The Criminal Law Society of Albany Law School will host a forum Wednesday, April 19 on the effects of human trafficking in the Capital Region and what the public can do to aid survivors. Speakers on the panel include members of the Albany County District Attorney’s office, Albany Police Department, New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Services and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The student-run club holds an issue-focused event each semester, but this will be their first time focusing on human trafficking.
“We decided as a group that this was an issue that has gotten increased attention over the years. The county for example, has done a bunch with human trafficking and we wanted to give Albany law students and the public the opportunity to learn more about it,” Justin Devendorf, a board member of the Criminal Law Society, said. County action has included January’s public awareness campaign led by Albany County executive Dan McCoy. The Safe Harbor Project-funded campaign put up six billboards around Albany county featuring an emergency hotline number and social media hashtags.
“Albany has a serious human trafficking problem, especially at the hotels along Wolf Road and Central Avenue cause they’re so close to the major highways and allow johns to meet victims, pay for their services, and leave and literally go in any direction,” Devendorf said.
A similar event held last year was particularly critical of the lack of prosecution of these predators across New York since the state’s anti-trafficking law was put into place in 2007.
The 2016 forum was moderated by Albany City Court Judge Rachel Kretser, who expressed her frustrations over the human trafficking- and prostitution-related cases that she saw during her decade on the bench.
“I have seen sad, vacant looks in their eyes. I’ve seen the despair etched in their faces. These women have lost all sense of human dignity. In all that time, I have not had a single human trafficking prosecution — and I’ve seen exactly one john in my courtroom,” the Times Union reported her saying.
In fact, according to data compiled by the Department of Criminal Justice Services, as of March 2017 there have been a total of five sex trafficking related arrests in Albany County since 2008, with only one sex trafficking conviction in 2012. There has only been one labor trafficking arrest and conviction in that time, occurring in 2013.
Nora Cronin of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Services—who will be a speaker on Wednesday’s panel—oversees the state’s involvement in human trafficking crimes. Cronin told The Alt that since the 2007 law, there have been amendments to allow for prosecutors to cast a wider net and increase awareness in communities.
Such amendments include the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act (TVPJA), enacted on March 16, 2015, which made sex trafficking a class B violent felony and labor trafficking a class D violent felony and counts the charges as aggravated offenses–three aggravated offenses are charged if the survivor is a minor. It also changed the language in which the trafficking survivors are referred, which Cronin says is important in spreading awareness and understanding. “Changing ‘prostitute’ to ‘person involved in prostitution’ brings attention to the victimization of a person [involved] against their will,” she said.
The 2015 Women’s Equality Act included bills that “eliminate the requirement that coercion be proven in a sex trafficking prosecution when the victims are minors, increases penalties for the crime, and creates an affirmative defense in prostitution prosecutions if the defendant was a trafficking victim.” It additionally requires adequate training of law enforcement officials in the case that they should encounter a victim.
There is also the matter of Article 440.10 of the criminal procedure law in which a judgement or conviction of prostitution charged to a trafficking survivor is dropped, as the defendant was involved against his or her will.
While these amendments have been put into place, Cronin reiterates the important role the public must play in identifying potential victims and helping local law enforcement to get them to safety. Additionally, she says the anti-trafficking community looks to identify the myths of trafficking that are often fueled by television shows and films such as Taken and move the public away from these misleading images.
“A lot of people’s exposure to the idea of trafficking is seeing a person in shackles, or trapped in a basement,” Cronin said, adding that in reality, that’s not necessarily true.
“One of the things that is universal about traffickers is that they prey on vulnerability. Everyone is different in their vulnerability: some are undocumented, some have no family or community support, some have a drug addiction. The trafficker is the only person who [the victim] believes understands them and these traffickers are expert manipulators. It’s almost entirely psychological. Most traffickers never have to lay a hand on their victims. You could be sitting next to someone on the bus and not even know it.”
Albany Police Officer Joseph Acquaviva, another speaker on the forum, says an important aspect in working against the issue is reactivity.
Officer Acquaviva has lead a training program in the Albany Police Department since January, and says a lot of his work comes down to preparing the officers in questioning and communication to establish trust with the survivors.
“A lot of the training comes down to preparing them to actually receive answers to their questions and know what to do next,” he said. While officers go through regular training, they learn how to communicate with those whose vulnerability is being held against them.
“There may be a person who calls us and may not be documented, say, legally, but need help,” Acquaviva said, explaining that the officers work to ensure these individuals that they will not be deported for calling for help. He adds that in his beat of Pine Hills, he hasn’t seen cases of trafficking but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening in his area or around the city. The only way for victims to feel safe enough to reach out is by establishing that trust.
A new authority on the issue, Acquaviva says he is looking forward to learning more about the process in which survivors are brought to safety and in what ways they are provided support and assistance.
“I’m excited to learn more from the other panelists. We all have different jobs so I’m interested to find out what happens to [survivors] after we identify them and send them over to the DA office,” he said. “Human trafficking is an extremely complex issue and we are really just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
At the public level, Cronin says the public should make themselves aware of suspicious signs. This could include, but is not limited to:
Restricted freedom of movement
- A person is “shadowed” by a constant companion and is not allowed to carry their own identification, debit or credit card, phone or access to transportation such as a Metrocard or bus pass.
Fluctuating access to cash
- “I have had reports of people who one week is looking for cash assistance and the next week is walking around with a Coach bag. This could be a ‘gift’ from the trafficker to keep them in place.” Cronin says.
- A person consistently appears to be physically exhausted, hypersexualized or overtly aware of their environment and who is looking at them.
“Be receptive to a survivor’s needs,” Cronin said. “There are so many cases where someone can get about 10 minutes to escape and run into say, a Dunkin’ Donuts, and the cashier happens to know what to do. They get lucky. When someone comes up to you and says, ‘I just got robbed,’ you know what to do, you call 911. We need that same awareness for human trafficking.”
To learn more about human trafficking and what you can do to help, the panel will take place at Albany Law School, 80 New Scotland Ave. at 6 PM and will be followed by a reception.
If you notice suspicious signs or activity in public, it’s not always safe to approach the possible victim–you may put the victim or yourself in danger. Instead, call 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP to 233733