photographers were prohibited because of the presence of at least one victim, included input from 16 people from law enforcement and advocacy agencies across the city and state.
The most compelling testimony came from a woman who was a victim of trafficking.
“What happened to me was very, very bad,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only as Yadira, 28, and spoke through a Spanish interpreter. “I came out of the situation, and I’m not a victim anymore — but even though time has gone by, I can’t forget that.”
She was arrested in a brothel in Norristown with several women from Mexico and Ecuador. She told council members that she was coerced into prostitution for three or four months before her arrest with threats against her 7-year-old daughter in South America.
“The threats are real threats, and everything has to do with a daughter I have. It’s very difficult to understand why a person would do this, but when your children are involved, any woman would do what they have to do to keep their children safe,” Yadira said. “They threatened to kidnap my daughter.”
Yadira questioned why she was arrested and her pimps were not.
“We get arrested. In the meantime, the people who do this to us are free,” she said. “And they are the ones that should be arrested and locked away.”
Like Yadira, most victims are adults. Approximately 1.2 million children are also victims of trafficking. According to testimony, most of the victims in Philadelphia are from the United States.
“It’s really a multi-billion dollar industry, and these girls are commodities,” said Francina Pendergrass, a nurse.
Officials with the police department and district attorney’s office were unable to provide solid numbers. Capt. John Darby, head of the Special Victims Unit, said the department investigates 5,000 cases each year.
The nature of the crime makes statistics hard to come by. Victims are often unaware that they are victims. Many have been brainwashed and conditioned into accepting their role, and isolated to prevent discovery. Even if an individual reports a crime such as rape or sexual assault, it’s often difficult tie them into larger human trafficking crimes.
Philadelphia, because of its proximity to Interstate 95, its central location between New York City, Atlantic City and Washington D.C., its international airport and bustling harbor, is poised to become a hub of human trafficking on the East Coast, according to victim advocates.
Council’s Committee of Public Safety held the hearings at the prompting of Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who said the hearing will allow Council to explore solutions, including legislation and seating a task force, to the problem.
“This is the first chapter of the work that we have to do,” she said. “We’re going to take all the testimony and review it. Recommendations were made throughout the testimonies, and we’ll infuse those recommendations [in our report], and do an inventory of those recommendations. We will convene everyone that gave testimony, and ask them to be a part of a task force to figure out new practices we should adopt.”
Though it was too early to discuss possible legislation, public safety chairman Curtis Jones Jr. hinted at his thinking.
“Why aren’t we focusing on the individuals who make this whole trade work?” asked Jones, referring to the johns who create the demand for prostitutes.