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Erie County highlights efforts to identify, assist victims during Human Trafficking Awareness Month

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Wed, Jan 23rd 2019 05:40 pm

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children donated dozens of ‘Hope Bags’ to support survivors of trafficking after they are recovered

In commemoration of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn was joined Wednesday by county officials, law enforcement and community partners to discuss ongoing efforts to end all forms of human trafficking in Western New York.

Recently, the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, in partnership with the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, Town of Tonawanda Police Department, Amherst Police Department and the International Institute of Buffalo (IIB), formed the Erie County Human Trafficking Unit. The Erie County HTU is a subcommittee of the existing, multi-agency Western District of New York Human Trafficking Task Force and Alliance, which aims to enhance multi-disciplinary resources to implement victim-centered, collaborative approaches to identify victims of all forms of human trafficking, and to investigate and prosecute their traffickers.

The Erie County HTU is housed within the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. Members of law enforcement have been assigned to the office to conduct proactive investigations into human trafficking, work in collaboration with the IIB in identifying all potential victims, and to implement collaborative training with other law enforcement agencies. The DA’s office will host monthly meetings, assess cases to determine if applicable for state and/or federal prosecution, and represent the HTU in criminal cases involving human trafficking. The IIB will work with the DA and ECSO in gathering critical data, connecting potential victims with law enforcement, and ensuring a comprehensive array of services are available to meet the individualized needs of all victims of human trafficking.

“Human trafficking is a criminal industry that often goes unnoticed, and I am committed to investigating all forms of this abuse and aggressively prosecuting these traffickers,” Flynn said. “By expanding this task force within my office, we will be better equipped to locate these victims in order to arrest their abusers.

“I want to thank the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and the International Institute for their partnership in this endeavor.”

Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard said, “For over a decade, my administration has dedicated a deputy and civilian personnel to combat human trafficking. I have expanded the Erie County Sheriff’s Office role on the Human Trafficking Task Force for the Western District of New York and Erie County by assigning a detective and deputy to the task force, which will work, each day, with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.

“It is more than ‘see something, say something’ because we are all responsible for preventing and ending human trafficking.”

In an effort to end the trafficking of minors, HTU, Erie County Department of Social Services and IIB formed a partnership through the New York State Office of Children and Family Services called “Safe Harbor.” The initiative allows county social services to provide support and services for child trafficking victims, which includes case management, emergency temporary housing, health care, mental health counseling, translation services and permanent housing assistance. Last year, “Safe Harbor” served 115 trafficked and at-risk minors in Erie County. 

In addition to providing services, “Safe Harbor” aims to spread awareness about the signs of child trafficking. The International Institute works with Erie County Department of Social Services to conduct training for staff and external partners to teach them how to recognize indicators that a child may be the victim of human trafficking. Some indicators include: a minor not having access to identification documents, not having a cohesive story about the whereabouts of a parent or guardian, not having knowledge of the address of their homes, and displaying signs of trauma.

In 2018, IIB trained 90 Erie County Department of Social Services employees from Child Protective Services and Children’s Services to recognize the signs of trafficking. Also, 262 youth-serving professionals from outside agencies received training.

“Safe Harbor” has created a model of client-centered, trauma-informed services and investigations, including an innovative referral process to alert new cases simultaneously to IIB and the HTU. If a minor displays indicators of human trafficking, a member of law enforcement and the IIB can immediately respond to assist.

“We must all work together to root out human trafficking, bring the perpetrators of these hideous crimes to justice, and offer compassionate care and support to victims,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said. “As a community, Erie County is committed to protecting children and preventing their exploitation, and will continue collaborating with partners to expand our efforts.”

"The Institute is grateful to the county executive and our many law enforcement partners for their continued support and collaboration,” said Eva Hassett, executive director of the IIB. “These ongoing partnerships have resulted in innovative practices like the ‘Safe Harbor’ program and the county-specific task force to work effectively with this most vulnerable population: victims of human trafficking,”

When child victims of sex trafficking are found, they often have no personal items besides the clothes on their backs. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has donated 75 “Hope Bags” to the Erie County Human Trafficking Task Force. The bags contain clothes, shoes, toiletries and snacks to ensure survivors have their basic needs met immediately after they are recovered.

The “Hope Bags” provided by NCMEC will supplement resources provided to survivors through the IIB. Last December, the IIB utilized $6,000 of county funds for trafficking services to purchase clothing and hygiene products for trafficked and at-risk youth.

For more information on human trafficking of minors, or to report a case of possible exploitation, call the IIB’s trafficking victim services at 716-883-1900, ext. 323.

To anonymously report a tip to law enforcement about human trafficking, contact Buffalo Crime Stoppers by calling 716-867-6161, using the “Report a Crime” form on crimestoppersbuffalo.com, or through the Buffalo Tips mobile app.

To learn more about how to support the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s “Hope Bag” project, visit http://www.missingkids.com/theissues/trafficking.

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