(January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month)
It’s hard to believe that it has already been nine years since the General Assembly passed laws to ban human trafficking and indoor prostitution. Many people do not know the history of these two bills and just how important they are to Rhode Island. It seems to be an all too common occurrence now, as we watch newscasts where sex predators are trafficking underage girls here for prostitution. It’s hard to believe that our little state continues to be a haven for sex trafficking.
In 2007, I introduced the first piece of legislation in the House of Representatives to ban Human Trafficking. This bill was in response to young girls being brought here to work in Asian message parlors. They were promised lives of good fortune, careers and bright futures, but instead they were forced to live in one room cooking on sternos and sleeping on mattresses on the floor. Living conditions were deplorable. Pimps and managers was making a great deal of money on the backs of these young girls.
The first bill to ban Human Trafficking passed the House of Representatives but failed to pass in the Senate. I also filed a bill to ban indoor prostitution which met great opposition in the General Assembly. I was accused of trying to stop women from making a living and targeting women unfairly. That was never my intent. My intent was to stop a growing cancer I saw coming called sex trafficking which was targeting our young girls and young men right here in Rhode Island.
Within that year, more media coverage exposed the living conditions of these girls. Many could not speak English and when interviewed by police, they were afraid to tell their stories. More and more massage parlors were popping up around the state.
At that time, no one really wanted to believe that Human Trafficking existed in our state. Along with the trafficking of young women came the act of prostitution. The two acts usually go hand in hand.
Young girls are trafficked to places where they are forced into prostitution. They are usually runaways, abused and homeless underage adolescents who are seeking a better life. What they get in return for their services is a life of misery, sexual and physical abuse, disease and sometimes even death.Rhode Island was a safe haven for pimps, johns and sexual predators because of a loophole in the prostitution law. And we were the only state to have this loophole and word quickly spread.
In 2008, we passed the first Human trafficking bill in the General Assembly to ban Human Trafficking in Rhode Island. But while that passage was hailed as an accomplishment, I found out that without a law to ban indoor prostitution, the human trafficking law was hard to enforce. Prostitution indoors was legal and only illegal outdoors due to a rewrite of the prostitution laws in the 1980’s which focused on outside solicitation of prostitution and did not give reference to prostitution indoors.
It was two days before Thanksgiving in 2008 when I received a telephone call from then Superintendent Brendan Doherty telling me how much we needed the indoor prostitution bill in order to enforce the Human Trafficking bill. Along with that telephone call, came a tremendous amount of support for passage of the bill from Colonel Doherty, Governor Donald Carcieri and various law enforcement agencies.
Colonel McCartney of Warwick also was very supportive and told of the “Craigslist killer” coming to a Warwick hotel in an attempted plot against a massage therapist. The State Police and Warwick Police testified at committee meetings, attended press conferences and verified what we knew all along. Sex trafficking in Rhode Island was growing because of the loophole in the prostitution law and we needed to stop it. Support continued from the public, law enforcement and community groups such as “Citizens Against Trafficking”, started by Professor Donna Hughes and attorney Melanie Shapiro.
After much debate, a law banning indoor prostitution was passed in October 2009 as well as a amended ban on Human Trafficking. I also introduced a third bill to ban minors from working in the adult entertainment industry which was becoming a common occurrence in Providence. These three bills passed both chambers and were signed into law by Governor Donald Carcieri.
Even though the three laws passed, we realized this was only the beginning. The Human Trafficking bill also created a task force made up of general assembly members, law enforcement, social agencies, trafficking advocate groups and state agencies including Human services and the Department of Children, Youth and Families.
One of the most important components of the task force was to promote public education and awareness is to warn parents about the dangers of the Internet and the use of certain websites and newspapers which advertise the sexual services of young women and men.
More education is also needed for our young women and men who fall prey to these predators because they are uninformed about the dangers of sex trafficking. We also need to ensure victims of trafficking are getting the services they need.
The bans on Human Trafficking and Indoor prostitution that passed are good laws but we need to always remember that laws are only good if they are implemented. Law enforcement must stay vigilant in their effort to stop sex trafficking. The focus needs to be not only on the pimps and traffickers but the johns who purchase the services of these underage victims and the landlords and property owners who permit these crimes on their premises.
Finally, the Providence police said one of the homeless underage victims that was trafficked here to Providence from Massachusetts and sold for sex told the investigators, “Today, Is the best day of my life…you all saved me. “They did save her and should be commended for acting swiftly and professionally in the continuing fight against sex trafficking.
We look forward to the day when there will be no more trafficking victims in Rhode Island and our young people can look ahead and not back to remember the best day of their lives.