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Suffolk police launch anti-trafficking initiative to educate public on warning signs to hidden problem

Suffolk County’s opioid crisis has fueled another epidemic: human trafficking of young women, who are often led into prostitution, according to police.

In the past 27 months, the Suffolk County Police Department has charged 56 people connected to trafficking-related offenses for a total of 417 charges, 186 of which were specifically related to sex trafficking. During that time, police interviewed and attempted to help more than 220 female victims — the youngest being 12 years old. With January designated as Human Trafficking Awareness Month, members of the SCPD, federal, state and local officials gathered at police headquarters in Yaphank Friday morning to announce the launch of the Suffolk County Anti-Trafficking Initiative, a public awareness campaign. 

“The unit started as a pilot program in October of 2017 and we made it permanent in 2018,” said police commissioner Geraldine Hart. “[Before] the formation of the unit, there was not one sex trafficking arrest in the year prior.”

The campaign comprises two pieces, training and awareness, Ms. Hart said. Last year, Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. created a Human Trafficking Investigation Unit including one sergeant and a team of officers who visit the jail with the attempt of identifying human trafficking victims. The task force was designed to educate the public on safety, common red flags, prevention resources and victim’s needs, but also to coordinate with hospital personnel, ride-share service operators, cab drivers and others on warning signs and what to look for. The mothers of two trafficked victims joined the county and its more than 30 partners in an effort to help eliminate sex trafficking cases.

“People have a picture in their mind of a box truck filled with young people being brought to a certain area to be trafficked. That is not the reality across the nation and it is not the reality here in Suffolk County,” Ms. Hart said. “Traffickers are targeting females who are addicted to narcotics or getting them addicted to drugs and these drug cravings fuel a pathway into prostitution.”

Ms. Hart said these cases are far more common than people realize, with 95% of girls being trafficked in Suffolk County being those born and raised here. She urged members of the public to visit SCATI’s website, Facebook and Instagram pages for information, resources and a video showing warning signs of human trafficking. The video was created by the department’s audio visual unit and includes the stories of two young women, both of whom died as a result of drug involvement and trafficking incidences, though one case is still under open homicide investigation.

Lisa Principe and Maria Francavilla shared their daughter’s stories.

“We live on Long Island, we feel like we’re safe — it’s here and there are predators,” said Ms. Principe. “My daughter was manipulated. Somebody said they loved her … and inevitably, he was one of the ringleaders. She was beaten, held, drugged, you name it.”

Ms. Principe’s daughter, Jenna, was 19 when she was gang raped, which her mother later learned was initiation into the lifestyle. 

“They took her soul,” she said. Jenna, a graduate of Mepham High School in Bellmore, spent near 90% of eight years in jail for being with a dealer during a sale because, her mother said, she could not function on the outside. As soon as she was out, those involved kept their relationships with her, expressing love, sharing money and providing her with resources, never losing track of their ulterior motives.

Jenna died of an overdose five days after she was released from jail in September. She was 27. At least one of her perpetrators has since been arrested.

Ms. Francavilla’s daughter, Tori, on the other hand, was 24 when she died. Her mother said she was wrapped up in a trafficking case, but got out of it a few years before her passing.

“It got to a point where she was actually handcuffed to a bed and kept captive,” said Ms. Francavilla. “Unfortunately, her drug habits still followed her after than and I still don’t even know how she got in … These people need to be stopped.”

Suffolk County Undersheriff Kevin Catalina explained how these trafficking cases typically go.

“No young girl ever sets out to be involved in a life like this,” he said. “What happens is these predators recognize the most vulnerable and they target them. They target them through the internet, they target them at places like malls, within schools, they supply them with narcotics, whether there is a narcotics issue already or not.”

In turn, those individuals tend to demand remittance for the drugs they supplied and just like that, young girls are roped in.

“When Sheriff Toulon took office,” said Mr. Catalina, “he quickly recognized that the three biggest issues facing Suffolk County were gangs, narcotics use — specifically the opioid crisis — and human trafficking. Oftentimes, those three are intertwined.”

In 2019, Suffolk County lost 10 victims to overdoses connected to sex trafficking, according to Ms. Hart. New York State Senator Monica Martinez, a former educator, said that every 30 seconds, someone becomes a victim of some type of human trafficking. The offenders do not discriminate when it comes to age or ethnic background, according to Det. Lt. Frank Messana, though the girls most trafficked in the county are in middle and high school, ranging between 13 and 17 years of age. They may be runaway youth, they may be insecure or come from rough backgrounds, or they may not. They may be targeted in schools or public spaces and they are often manipulated, coerced and forced into tortured lifestyles, Mr. Martinez said.

The video mentioned that while Suffolk County is rated as one of the safest communities to live in the country, the “enormous underground sex trafficking ring is going on in every hotel and motel in our county.” 

Crying and consoling one another, both mothers maintained their composure when sharing their daughter’s story.

“We’re going to continue to fight human trafficking for our girls,” said Ms. Principe. “For Jenna and for Tori and for every other girl out there. Nobody should ever have to go through this.”