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What You Should Know About Human Trafficking in Pittsburgh

When people in Pittsburgh hear the term human trafficking, they often think of it as being something that happens only in other countries. But trafficking happens anywhere and can happen to anyone, depending on the circumstances. And yes, it happens right here in Pittsburgh. At JFCS, we’ve worked with trafficking victims through several of our programs, including Guardianship, Immigration Legal Services, and Immigrant Services and Connections (ISAC). We want to help the Pittsburgh community understand more about this topic and how they can help, plus what resources are available to victims of human trafficking.

What Should You Know?

 1. Human trafficking comes in a variety of forms.

Most people think of trafficking as sexual exploitation only, but that’s only one form of human trafficking and statistically less common than labor exploitation. Some forms of trafficking are rare or nonexistent in the US, especially in our region, like organ trafficking or child soldiers. In the US, sex trafficking cases are the most reported and investigated, but experts believe that is due to the nature of labor trafficking victims, often immigrants, feeling as though they cannot go to authorities or leave their situation. Here are the most likely forms of trafficking in the Greater Pittsburgh Region:

  • Sex trafficking / forced prostitution
  • Commercial sexual exploitation of children
  • Debt bondage, especially of migrant laborers
  • Forced or exploitive labor

2. Human trafficking can happen to anyone, but these individuals are the most vulnerable:

  • Runaway & homeless youth
  • LGBTQ+, especially youth
  • Disabled individuals
  • Undocumented migrants
  • Indigenous/native individuals
  • Low income individuals, especially homeless
  • Individuals who have experienced violence/trauma previously

Because of the lack of support systems that these individuals have and/or the inability to care for themselves well–as is the case with youth and disabled people–these groups are especially vulnerable to trafficking in the US. Traffickers find them easy to prey on because of insecurities, lack of resources, inability to think critically, or desperate need of food, housing, and income.

3. Pittsburgh is in the top 10 cities for human trafficking in the US. Pennsylvania is also in the top 10 states nationwide for human trafficking.

Because of the major highways that run through Pennsylvania and near or through Pittsburgh, our city and state are high on the lists for human trafficking. The location provides the perfect opportunity for traffickers to recruit victims, and the highways provide easy access to the surrounding states and regions. The opioid drug crisis in Western PA has also contributed to higher human trafficking rates, with more individuals being coerced into exploitive situations through the promise of drugs or under the influence of drugs. 

The Signs of Trafficking

While different kinds of human trafficking situations can lead to red flags or indicators of someone being trafficked, below are some general physical, behavioral, and environmental signs that someone is a victim of human trafficking. Most are not indicators alone, but combined with multiple signs, these can help identify if someone is being trafficked.

Physical signs

  • Malnourishment
  • Conspicuous bruises or other injuries that indicate abuse
  • Poor overall physical or dental health (for health professionals)
  • Strange tattoos (or branding) on neck, wrist, or lower back
  • Untreated sexually transmitted diseases, especially in children

Behavioral & environmental signs

  • Avoiding eye contact and interactions, especially with authority figures
  • Responding with vague or scripted answers when questioned
  • Small children working, like in a family restaurant, convenience store, or factory
  • With someone who will not let them be alone or speak for themselves
  • Living at their place of employment or with their employer
  • Working strange or excessive hours
  • Security measures to keep people inside an establishment
  • Lack of identification or official documents
  • No paystub or proof of work (in combination with low pay and long hours)

For individuals who are in first responder roles or in the medical and mental health professions, these signs are particularly important to note. If you suspect someone might be a victim of human trafficking or if you are a victim of trafficking, call 1-888-373-7888, text 233733, or live chat with someone on the National Human Trafficking Hotline website.

How Can You Help?

Beyond learning the signs of trafficking and knowing where to contact authorities for help if you suspect someone is a victim, there are other ways you can help fight against human trafficking locally, nationally, and even globally.

1. Educate yourself and others

One of the biggest ways to start to combat trafficking is to continue to educate yourself about the issue and help others learn about it as well. Below are some resources that you can use to learn about human trafficking and the ways in which you can help. Start a neighborhood book club or coalition to help educate others so that we can help protect the most vulnerable in our communities. 

Polaris Project – National; covers all types of trafficking; facts, statistics, and policies

Love146 – National; focuses on sex trafficking and child exploitation; facts, statistics, and resources

Walk Free – Global; focuses primarily on labor trafficking; statistics, news, and reports from around the world

Free the Slaves – Global; covers all types of trafficking; statistics, facts, and resources

GoodWeave – Global; focuses on child labor; facts, statistics, and resources

End Slavery Now – Global; covers all types of trafficking; facts, resources, and organizations

Slavery Footprint – Learn about how much of our daily lives is impacted by human trafficking

You can also raise awareness by joining national and global campaigns such as End It Movement, Dressember, and the Blue Campaign.

2. Volunteer with a local organization

Right now in the Greater Pittsburgh region, there are three primary organizations specifically working to combat human trafficking, especially sex trafficking: Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR), Blackburn Center, and Living in Liberty. Through these organizations, volunteers can help with a variety of activities from answering hotline services to providing support for victims in shelters. Check out their volunteer pages to see which might be a good fit for you.

Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR) – South Side & Mon Valley

Blackburn Center – Greensburg

Living in Liberty – North Hills 

Beyond these organizations, there are several other places in Pittsburgh that serve victims of trafficking as part of their services, including JFCS. JFCS Immigration Legal Services works to help foreign victims of trafficking who were brought to the US obtain T-visas, which are designated visas for trafficking victims. JFCS Refugee & Immigrant Services can serve T-visa recipients through its refugee resettlement program and can serve any immigrant who is a victim of trafficking through the Immigrant Services and Connections (ISAC) program. JFCS Guardianship often works with individuals who have been victims of human trafficking as a result of their disabilities. Another local organization that provides legal assistance to victims of human trafficking is Justice At Work. Several other organizations serve victims of trafficking through specialized services such as medical care, therapy, youth services, LGBTQ+ services, and more. 

3. Change your daily practices to take small steps to eliminating human trafficking.

Worldwide, labor trafficking is the most common form of human trafficking, and much of it happens within supply chains of brands and products we use and love. Learning about where the products you use come from and how they’re made can help in making decisions about ethical buying. Several organizations are dedicated to helping people learn about companies’ supply chains and ethical practices, including Made in a Free World, GoodWeave, Slave Free Chocolate, and End Slavery Now. Some companies have even made a point to put a statement on their websites committing to ending forced labor within their supply chains.

If you work in a profession where you might be more likely to come across victims of trafficking (youth services, medical care, mental health, hotels, even convenience stores and gas stations), take steps to learn the signs in case someone you come across might be in need of assistance. You can even find ways to strategically place hotline information around your place of work so that potential victims know you are a resource for safety. 

Get your whole community involved in eradicating human trafficking by starting a neighborhood coalition or group. Help educate families and individuals in the area so that everyone knows that human trafficking doesn’t just happen in major cities and other countries. Make sure everyone has resources on hand in case they come across a trafficking situation so that they know how to safely handle it. 

These small steps can help make a change in fighting against human trafficking in our own communities and around the world. 

Allie Reefer – Public Relations Specialist, JFCS

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